“Best Ox-Tail Soup,” I said.
My husband nodded.
“Best Healthy For You Fish Fry.”
His mouth quirked up in a smile, an effort I appreciated. We were both zonked from not getting enough sleep. Jamaican bakeries swung past, their windows advertising fluorescent-yellow-crusted beef pies as well as jerk chicken and sorrel. This was deep in the borough of Queens, where we now coasted along decaying boulevards under a thickening crisscross of power lines. A car with purple-blue windows slid up, dark as a nightclub, throbbing to a slow beat. I bounced a leg to its rhythm and squinted ahead to see the next sign.
“Hillside,” I declared with satisfaction. “After that should be Jamaica.”
My husband nodded again. We’d been up late trying to decide whether I should apply for a particular job that would mean moving from the Northeast to another part of the country entirely. Paul was all for it, I was less sure. I’d be relinquishing the open schedule I currently had—but maybe being able to support myself would cure something that was wrong between Paul and me, I secretly thought. Paul had his own reasons for wanting me to pursue this job. A haze of depression overcame me as I wondered what to do. So it was a comfort, now that we were both weary and in unknown terrain, that all the streets my father had specified appeared right on cue, each in its proper order: Hollis, Murdoch, Linden. I was impressed, as usual, with my father’s thoroughness. How much I still had to learn from him, even at this late date. Oh, I did not want to move!
“Your father gives too many directions,” Paul suddenly exclaimed. “You can’t get the overview!”
I turned, surprised. “Really? That’s not at all how I see it.” My finger tapped the notebook that held the directions. “The detail my father gives is terrific. You can tell right away if you’re lost!”
Paul shook his head—clearly perceiving something deeply wrong in my answer—but chose not to respond.
Three weeks earlier, my mother had phoned. “It’s customary to go to the graveyard between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”
“I know, Ma. Count me in,” I said, recalling how last year’s High Holiday Sunday at the cemetery had been bustling—so crowded it was almost festive. Some families lunched on deli sandwiches while others had just marble cake and wine, leaning on the cars. An occasional word in Yiddish leapt into the air. Women in shiny dresses and reticent men smoking cigars sauntered dreamily between the headstones and the gritty sunlight twinkled all around. “I’m putting it on my calendar.”
But as the date approached my father grew uneasy. “We’ll let it go this year,” he declared at last. He just wasn’t up to it, explained my mother in private. His mood was low. “I understand,” I said, because I’d witnessed how the concerns of old age transfixed him. Aside from the myriad physical ailments, there were other problems, emotional ones, or rather metaphysical ones, that he didn’t articulate. I offered no advice. How could I know what it was like to be at that particular vantage point gazing off toward whatever promised land came next?
I offered to take my mother alone, but she said, “No, I’d rather not.” And that particular traditional High Holiday Sunday came and went.
But then the phone rang late on Thursday evening. “It’s important to pay one’s respects,” announced my mother’s voice—to my surprise because she doesn’t believe in an afterlife.
My father seized the phone and recited the names of all the obscure streets deep in the thicket of Queens that we’d pass, spelling out even the names that weren’t tricky: Hillside, Linden. He spoke with a sort of royal asperity, as if he were shifting a sourball in his mouth, and as if something had been resolved within him. Diligent daughter that I was, I took notes.
And then there it rose across Springfield Boulevard, the shimmering with the last bronze leaves of autumn. We swung across four empty lanes and up toward the brick guardhouses, and there stood my mother in a pink top and black trousers, peering into the distance. Paul honked but she stared obliviously past us into the gray October day like a sailor squinting for the shoreline—a short woman with a high sweep of beauty-parlor burnished hair. She took steno for a law office in the Bronx until the age of 84, when her boss passed away, and although she grows more compact and hunched by the year, she holds herself almost painfully erect, as if to show that true stature is an achievement.
Around behind the guardhouse stood my father. He too scrutinized the horizon, although facing in the opposite direction from my mother. “His new car,” said Paul, nodding toward the haze-blue lozenge my father bought three weeks earlier. We stepped out, and my father lit up, shouting, “Elise! They’re here!”
We continued the journey now in my father’s car. Gateways held aloft the names of shtetls in Europe, and patchy earth rose and fell, undulating as we passed. The car started binging. “Are all the doors shut?” I asked.
“No, it’s because I don’t have my seat belt on,” replied my father.
The binging turned quicker, more hysterical. “I don’t buckle up always when I’m going slowly.”
“It seems to make the car unhappy,” I observed.
“Most accidents happen when a car is going under twenty miles an hour,” said Paul.
My father drew the car over, and pulled the shoulder strap across his blue cotton windbreaker. The sun struck him as he straightened, illuminating a lean white-haired man of 83 who always dresses in trousers and a pressed shirt appropriate for an office even on the weekend. He’d been factory manager for an aerospace company in Manhattan for forty years, and still displays an engineer’s precision. My siblings and I were trained to wear seatbelts and lock the front door with two locks, but lately, I’ve noticed, my parents just swing their apartment door shut, and even leave the window to the fire escape open at night, when once they locked it with a special octagonal bolt my father installed.
As I was leaving their apartment recently, they asked me to point to what I wanted to inherit. “I’ll think about it,” I replied. But my mother pressed me to say. I contemplated the decorative shelves beside the coat closet. “I like this goose-catcher,” I said eventually of a Diogenes-like ivory figure, Chinese, holding aloft a basket to contain geese. “That?” said my father, as if he hadn’t purchased it himself. “Why that? Do you want to know the most valuable item here? It’s this,” and he laid his hand on a vase of ruby rose. It was a saturating shade, a rose-petal tone that seemed to shimmy into the air around it. “Lalique,” said my father. “Make a list of what you want,” said my mother. I nodded but did not.
“The man who delivered you is here,” remarked my mother. The arched entranceways were rolling by again, spelling out the names of old-world villages, many of the actual villages themselves already vanished. “Dr. Wachtel. Such a nice man.”
“Busy here,” said my father because the lane suddenly narrowed with parked cars. We stepped out onto surprisingly soft earth, which, after the city pavement, clasped our feet and gave a little, as if we were setting our heels into someone’s palm. All the earth in the graveyard, in fact, was like that, unusually soft.
I strode under the sign for the village of Dokshitzer, hastening toward a familiar area. Paul grabbed my elbow. “Give them space,” he said, and my face went hot as I realized I’d been brushing past people exiting as if I were going into Macy’s. I nodded, and at that instant, as he passed me, one of the men glanced up and I was shocked to realize I knew him. Was he a relative? He was a modest, slouching fellow in a worn black suit. Ah, that’s right, I remembered with a pang— he was an employee of the funeral home, Hirsch’s. He was the watcher, the man who sat up all night with the deceased. My father saw him too, and nodded slowly in acknowledgment.
“Here’s Miriam,” called my mother. I hiked over, and studied the chiseled angles forming my relative’s name. “She died young, of cancer,” said my mother. “Miriam didn’t get to get married. She was such a nice girl and she missed out on so much.”
I nodded. There were certain things I longed for, still, and my mother’s words reminded me of them. But I have an advantage over Miriam, I reassured myself—ashamed even at the moment of something unseemly in the thought. I’m still alive. “We’ll come back to her,” my mother said.
“Yes, let’s,” said my father emphatically, at her side now. “We should start with Anita.”
The sound of my sister’s name wrenched something inside me. We’d buried her less than a year ago—my ears still heard the scrape of the gravediggers’ shovels. The unveiling of the headstone had been in the spring, but my parents had gone by themselves, inviting no one.
We turned and began to search separately. The sun dropped layers over us, and the dust flung a kind of mica in the air.
Paul strode purposefully and I rushed from stone to stone, trying not to notice the names of relatives that weren’t my sister. I kept recalling the upsetting conversation that Paul and I had had on Friday night. He wanted me to take a full-time job so he could retire someday soon. I’d felt ill at the idea of moving, and at something else having to do simply with how lost I seemed to be.
Something that I wanted was missing between us, yet I could not imagine leaving Paul. For days on end I’d forget about the thing that was missing, but then, despite myself, I’d remember it. Maybe a full-time job would transform me into a person who could leave or who could discover that she already had—or could create—what she wanted. And yet what if I just lost the otherwise sweet life of many free hours that I had? I’d hardly slept Friday night, and then all day Saturday I’d worked on my curriculum vitae, and then on Saturday evening, since we had tickets, we went to the opera.
But even at the opera there was trouble. The man behind me kept rolling and unrolling the paper sheaf of his program. I glanced back and he didn’t notice. I glowered and actually said, “Shhh.” He was a man of about seventy, I saw when I swiveled again. Paul caught my eye and frowned. “Don’t focus on it,” he murmured when the music swelled.
But still that man’s hands kept up with their work!—twisting, untwisting, setting down with an air of finality, picking up an instant later. Finally, during one spectacularly exquisite piece I spun around, flying out of my seat, and my hand landed right on his. He leapt. “Stop doing that!” I said without even a please, I was so angry. And he did. Sublime silence, and the music even more beautiful than before. But then the paper-shuffling resumed, he was getting his affairs in order, his hands had business that couldn’t wait.
And the spoiled opera was on my mind at the graveyard, and my curriculum vitae which seemed impossible to complete according to the perquisites of academia—I kept editing and rejiggering, I didn’t know the official titles of all the adjunctships I’d had, and that very morning I’d had a conversation with an insider on a particular search committee which had made me realize again how ignorant I was of the workings of universities, how unlikely that my squirrely, insecure, hypersensitive, adjunctish personality could convince the academics on this search committee that I was the forthright Big Grown-up for whom they were looking—for, according to my acquaintance on the search committee, this was actually what they sought. I’d jotted her phrase. “A big grown-up,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “A big grown-up. A grown up grown-up. One with clout. The nonfiction department chair wants someone who will help him stand up to the fiction division. Someone comfortable throwing his or her weight around. A really big grown-up.” My feet slipped on the soft earth. “There’s Anita,” I said.
“You found her?” my father shouted.
“Bonnie did,” my mother called.
The new stone shone the color of soapy wool, clean-seeming, almost virginal, calling to mind a certain innocence that had clung to my sister. She’d passed away from multiple sclerosis a year before, at the age of 51. Seeing the familiar shape of her name was like coming across her face. Her first name, capitalized, began and ended with a teepee, and possessed the tidiness that was characteristic of her person, a neatness like the snug triangular flap of an envelope or the tongue of a shoe that’s been tightly laced.
Anomalously, when we were girls, Anita had carried a floral hankie, and when she sat reading from one of the enormous British novels she checked out of the library, and which were encased in brownish cellophane that crackled importantly, she sometimes rubbed the point tip of this hankie about on the inner rim of her nostrils. It gave her, she once confessed, a lovely feeling, as did her eating the Wise potato chips that she set upon her tongue while she read, drawing them from a bag hidden in the top of her desk – this delicate action, I sensed, providing a consoling contrast to the volcanic nature from which she suffered, the explosions of tears and venom, the eruptions of acne, the cascade of plaster dust from the ceiling when she heaved our bedroom door shut on our mother, who had merely inquired about the Weight Watcher meeting. Anita, beneath the grass.
My mother pulled out of a blue cloth tote printed YONKERS MUSIC SOCIETY a white bakery bag full of stones. She set four little rocks on the top of the headstone, each giving a tiny clack. “I brought enough to start a construction project!” she remarked. Then my father said, to my surprise, “I brought some prayers to say.” He produced—from his pocket—glazed pamphlets printed in Hebrew.
“There used to be rabbis who roamed these places,” he said, glancing around. Across the grounds the already-low sun struck the side of a tree-trunk, rimming it with golden rust. A few last dark leaves pressed against the white sky.
“Yeah,” I said. “There was one here years ago.”
“Even last time there was one,” he said emphatically, and I realized he meant when he was here with my mother in the spring. “Mom and I waited, and one showed up. There used to be a lot of them. Rabbis without synagogues. They’d be at the entrance or else wandering the paths looking for customers. And the customers would be looking for them!” He laughed, and I smiled.
His eyes continued to search. Swirled sunlight, ragged trees. A man in shiny black trousers and a rope belt had rushed over on a visit several years ago. “Need a bracha?” he asked, and my father nodded. He looked as if he lived on turnips and onions he yanked from the soil; his Hebrew was a dull drone from the old world. A rabbi without a congregation—or rather, with a congregation composed of mourners. A whiff of b.o. came off him. I stepped back and he raised a bushy eyebrow in my direction, still chanting the prayers. He would say several words and then pause, letting my father follow him as if taking an oath. Once he pronounced a word a second time, emphasizing a syllable, and my father corrected himself. From girlhood I’d known only the rabbis of prosperous Riverdale, genteel, in Brooks Brothers suits. It had come as a revelation that someone could be a rabbi who didn’t seem cerebral, partially abstracted into the empyrean already. My father and this man walked away from the graves after the rabbi sang a last psalm. Green flashed from palm to palm. My father spoke Yiddish and the man muttered Yiddish back, nodding. My father nodded, too. “Zei gezunt,” said my father, but the graveyard rabbi had already tacked off and was almost halfway to the horizon.
He returned years later, however, in the person of the rabbi at Anita’s hospital, a similarly uncouth fellow showing a rim of dingy undershirt. This man led the wheel-chaired populace in the Friday evening services, his mustache a coarse salt-and-pepper that drooped into his wet mouth. And yet a few days before Anita passed away my father—preparing for the future, able to contend with it—visited this rabbi and not one of the Riverdale ones to ask him to perform her funeral. “He knew Anita,” said my father.
“Did he?” I exclaimed. “You think so?” Was that Anita in the wheelchair? Toppled sideways, a paper towel around her throat at meals? Wasn’t the real Anita the clever girl who’d gone downtown to Carnegie Hall to hear Mozart?
“Sure,” said my father. “At the end he knew her better than any of the Riverdale rabbis.”
I lowered my head. This hospital rabbi had gone on to obey each rule as if each mattered—loudly counting out each time the coffin was set on the ground on the way to the burial site, checking and then double-checking to make sure there were the right number of men so all the prayers could be said. And this was, as it happened, exactly the service worthy of Anita, for whom God was as real as the tongue in her own mouth. Belief itself had always seemed the luck of the draw, to me. Anita and my father had it; my mother and I did not. My mother was a true unbeliever. For her, nothing lurked behind the sagging russet velvet curtain of the ark, with its eggyolk stitching and crown. Once I heard my mother ridicule my father’s belief—he answered her in a soft, taut voice.
“I’m not saying I believe in an afterlife,” my father said. “I don’t. But I do believe in a creator. And I don’t appreciate your mocking tone, Elise.” “I apologize,” she said softly, and sipped her tea, an expression of incredulity still etched on her face, as if even her respect for him couldn’t expunge it. For me God was a rumor, hearsay, the opiate of the masses. And yet, as well, a shimmer at the edges of things. I myself was like someone who can’t quite stop herself from believing in ghosts. She knows full well there’s no such thing, and yet she can’t quit being afraid.
Such a person wants rabbis to be as cogent as professors, able to prove intellectually what must be true, their refinement itself an argument for the spirit world. They should not be like that graveyard rabbi with a rope belt, or the hospital rabbi with his stubble and warts.
“Yeah, I remember the rabbis who roamed this place,” I said to my father with a shrug. “Maybe they only come on holidays now.”
“They used to be here all the time.”
“Itinerant rabbis,” murmured my mother, also looking away over the weather-beaten turf.
“A lot of them had been real rabbis in the old country. But they came here and didn’t have congregations. And they didn’t have other skills.” My father peered at the battered landscape, and the sun slipped a notch, sliding behind an apartment building and taking with it the golden rim of rust. “Ah, well,” he said. “No more.”
He flapped the paper so that it was unwrinkled, sighed, bent his head, and began. He’s not fluent in Hebrew, and the Hebrew he does have has an archaic, clumsy bent. He says “Aw” where the clipped modern way is “Ah” and “beis” when schoolchildren now say “bet.” His own father tore through the entire Haggadah impatiently as if he were muttering it all in God’s ear, whereas the son balanced from word to word as if walking on seesaws. He wore black-framed glasses from the 1960s that over the decades had become surprisingly hip. My mother’s slacks pooled over her black Reeboks. My mother especially seemed tiny, standing in the open air, the raw vastness all around.
And again, as with Anita’s name, it was an experience of language and no language—the familiar percussive rhythm of the words, Yit’barakh v’yishtabach, time itself ticking, the white stones clacking from the sky, and I wondered when I would be saying these prayers for my parents, standing in the graveyard where they too had burial plots within sight of several three-story crumbling brick houses.
My parents probably had just walked by their own burial plots. I would have walked by mine and Paul’s too, but I’d put off buying them. After I’d expressed interest, my mother had urged me two years ago to buy mine. She said, “They’re going fast and there’s hardly any room left there. This way, when people come to visit others in the family, it’s easy for them to visit you too.” But the paper with the particulars had migrated to a shelf in the kitchen with outdated coupons and warranties.
In fact, the woman I was supposed to contact, Esther Want, had apparently passed away herself. To my shock and horror, I’d seen her gravestone while looking for Anita. “Here’s Mrs. Want!” I’d said to my mother, outraged. What right had she to pass away? I hadn’t phoned her yet!
“Yes,” my mother had said with a sigh. “Now someone else is taking care of this whole place.”
But what would I do now, I wondered. Would I end up being buried in one of those enormous cemeteries beside the Long Island Expressway? Who would visit me? I would be so inconvenient! Why did I think there was no cost in letting one day melt into the next? I’d ignored in my own life what I really wanted—a more intimate relationship, to actually feel alive and present in my life—but it all seemed like something I could defer while I got my writing completed, while I composed my c.v., while my entire being was like the hands of that man behind me at the State Theater, mechanically working something out while I also spun around and shushed myself, unable to immerse in the opera, and soon the opera would be complete. I seemed unable to be the grown-up grown-up that I needed and wanted to be. How to become that person?
“Let’s find Mom now,” said my father.
Again we prowled. At my grandmother’s grave my father led us in the mourner’s prayers, stumbling far less. Why, the ancient words only slightly clogged and jolted, now that he’d succeeded in praising God at the grave of his daughter.
My mother plucked some twigs out of the hedge of fir in front of her grave, and then we visited Aunt Bella and Morris. “He was so much fun, Morris!” remarked my father. I nodded, seeing that Jimmy Durante figure barreling away. “Yes, we have no bananas!” he sang, and I grinned, half-wanting to look away from him out of burning shyness while at the same time thrilled to headachy ecstasy by his merry gaze which seemed to say, Ya see, ya see, isn’t life grand? He nodded while he played, and smiled straight into my eyes. Why should I deserve this attention? I didn’t believe I did. And yet he sang and played every time I visited, sitting me next to him on the bench.
“He could pick out any tune,” I said to Paul. “I wish you’d met him.”
“Able to light up a room,” said my father. “What a lucky gift to have!”
“Aw, you light up a room, too, Dad, in your own way,” I said. “And you too, Paul! And Mom!”
What a child! Having to reassure everyone.
My father smiled, and patted my hand. Everyone had been visited. It had taken about twenty minutes. The sun beat on our shoulders as we walked toward the road.
“We’ll go to that diner, okay?” announced my father. “You remember where it is?” He glanced at his watch. “Twelve-thirty. It’s going to be a job getting parking.”
Again we traveled past Jamaican bakeries and patty stands and storefront ministries. We followed my father, who drove slowly, perhaps not to lose us. “He drives like he’s driving in the garage in his building!” said Paul.
I smiled. “Actually, though, you know, I like the way he drives.”
Paul sighed. “I know, Bon.”
The diner was indeed crowded. We were the only white people there, but my parents seemed oblivious. It was a vast place, half as long as a city block, and full of families in suits and dresses and glorious hats, coming from church. Over lunch we started talking about one of my parents’ friends, Bob Cohen, who mumbles. He’d lost jobs in academia because his students couldn’t hear him, and he became a scientist for the state. “A brilliant man,” my father said.
“He investigated mice,” said my mother.
“Their brains are actually similar to human brains,” my father said.
“Your brother Ken spent a whole summer taking the brains out of mice,” my mother said. “He thought he was going to learn a great deal from Bob Cohen but he didn’t learn much. He couldn’t hear him! He just took the brains out of mice all summer.”
“You need to speak up in this life,” my mother said.
The waitress poured coffee, and I told my parents about my job search. Suddenly my old bleary mood engulfed me, my fatigue from staying up late struggling with the c.v., and with Paul’s desire for me to get a full time job—anywhere, really—so he might retire and could quit shoveling his life into a corporation. He was in his late forties and had spent most of his life in an office, working long hours. Surely there was more for him.
My mother smiled at me across the table and took my hand. “Worry not, baby!” she said abruptly. “Worry not!”—words that always induce in me a feeling of acute concern.
“Okay, Ma,” I said abruptly.
It surprised me that they didn’t mind that I might be moving far away.
“I’m telling you, darling, and this is coming from a very old lady: It goes fast. Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.”
I smiled. What a crazy trick it was of my mother’s, I thought—this guise of old lady, and yet she actually is an old lady. It’s true she’s the age of crones and fairy tale witches; she’s shrunk now to only four-foot-eleven, and she’s even acquired a slight curvature of the spine, the mildest hump—absurd of her, I think, as if I expect she can unstrap it, and stretch again, and be her tall vibrant self with the heap of russet hair, the young wife banging her shopping cart up and down the avenues of the Bronx or negligently letting the heel of her stiletto rasp against the pavement. She sleeps on her back now, with her mouth open. She even has a little wood cane the size of a vaudeville dancer’s. She asked the shoemaker to cut it down for her. She took my hand now and kissed it. “Whatever you want, darling, you’ll have,” she said, half Nostradamus, half Pollyanna. Or did she really know?
“Have you made the list?” demanded my father, twirling a toothpick in his mouth as we stood on the pavement. He seemed to feel quite good. He rocked forward on his toes and then dropped his heels, as if his whole body felt light.
“I will,” I said.
“Sweetheart, let’s get this handled,” said my father. “It’s time to quit putting it off. And remind me—there’s something I want to show you when you come over again. A way to take down those decorative shelves near the coat closet. There’s a trick. You have to use a butter knife. Otherwise you’ll rip half the plaster off the wall, detaching it.”
My mother smiled. “We know you want the goose-catcher. But you have to tell us what else. Make your list today, as soon as you get home.”
I laughed. “Okay,” I said.
Then my parents drove off slowly in one direction and Paul and I sped off in another. I meant to call them later to make sure they’d made it home in one piece, but I forgot. I was busy working again on my c.v., which had come to feel as impossible as a fairy tale task, and then it all seemed like a fairy tale task—trying to locate an ophthalmologist who could fix whatever was the matter with my mother’s sight, trying to get my parents away from that horrible local dentist whose teeth and bridge work always fall out.
Late that evening, the phone rang: “Have you written down what you want?” asked the tired voice. “Remember the red vase.”
“It’s on my list.”
“Good!” she said. “Now we’re getting somewhere!” She added: “But I’ll believe your list when I see it.”
I laughed. Frankly I don’t want to accept my parents’ gifts. I don’t want to reach out my hand too quickly. I don’t want to reach out my hand at all. And they know this and it pains them, as if they’ve given birth to a daughter who lacks the will to thrive, to press through the gates, to “open a mouth,” as they say in the Bronx, to snatch up life as it should be snatched up—open your eyes, darling, get up, please, and walk!
In their own building, for years, lived their daughter Anita, whose movements grew ever more restricted. First came the cane, then the Amigo electric cart, then the wheelchair which others pushed. Still, one day my sister handed me a pen. She paid to have boxes of them made up, the only person I know who actually answered the offer to buy two boxes of personalized pens for just $ 19.95, and she gave them out to all her friends and acquaintances. “This is the day which the Lord hath made. We shall rejoice and be glad in it. Psalms 118:24,” says the pen even though the ink has long run out.
The electric blue letters shine up from Anita’s pen. I remember how her coffin was set down seven times on the way to her grave. And then a man appeared—the man in the tired black suit who I’d recognized that afternoon. He completed the quorum of men necessary so that the correct prayers could be said. He’d sat up with Anita after she passed away. He was supposed to chant psalms beside her all night long, and I believed from the look of him that he had.
He was a humble looking, slightly slouching fellow, this man who must be holy, mingling night and day with the spirits of the dead. My father tipped him but I kept staring, trying to see what he knew. But then, in the hugs and murmurings among the family afterwards, I lost track of him. Still, afterwards, I lost track of him. I feel his presence sometimes, though. I glimpse him in the stranger on the subway who offers me his seat, and in the clerk at the bodega who, to my surprise, gives me some Asian persimmons he was saving for himself. Even in my sleep I am aware of him, like a boundary of the universe—a father’s love, beyond which there is only arbitrary, interstellar dust.
“Goodbye, darling,” my father said, gazing down at Anita just before they shut the coffin. I didn’t dare look at her in there, afraid of my own curiosity. My father closed the lid and withdrew, and the watcher slipped into the room behind us.
If the dead actually cross over a bridge, I think this humble watcher walks with them. I hope he does. I hope they don’t have to cross alone. Because I’ve come to understand that dying feels like abandonment. If only we could have completed the fairy tale task! If only we could have fixed their teeth and eyes and all! Swept back the years with a stronger push of the broom. But we went off into our own lives—we had to. One evening I phoned my sister Anita in the hospital. She’d been in bed all day. This sometimes happened; the staff told me they lacked the pulley to hoist her from bed. The pulley was dirty, or on another floor. I called over to the nurse’s station; I raised holy hell. And the pulley was produced from wherever it had been. But what haunts me is Anita’s voice on the verge of tears: “I’m in bed. The others are all together. They’re eating together in the dining room, and they left me in here.”
Really, Anita? I thought. It really matters to you to be with that sorry crew? Those people with jaundice-yellow skin who must have their suppers spooned into their mouths? Those scarcely capable of conversation anymore, but who know you and nod, the man with just one leg, and the woman with plastic necklaces on her sunken chest – you want to be with them?
Yes. It matters altogether whether you are with them or not. What my sister taught me: Exile is torture.
Oh, if only the watcher could actually step into the spirit world! Walk right across the bridge with them when they have forgotten their identity and ours as well—reminding them, yes, you are not alone, I’m here. We want them to know that they were loved. We want to scrape off a piece of ourselves and send it, our own selves in the guise of this man so demure he’s almost camouflaged. We send them a watcher and they send him back to us, a final gift, his eyes holding a gaze from which it’s hard to look away.
“Wake up! Wake up!” says my sister under the earth, a shattered temple of bone. “Wake up!” says my mother, bent under her bone hump. “I can’t hear you,” I cry, whirling about in my storm of papers, trying to vanish down the corridors of my prose. The old rabbis come after me, the ones with garlic on their breath, with dirt under their fingernails. “You were always a bad student,” they say, accurately. “You learned to memorize; you learned to recite. But you never learned to think.”
All true. I want to believe I am a character in a book, not a person alive on this earth. How to let oneself be alive, how to know it?—how to be a grown-up grown up? My father visited the hospital rabbi, knowing his daughter would die any day. I wouldn’t allow myself to know it. Even now I don’t. A year or two after her death, she moved back in. She sits within me in her old apartment before the white box radio, listening to folk music. Similarly my ancient parents gaze down upon me with wizened eyes like the goose catcher’s, and I tell myself that I’ll have them forever because they too have moved inside me, and that they’ll never claim the land bought from Mrs. Want. What a child I still am!—wanting to be told what things mean when the truth is chiseled in stone and I walked the too-soft earth myself, reading the inscriptions.
I finished the c.v. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked. I got a job. I moved. I wanted reality to rasp against me like the blades of a grater; I wanted it to shake me by the back of the neck like a dog with a rabbit in its teeth. How much easier—for certain of us—to be life’s victim rather than to stand up and say, “This is what I want. And now I’m going to help myself.” I used to tell myself, you’re distorting, erratic, unable to take care of yourself, a girl with smudgy eyeglasses who trips over her own shoelaces. I populated my world with ogres, although I was told by the insider that it is desired that I be a grown-up grown-up. Why did I take so long to hear her? A grown-up grown up is what I needed to be.
“Make your list,” said my mother and at last I did. And I saw it was up to me to grant the wishes. My mother can’t produce extra time from her hump—which is in fact the result of silent fractures, bone cracking under its own weight. How much more clearly could she show me?
My father, for his part, taught me to see the people from the other side—the psalm chanters, the shtetl shaman. Holy men, they commanded me to be unafraid, to leave my library, to take up my duties, to accept that we are bodies, fed on soil and made of sea, to titrate reality into me one risk at a time—making the phone calls, paying the bills, uttering the truths, hearing the grains falling in the glass—to run out and meet my life. You don’t have infinite time to give to this one and that one, I learned at this job. If I surrender my time, I don’t have it for what I need to do – the particular work which allows me to pay my own way.
Knowing I can leave makes staying sweeter. I am no longer beholden. My old dependence had made it impossible for me to challenge my husband. On weekends I made myself available for whatever expeditions he wanted—as if he were a fussy child who needed to be appeased. Paradoxically, experiencing my own strength has allowed me to see him as capable, quite able to create his own happiness. And beyond this—I discovered how convinced I used to be of my own ineptitude and of the world’s essential brokenness. My despair over composing my c.v. had been, I came to realize, merely an instance of a saturating sense of the impossibility of things. Yet the more my job called me to do, the more instances I had to note that voice inside me screaming: “It will never work! You don’t know what you’re doing!” How could I be a grown-up grownup when inside me a voice declared both my incompetence and the sad unworkability of everything?
I had to ignore that voice, and over time I could hear the rote mechanical quality it had, as if it were a wind-up machine to whose worship I’d devoted years. No wonder I’d felt half-alive for so long! I’d been saving up my life for tomorrow. I was the goose finally spied by the wizened Diogenes. I’d known it all along I was a goose, I just hadn’t known how to transmogrify, nor did I want anyone to know my secret: They were alive and I wasn’t. I’d been afraid of the pain that becoming alive might cost, as if my husband and I would have to step through a sheet of plate glass to reach the living, as if life itself couldn’t possibly be worth the price, which we would pay when we were someone else, someone stronger and of greater means. At last I became that someone else, and I saw that I’d inhabited a trance, haunting a kind of graveyard I finally managed to leave.
Late at night I hear, carried in the murmur of the wind, the voices of those who have gone away but who have sent me back a watcher, foretelling the end and the beginning of things. He stepped out of my own future; he had been waiting all this while. How faithless I was! What an idol I had made of security! I told myself actual happiness was an illusion, and so I never sought it. Yet as soon as I allowed change, what radiant glimpses I had of unknown watchers ahead! I passed over a bridge into a new life, and, looking back, I saw my old one was so narrow its sides almost touched.
This text is excerpted from Surrendering Oz by Bonnie Friedman, copyright 2014 by Etruscan Press, used with permission from the author and Etruscan Press.
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Bonnie Friedman is the author of Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, as well as The Thief of Happiness and Surrendering Oz: A Life in Essays.
Bonnie Friedman is the author of the bestselling Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, which is being reissued by HarperCollins this June.