My mother was remarkably healthy until she was eighty-one years old. She had spent a total of eight nights in the hospital – two when she gave birth to each of her three daughters, and two when she picked up an infection in her foot that required intravenous antibiotics. Still, after my father died suddenly of an arrhythmia in 1999, my mother was left living alone in the somewhat isolated four-bedroom house on Long Island where my sisters and I had grown up. We kept very close tabs on her and called her a number of times during the day; we would speak for only a few minutes, but I think it put us all at ease.
That was how I knew, on February 28, 2006, that something was wrong. It was my day off from work, and I had called my mother several times that morning, but she had not answered the phone. She had told me the day before that she had a slight fever, and I knew she would not have gone out of the house on a freezing cold day in that condition – she did not go out much by herself anymore at all. I began to panic, and it seemed better just to drive to Long Island than to keep hitting the redial. When I got to her house, my hands shaking and fumbling with the key to open the door, I found her on the floor, unable to get up. She was conscious, and talking, but she did not know who or where she was.
My mother recovered from the stroke she had that day with no significant residual effects, other than our determination not to let her drive any more, and the persistent battle cry of her three daughters that she should not be living alone. The car was an easy sell; she did not want to put others at risk by being on the road. The question of her living arrangements would linger for the last four years of her life, resolving only in the last weeks when my mother reluctantly agreed to rent an apartment in the same building in which my sister lived in New York City, but then dying the week before she was supposed to move.
The night before the funeral, my twelve-year-old daughter was anxious. “Tell me what will happen tomorrow.” I explained, quiet and steady, trying to give the right amount of detail that her question demanded. “We will get to the funeral home a little early, and our friends and relatives will come and talk to us. Then everyone will sit down in the room where the coffin is with grandma inside – it will be closed, you don’t have to see her like that. The rabbi will talk about grandma, and then your aunt will talk about grandma more. After that, your little brother will read a psalm in Hebrew, and you will stand next to him so he isn’t scared. Then it will be over.” She took it all in, nodding solemnly, her eyes glistening, but holding it together. And then she asked the question that had really been bothering her: “At the cemetery, what if someone falls in?”
“No one falls in, Honey.” But I knew the fear. When my father died eleven years earlier, I could not sleep the night before the funeral, convinced that my mother would jump into the open grave.
The funeral went pretty much as planned. Everyone was so exhausted from the previous month when my mother had declined rapidly, and especially the last week that we had spent round the clock in the ICU, that the grief was muted. After the service, we went to the cemetery – our Rabbi, my two sisters and I, our children and husbands, some cousins, and a few friends. When we reached the area near the plot, the casket was unloaded from the hearse, and, as is the traditional Jewish custom, we accompanied my mother, making seven momentary pauses along the way so as not to hasten the final leave-taking. After the casket was lowered into the ground, and a few more prayers were intoned, we began to shovel the dirt into the grave.
There is no sound as wrenching as earth thudding against a wooden casket. My sisters and I took the first turns, carefully passing the shovels on to our husbands and the grandchildren. We shoveled from in front of the grave, slowly filling in, returning my mother to the dust.
And then there was my cousin. He had flown in from abroad for the funeral, just as he had years earlier to help bury my father. He loved my parents, and I have no doubt he intended to honor my mother by being there. But was still grieving – indeed would always grieve -- the death of his nineteen-year-old son, who was killed in an accident the year before. Funerals, and especially cemeteries, unnerved him. He began to shovel from the opposite side of the grave, standing precariously on the mound of dirt and quickly, forcefully, digging and lifting and depositing the earth into the hole. “Rabbi,” I said, “he is going to fall in!”
“No one is falling in, Reyna,” he said.
And then my cousin fell into the grave.
At first there was silence. And then we laughed. We laughed in a rush of released tension, and we laughed in horror. We laughed as we watched the Rabbi pull him out of the hole, and we laughed as we pondered whether my mother would have been mortified or amused. We laughed because it was funny.