The Country Club of Cemeteries
It was pastoral and vast, and I couldn't find the gravesite initially. Section 18; 12; 7; Plotnick; Gold; Dunn (must have been changed at Ellis Island, or s/he became a Jew by choice); Blumberg; Levine; oh, there's someone who looks like a smaller, older version of my friend...and there's the canopy over the open site.
I parked my rental car and stood on my own in the bright, cold sun, glad that I was wearing a wool turtleneck and blazer, and wool pants, too. No one felt like making small-talk with a stranger (me), and I felt shy, other than to confirm that I was at the right grave-side funeral.
The hearse pulled up several minutes later and I flashed back to "Harold and Maude," the movie to which my friend introduced me when we were freshmen.
I had called my mom from the airport when I landed in Detroit the morning prior and she said, "Will you go see 'Rocky Horror' tonight?"
"You mean, 'Harold and Maude,'" which ran at midnight every Saturday night at the State Theater when I lived in Ann Arbor. I was so impressed that my mom remembered that there was a midnight showing of a movie, and didn't fault her for remembering it as "Rocky Horror," since back then, in the early-'80s, "Rocky Horror" was famous for playing at midnight all over the country.
My friend loved "Harold and Maude" and we saw it a number of times while we were in college, and I was privileged to write a "Michigan Daily" feature story on the 10th anniversary celebration of its midnight screening tradition.
I stared at the hearse, recalling my friend's favorite line from the film: "Live, so that you'll have something to talk about in the lockerroom." Of course, the context for the line is super-touching, but I'd spoil the plot if I provided it.
During his eulogy, the rabbi stood by the grave, saying that my friend's mother didn't get to accomplish even a quarter of her potential due to her struggles with illness for much of her life. Fortunately, I thought, she accomplished my friend, and I wondered then if the line resonated so much so with my friend as an essential call to action, since my friend had better health than her mom.
One Last, Conscious Communique
My friend's mom was a walking library, one of her family commented. It's true. About two weeks before she died, after I learned that her death was imminent, and while she was still a bit lucid, I wrote to her:
Dear Mrs. Xxxxxx,
[My friend] let me know that you are ill and I am writing to wish you a rifuah shlaymah/speedy recovery, including minimal discomfort along the way.
Your gift to me, *How the Hebrew Language Grew,* remains one of the favorite books of my library; finally, eight years of Modern Orthodox Jewish day school Hebrew language study made sense to me. I'm certain that reading the book when I did enabled my success in my Comparative Literature major.
When I went abroad to Hebrew University for my junior year, I know I was more fluent, faster, thanks to how the book simplified the logic of Hebrew for me. I've just discovered LibraryThing.com, and 12 other members also own the book.
The other, even more significant gift you gave me was [my friend]. I love her so much.
[My friend] has such a generous capacity for friendship, and other than my partner Pat, has been the kindest friend I've ever had. Along with the rest of your family, [my friend] also has modeled the value of being oneself since our first meeting, freshman year at Michigan.
That was a huge gift during some especially formative years. [My friend] can tell you of my struggles to do whatever it took to belong, including even rushing sororities...unsuccessfully, and I've probably told [my friend] this a number of times before now, if not also you, but the time I visited you in your home was the beginning of letting a chunk of that desire to conform go. Here was another family that was as visibly unusual as mine in parallel with being as brilliant as mine, and whose company I loved.
By visibly unusual, I'm referring to the format of your house compared with the one in which I grew up. OK, I won't mince words: You saved the written word -- all over the house -- and my family did, too.
Before coming home with [my friend], I felt the burden of a variety of unnecessary secrets. I began letting them go after that weekend.
It has been a theme of our friendship, [my friend], reminding me that I have the right to be myself, and feel how I feel....
Throughout our friendship, always, [my friend] has provided relief to me. The relief takes extraordinary forms, including her gentle way of eliciting giant insights from me as well as delicious laughter.
I pray for your restored health, and for [my friend]'s continued health and my own, as I need the comfort and sweetness of [my friend]'s friendship to sustain me for many more years. May her generous love help sustain you, too, particularly during this rough period.
Thank you for your amazing gifts.
Better in Writing
As I watched the coffin containing my friend's mother being lowered into the grave, and listened to the loud thump after thump of shovels of dirt hitting the pine box, it was a painful replay of my father's funeral (may his memory be blessed), only then, November 1st, 1982, the weather was cold and rainy...and I was still fairly newly-17...and was unable to cry...and felt tragically-elegant in my mourning clothes, including the purposely torn (as a sign of mourning) paisley wool scarf -- my dad's favorite tie pattern always was paisley...and it was my first-ever ride in a limo...and the twin-boys from my Jewish elementary day school class were the primary dirt shovelers....I hadn't even noticed their presence till they were gallantly shoveling....I did notice the girl I had a crush on from that time, and was deeply annoyed by her, as she was crying visibly and up-staging me, all the while, staring at the gravestone of my dad's neighbor, a classmate and friend of ours who had died in high school of ovarian cancer....So painful to be reciting the Mourners' Kaddish for the first time at the graveside, in unison as an incomplete family....
Back at the house during shiva, I was conscious of not wanting to tell my friend all of what I was thinking because it was so self-centered, and poor shiva etiquette to take any attention away from the mourners and the source of their mourning...and also because I wanted, yes, to save my emotion for this blog; when I tell a person everything I'm thinking, often, the need to express it in writing diminishes.
At some point, listening to her, I said, "I feel better in writing than I am in person." It made me want to cry. I meant that I didn't feel half as graceful and openly loving as I felt when I was writing her mom that last letter. I felt awkward and un-useful, and even resentful that I couldn't just talk on and on about losing my father.
Being with my friend in person, in the midst of her intense grief, and remaining fully present without heavily sprinkling our conversation with my own experience was much more challenging than I imagined ahead of time.
My throat lumped up, but I never did cry that day. When I left their home to head for the airport, a freshly dead, red squirrel lay in the middle of their street.
My friend wrote a generous e-mail note to me and I responded that I'd call her on my way to school, which I did. It was so much easier to be present over the phone.
She began crying and I asked what it was per se that made her cry right then and she said, "...I just keep seeing her coffin being lowered into the ground and I can't stop seeing it."
"Yeah, and the intensity never fades. I'm sorry." That's life.
Which memory do you have that is as vivid for you as the original event?