[I wrote this almost two years ago after the sudden, completely unexpected death of a friend. Since that time, I’ve had it tucked away in a drawer, as it were - but today is just that type of beautiful Spring day that, perversely, brings those dark memories back. So: here it is.]
It is a gloriously sunny spring day, and we have a job to do. We have to bury my friend Paul.
Less than a week ago, Paul had been presiding over his family’s Passover seder. He and wife Andi were making preparations for elder son Alec’s Bar Mitzvah in two weeks. Now Andi stands at a graveside lectern, bravely swallowing her tears as she says a last goodbye to her husband of eighteen years. And now, with tremendous courage, Paul’s two young sons take turns delivering their own farewells to the father that just three days before had been playing and joking with them.
“I spent thirteen years with you, Dad, and I had been hoping to have a few more decades to enjoy your company.” Oh, how those words resonate with me. I remember my own mother’s words, fifteen years ago when she was facing the inevitability of her own terminal illness. Back then, she had said that there were so many things she had wanted to do with her granddaughters - my girls. And back then, with both of us knowing that she would never have the chance to do those things, I had sat in my car in the hospital parking lot and wept.
But Paul did not have time to regret the decades he would miss spending with his sons. He may never have really known what hit him. He went to bed with a headache on a Friday night and began having convulsions in the small hours of the next morning. Andi, lying next to him in bed, at first thought he was up to his old husbandly trick of contorting his face and mimicking the “gaaacckkkk...” rattle of someone suffering a heart attack. But Andi’s “honey, knock it off” punch on his shoulder did not elicit the usual laugh. Paul was in trouble. Delirious and combative when the EMS ambulance arrived, he was immediately given sedatives and rushed to the nearest hospital. He never woke up. A fulminant case of pneumococcal encephalitis had overwhelmed his system so completely and so thoroughly, he had been struck down with the suddenness of a blow from a headsman’s axe.
And now, here we are. We have a job to do.
The familiar, comforting words of the 23rd Psalm float on the air. The voices of the family now, haltingly reciting the ancient Aramaic litany: “Yisgadal v’yiskadash sh’mei rabah...” So do we praise and reach out to a God whose life-and-death decisions we cannot pretend to understand.
The last kindness we can do for our loved ones who have died is to cover their graves with earth. In the poignant words of one of the officiating rabbis, it is an act of tenderness akin to a mother tucking a blanket around a beloved child. Thus I find myself taking the shovel in hand, feeling the blade slice into the mound of red-brown soil, hearing the thud of dirt on wooden casket lid. This is really happening, I keep telling myself. This is really happening. Here I am with this shovel, and Paul is in that fucking box.
We leave the cemetery, saying our inadequate words of comfort. Three hours later, I’m in an airplane, headed west. I’m sitting in an easy chair in a huge aluminum tube, 35,000 feet above the surface of the planet, moving at 525 miles per hour through wispy cirrus clouds, sipping fruit juice, headed for yet another few days at Company Headquarters. (After all, I have a job to do.)
Another day, casually accepting the miraculous. Another day, taking for granted that I will wake up the next morning and will be warm and vertical when the sun goes down.