death. week 12.
city. new york city
For the first time since Tzvi’s sudden death drove an ineffable darkness deep into our hearts, I’ve begun the slow and painful process of lifting my eyes to meet my siblings’ gaze.
But the darkness that greeted me was not at all empty.
If only it had been.
No, it’s brimming with terror.
Like those kitchen drawers that seem, as if by some dark gravitational force, to suck in all of the home’s sharp and broken things, the emptiness within us is jammed with fragmented shards, crushed dreams, and an unforgivable absence.
It’s sad to admit that during the thousands upon thousands of hours of conversation that I’ve shared with my siblings, over tens of years, it had never occurred to me to ask them about their deepest pains. On the contrary, that is precisely the topic which I most carefully, diligently, dutifully avoided.
The flash of a glance. The pause in a sentence. The catch of a breath.
All clues that would instantly shove the conversation way off onto another topic. Any other topic. Just not that. Never that. Anything but that.
And yet, in turning toward my siblings the last few months, I’ve learned that some of them have wanted to talk and were just waiting for someone to listen.
Here is something my sister shared:
“When I saw Abba pour dirt down onto Tzvi, I hated him with all my heart. How could he do that? How could he bury his son, my brother with his own hands?”
By: Robert Frost
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: ‘What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.’
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: ‘What is it you see,’
Mounting until she cowered under him.
‘I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.’
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, ‘Oh,’ and again, ‘Oh.’
‘What is it—what?’ she said.
‘Just that I see.’
‘You don’t,’ she challenged. ‘Tell me what it is.’
‘The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound—’
‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried.
She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
‘Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?’
‘Not you! Oh, where’s my hat? Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.
I don’t know rightly whether any man can.’
‘Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.’
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
‘There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.’
‘You don’t know how to ask it.’
‘Help me, then.’
Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.
‘My words are nearly always an offense.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be taught
I should suppose. I can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With women-folk. We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ’twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them.’
She moved the latch a little. ‘Don’t—don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief. I’m not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied—’
‘There you go sneering now!’
‘I’m not, I’m not!
You make me angry. I’ll come down to you.
God, what a woman! And it’s come to this,
A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.’
‘You can’t because you don't know how to speak.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.’
‘I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.’
‘I can repeat the very words you were saying:
“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!’
‘There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close the door.
The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up.
Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!’
‘You—oh, you think the talk is all. I must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you—’
‘If—you—do!’ She was opening the door wider.
‘Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—’
By: Philip Roth
There were two upright shovels with their blades in the large pile of earth to one side of the grave. He had thought they had been left there by the gravediggers, who would use them later to fill the grave. But his father had requested of the rabbi the traditional Jewish rites, and those, he now discovered, called for burial by the mourners and not by employees of the cemetery or anyone else. The rabbi had told Howie beforehand, but Howie, for whatever reason, hadn’t told him, and so he was surprised now when his brother, handsomely dressed in a dark suit, a white shirt, a dark tie, and shining black shoes, walked over to pull one of the shovels out of the pile, and then set out to fill the blade until it was brimming with dirt. Then he walked ceremoniously to the head of the grave, stood there a moment to think his thoughts, and, angling the shovel downward a little, let the dirt run slowly out. Upon landing on the wood cover of the coffin, it made the sound that is absorbed into one’s being like no other.
Howie returned to plunge the blade of the shovel into the crumbling pyramid of dirt that stood about four feet high. They were going to have to shovel that dirt back into the hole until his father’s grave was level with the adjacent cemetery grounds.
It took close to an hour to move the dirt. The elderly among the relatives and friends, unable to wield the shovel, helped by throwing fistfuls of dirt onto the coffin, and he himself could do no more than that, and so it fell to Howie and Howie’s four sons and his own two—the six of them all strapping men in their late twenties and early thirties—to do the heavy labor. In teams of two they stood beside the pile and, spadeful by spadeful, moved the dirt from the pile back into the hole. Every few minutes another team took over, and it seemed to him, at one point, as though this task would never end, as though they would be there burying his father forever. The best he could do to be as immersed in the burial’s brutal directness as his brother, his sons, and his nephews was to stand at the edge of the grave and watch as the dirt encased the coffin. He watched till it reached the lid, which was decorated only with a carving of the Star of David, and then he watched as it began to cover the lid. His father was going to lie not only in the coffin but under the weight of that dirt, and all at once he saw his father’s mouth as if there were no coffin, as if the dirt they were throwing into the grave was being deposited straight down on him, filling up his mouth, blinding his eyes, clogging his nostrils, and closing off his ears. He wanted to tell them to stop, to command them to go no further—he did not want them to cover his father’s face and block the passages through which he sucked in life. I’ve been looking at that face since I was born—stop burying my father’s face! But they had found their rhythm, these strong boys, and they couldn’t stop and they wouldn’t stop, not even if he hurled himself into the grave and demanded that the burial come to a halt. Nothing could stop them now. They would just keep going, burying him, too, if that was necessary to get the job done. Howie was off to the side, his brow covered with sweat, watching the six cousins athletically complete the job, with the goal in sight shoveling at a terrific pace, not like mourners assuming the burden of an archaic ritual but like old-fashioned workmen feeding a furnace with fuel.
Many of the elderly are weeping now and holding onto each other. The pyramid of dirt was gone. The rabbi stepped forward and, after carefully smoothing the surface with his bare hands, used a stick to delineate in the loose soil the dimensions of the grave.
He had watched his father’s disappearance from the world inch by inch. He had been forced to follow it right to the end. It was like a second death, one no less awful than the first. Suddenly he was remembering the rush of emotion that carried him down and down into the layers of his life when, at the hospital, his father had picked up each of the three infant grandchildren for the first time, pondering Randy, then later Lonny, then finally Nancy with the same expressive gaze of baffled delight.
“Are you all right?” Nancy asked putting her arms around him while he stood and looked at the lines the stick had made in the soil, drawn there as if for a children’s game. He squeezed her tightly to him and said, “Yes, I’m all right.” Then he sighed, even laughed, when he said, “Now I know what it means to be buried. I didn’t till today.” “I’ve never seen anything so chilling in my life,” Nancy said. “Nor have I,” he told her. “It’s time to go,” he said, and with him and Nancy and Howie in the lead, the mourners slowly departed, though he could not begin to empty himself of all that he’d just seen and thought, the mind circling back even as the feet walked away.
Because a wind had been blowing while the grave was being filled, he could taste the dirt coating the inside of his mouth well after they had left the cemetery and returned to New York.