All the things that didn’t happen.
There was no minyan, there was no shiva. There weren’t even the 10 adults at the funeral required for public prayer. There were masks and there was a rabbi and he tore my clothes. It was the same shawl that the same rabbi had torn less than a year before, when my mother was buried.
On the day of my step-father’s funeral, there were some words said and some of us cried, softly to ourselves, others more noisily out loud.
There were people watching on zoom, some watching even from overseas. Gary was born in Cleveland, Ohio. All his people buried in the ground so far away from where he took his last breath. Gary’s mother had passed away in October 2018. She was 105 when she drew her last breath. Gary hadn’t been able to go and see her then – again no minyan, no shiva, not even prayers at the burial as far as we know. My mother, his wife, was too unwell at the time for Gary to leave her bedside. And of course, my mother would be better soon enough, and then Gary could travel back to America and visit his mother’s grave. Put stones on it, say kaddish.
But 2019 was worse and my mum didn’t get better.
By May she was whispering to me that she wanted to die.
By June she could hardly walk.
In July, there were so few words and many tears.
She passed away in August 2019.
Gary went back to America in September. I think that was hard. It’s hard to travel alone when you’ve been married for 37 years. It’s hard to wake up and think about breakfast and what the weather might be like and how to fill your time and oh god I’m so lonely when you’ve been married for 37 years.
I don’t even know if Gary visited his mother’s grave. I’ll never know now. All the things you can’t ask someone when they’re dead.
Gary came home from the States and in February 2020, he moved into the new apartment he had bought with my mum. They never got a chance to live there together. The building works ran two years over schedule, because of this and because of that. But finally the day came and Gary picked up what was left of his long, married life and moved into a shiny new apartment all by himself.
Then there was all the unpacking of a family’s cutlery and crockery and bowls and nick-nacks. Who normally decides which drawer is for what? Mum was gone and not coming back. The unpacking women did the best they could but no-one really knows the path any one person travels in their own kitchen. And even that person doesn’t know which is the best route between the toaster and the fridge, the knife drawer and the oven, until they’ve lived there a day, a week, a few years. And what to do if you’ve never been the one to travel those routes in the first place? Defrosting bolognese sauce in the microwave isn’t the same as making Shabbat for the family.
Still, Gary persevered, weaving and ducking around sorrow and covid. He made lists of all the little things that weren’t right. He organized the handymen. Loose door handles, light switches that didn’t turn on. Blinds, curtains, internet connections. He bought pot plants. He hung up the paintings and re-covered an old chair. New kitchen stools, fixing scratches on the walls. During the first lockdown in March, through our brief respite in June, he tidied and arranged and organized.
And he was alone.
Days and nights and days alone.
What is the grief of losing your life partner? What is the burden of waking up single in a huge double bed?
How is this compounded, multiplied, enhanced when the world is tumbling off its axis during a global pandemic?
In March of this year, all of a sudden, overnight, Gary’s hometown of America became very faraway, literally inaccessible. His soulmate and twin brother forbidden entry to Australia. Then golf was cancelled. Tennis next. Cinema cancelled. Dinner out with family cancelled. What’s left to fill the time for the retired, single, older gentleman?
Defrosting frozen bolognese sauce in the microwave. Making the route between the plate drawer, the freezer, the microwave, the cutlery drawer. Over and over again. Thank god for Netflix.
I didn’t do enough for my parents I fear. I didn’t guard their souls when their bodies were done. Since they’ve passed, I’ve read a bit about Jewish rituals around death, but it’s too late now, and no-one told me beforehand. I worry their souls aren’t settled, aren’t happy, are chastising me. As a professional ritualist, I know all about the summer solstice and how to honour a Bat-Mitzvah girl in a women’s circle. Why didn’t I ever investigate how to bury my own mother with the correct Jewish ritual? What does ‘correct’ even mean anyway?
Is it enough that I sobbed? Is it enough that I stayed in the room as long as I could after her last breath? I wanted desperately to go with the funeral directors and guard her body but I was exhausted by then and couldn’t think straight. Do I know they sat by her body till the moment of burial came? Did the demons take her soul and she is in pain now, writhing in torment somewhere in the otherworlds?
I try to reach across the veils sometimes to speak with her.
She is hard to reach; in truth she was always hard to reach.
Gary on the other hand is right beside me often. When I trim the rose bushes I took from his courtyard. When I joke with my kids and make puns. When I’m choosing good scotch as a present for our headmaster.
But I can’t hear mum most of the time. Except when I go jogging, mostly around Caulfield Park. Then sometimes she runs up alongside me. She had much longer, leaner legs than me. In many ways she had the body of a natural athlete. While I’m shuffling along, trying not to lose my breath, my mum comes loping up beside me. Then I feel her. Still not many words, but her presence – the electric field of energy of her. Her passionate engagement with Life, even in Death. Which makes me wonder, what exactly is Life if my mum is still intimately connected with it? And what exactly is Death if she is somewhere else; not an angel, not floating on some cloud faraway, not dead, like dead and gone, but simply elsewhere.
We put my step-father’s body in the ground right next to my mother. It was less than a year since she passed and we hadn’t even arranged her tombstone yet, the soil of her grave still fresh. The trials of covid had complicated a complicated grieving process, and anyway, we couldn’t go ahead with her consecration in lockdown.
Later that night, after Gary’s funeral, I said Kaddish alone in my loungeroom with the yahrzeit candle. Yitgadal ve’ yitkadash shmei raba. How many others around the world were joining me in our solo prayers? B’alma di v’rachirutei . . . This is death in the time of COVID.