The wedding was an extravagant tribute to love under a hot August sun, but after so many days of shopping and rushing and asking and thanking and cleaning and borrowing and cooking and arguing, I remembered only later (having forgotten in the midst of it) the sanctity of the occasion. Looking at photos, I am appalled to see how I scowled my way through much of the two weeks of preparation. I scowled as I gave all the OK’s and answered the hundreds of questions. I even scowled as I cut the miniature sunflowers and cosmos I’d joyously planted for the event.
It wasn’t until my son Josh and his new wife, Laura, appeared back at our house after the honeymoon that I realized they were actually married and that I was blessed — that we all were. And it wasn’t until Laura, a few days later, licked the end of her finger and used it to wipe a smudge of makeup from the corner of my eye, putting her face just a few inches from mine and dabbing at me with her spit, that I realized I had another daughter.
Now, ten days after the wedding, at McCarthy’s Funeral Home, I lift the refrigerated flesh of a woman named Sarah Jane. While three other women — members, like me, of the local Jewish Burial Society — tend to the body, I read Psalms praising God’s abiding mercy and forgiveness, and I wonder what, if anything, Sarah Jane did wrong. We don’t know her last name, nor where and how she died. All we know is the information that the young funeral director with the slick black hair provided to us: she worked in finance, never married, and her sister, who “predeceased” her, was once a member of our congregation. Sarah Jane had no family left to bury her, the funeral director explained. Looking solemnly at each of us, hands clasped before him, he added, “You women are so kind.”
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, Sarah Jane’s left eye, which is half open, reveals that the soul has departed from this form. She is draped from the neck down by a snow white sheet, her head supported by a pink plastic headrest. She has undoubtedly been in this position for some time because when I carefully remove the headrest so we can turn her body for washing, her head remains frozen about three inches above the metal table. Her white hair is neatly combed and sprayed; a few matching strands sprout from her chin. The half-open eye irks me, and I want to shut it, but I fear such an act isn’t permitted. I am still something of a novice at this ritual, a major part of which is asking forgiveness of the dead for any “indignity” that might be done to them in the course of preparation for interment.
I’ve been a burial-society volunteer for a while now, but I have yet to grow accustomed to the sensation of dead flesh. In addition to the unnatural coldness, it’s the heft that surprises me. You might think it resembles carrying a sleeping child from car to bed, but it does not. Nor does a lifeless body smell pleasant. In this small room, we breathe shallowly and wear rubber gloves. The latter make it difficult to turn the pages of the Psalm book or of the xeroxed manual of instructions for tending to the corpse. I read from the Song of Songs: “Her breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. Her limbs are an orchard of pomegranates. Her rounded thighs are like jewels.” The incongruity of the words and the body before me is so profound that I am moved past disbelief. Yes, I think, the dead are like jewels.
On the way home, I pay a visit to an old friend who is still in town after the wedding — a friend from that green and pliant age, my twenties. Wendy is bright, good-natured, and always in motion, frequently performing two or three actions at once. Her rapid, nonstop movements are a stark contrast to Sarah Jane’s immobility. Yet, in both cases, it seems the soul has quit the body. With Sarah Jane, it was already far away, but with Wendy, it circles her head like a homing pigeon, trying to nest once more in the body to which it was first attached some fifty years ago, at her birth. It simply can’t move fast enough, though, to keep up with her frenetic pace. I fear it will be a while before the two are rejoined.
Wendy and I sit down to talk, but the phone rings. In a blur of motion, she jumps up, runs into the kitchen, grabs a piece of chicken on the way, tosses it into her mouth, picks up the portable from the kitchen wall, strides back into the living room with the phone to her ear, and begins to choke. As I move to help her, the phone falls to the floor, and she bends over and starts retching. I put my arm around her shoulders, wishing I knew the Heimlich maneuver (and promising myself I will learn it). “Are you OK?” I ask as I thump her back.
“I’m OK,” she coughs. Then she spits up on the shiny wooden floor.
“Do you want some water?”
She nods, still gasping, and I rush to get it for her. No sooner does she take a few sips than she reaches for the fallen phone. “I have to call back the woman at the bank,” she sputters. “I think I scared her.”
“Just wait a minute,” I say. “Relax.”
“No, I’m OK,” she croaks. “Really.”
“You don’t sound it,” I mumble.
Then she is lying on the couch, knees to chest — a position that for some reason reminds me of childbirth — explaining to the bank teller what has happened and laughing loudly.
My mother, an ambitious product of the post-Depression era, was accustomed to being on the go. “What’s this business about the soul?” I can imagine her saying to me. “Your living room needs dusting . . . badly.” When I was a child, I hardly ever saw her pause, except when we’d go on one of our rare family trips in the Chevy: my parents in the front, my sister and I in the back, jabbing at each other maliciously, and Mom looking out the window and cooing, “How beautiful! Girls, look at that!” Genuinely moved, she’d point to a Catskill hill or a Vermont lake, prompting me to mutter under my breath, “What’s so great about that?” (When you’re young, your soul is you, and injunctions —especially by a parent — to find it outside yourself only make you miserable.)
At home, I’d complain of boredom, fertile ground for soul-searching, and she’d reply, “Well, do something constructive. Make Jell-O.” I’d gladly comply, but once I had boiled the water, ripped open the small cardboard box, poured the little pink bits into a bowl, stirred in the hot water, then placed the steaming brew in the fridge — perhaps, in a moment of creativity, adding a few walnuts or chunks of canned pineapple to the top — I was bored again.
When illness brought my mother to a halt in her seventies, there appeared to be a cosmic balancing act at work: Parkinson’s disease stiffens the body and confines motor activity of any sort. Unable to move easily and confined by growing mental confusion, she sat still. How sad it was — and relaxing — to have my mother fixed in one place, in a chair or a bed in a nursing home. When people approached her, she invariably told even the most homely how beautiful they were. It was as if she’d come to see the soul of each living thing; that was the gift her illness gave her.
For a few weeks after her passing, I sensed my mother’s presence in my house, as if her soul were lingering near the ceiling, like a faded helium balloon after the party has ended. Finally, after much coaxing on my part — You can go, Mom. I’m OK, I promise — I felt her leave, and my health returned.
Through much of my mother’s decline, I’d suffered severe digestive problems. During the worst of it, I’d lain in bed feeling utterly abandoned, by her and the world. One afternoon, I wanted to die. It was an exuberant spring day, but all I could see was emptiness: in the shapely gardens outside my window; in the blue sky the color of my husband’s eyes; even in the thought of my children. There was only the ache in my body and its echo in my mind. In the absence of all that had ever sustained me, there was, I found, room for something else, something new — I will call it God. And I clung to it like the Zen monk in the story who clutches a bush growing from the side of a cliff, with tigers above him and a fatal drop below. That’s when he sees the little flower growing in the cleft of the rock and cries out, “Oh, how beautiful!”
I’ve always hated Zen stories for their detachment. In another, a monk sweeping a courtyard receives a child from a stranger. The monk says thank you, cares for the child, and comes to love her. Then, years later, someone else comes to take the child away, and the monk again says thank you, picks up the same damn broom, and goes back to sweeping the courtyard. I’ve never wanted to be like that monk. But I hated that story a little less when my illness disappeared shortly after my mother did.
I lost my own soul in the few weeks before the wedding. The soul needs peace and quiet, and none of my usual methods — walks, yoga, meditation, writing in my journal — were providing them. I was too distracted. The enormous task of planning the wedding muscled all else to the side.
Only once, briefly, was I able to reclaim my soul: I took myself out for Chinese food, to offer solace to the part of me that was starving amid all the abundance. My family ate at a Chinese restaurant every Sunday afternoon when I was a child. The reenactment of this old ritual was part of what comforted me. The booths were mauve instead of red, but everything else was the same: the small cups of tea, the kindly Asian faces, the clean white tablecloths, the anticipation of fresh green broccoli, lightly steamed, and the exotic brown sauces I could never concoct myself. How lucky I am, I thought, selecting “triple delight” with white rice. My soul returned, and I began to relax. I could hear the clink of cutlery on porcelain plates, taste the ocean in a shrimp, feel the weave of my linen napkin. The soul is rooted in the actual, I thought.
Three waiters in stiff white shirts and black bow ties sat at a table near the window, a large stainless-steel bowl of snow peas between them. They were chatting softly, their delicate hands picking up pods and quickly peeling down the stringlike spines, which they tossed onto the tablecloth. For a moment, I forgot all that demanded my attention: the lists, the questions, the overnight guests, the piles of dishes, the refrigerator truck in the driveway, the cases of soda growing warm in the barn. Feeling oddly happy, I watched the pile of cleaned snow peas growing higher.