Last night the demons that kept me awake were roaring, with hot, stinking breath, about my vanity, and the folly of trying to write a moving portrait of a dead man nobody knew, as if there was some value to it. Moreover, at almost sixty, hissed the demons, even the dead man would agree it was idiotic to believe a glorious new chapter of your life could begin by somehow writing and having some publisher buy and promote a book that would make strangers cry.
At the keyboard earlier today I didn’t need to tell these demons to pipe down. They were nowhere to be seen, not even as an afterthought. They were as silent and unscary as gargoyles on the facade of some far away cathedral, monsters designed to cow superstitious Christians of the dark ages into submission to the Church.
Walking up Sixth Avenue afterwards, listening to recently dead Pat Conroy’s incantatory love song to the writers he loved most, even, and especially, a now mostly neglected once-famous writer it was apparently long fashionable to bash, I could not wait to get back to the keyboard, thinking of the unwritten novels of his dead idol Thomas Wolfe, buried in the ground at 37, a ferocious writer who died before he’d lived enough to write the masterpieces he would have surely composed at fifty and sixty, masterpieces buried with him, sadly unwritten.
But, inspired though I was by the trance Conroy’s words put me into, I wasn’t hurrying back to this keyboard in hopes of writing a page of some imagined masterpiece. It was the matter of a simple thank you note I’ve never written to somebody who did a great kindness a decade ago that urged me on.
We do not, as a rule, make a point of mentioning such unspoken gratefulness to each other, especially long after the fact, but that doesn’t make remaining silent the right thing to do. I have a few overdue notes in this category, but this is by far the easiest one to dash off, in the form of an anecdote. So, because it is the least I can do, which is always my pleasure, let me do that now, after one last horn blast of needless introduction.
I’ve thought of it several times in recent days, out of the blue, perhaps because I’ve been mulling over the life and death of my father, maybe because I intend to hold forth when people gather in June to celebrate my first sixty fitful years on earth, a prospect, my holding forth, that Sekhnet looks forward to with eye-rolling dread. It is one of several thank yous I have meant to give, but have not given, am unlikely to ever give, except perhaps in a place like this where it is likelier not to be received at all than it is to be read after I’m gone.
I got a call late one morning a few years ago that an old friend’s father had died. I was, for some reason, not at work that day (dry only to those familiar with my deeply devout Protestant work ethic) and, being less than a mile from where people were gathering for the funeral, dressed appropriately and dashed over just in time to miss the service and catch a ride in the procession to the cemetery. I had never met the deceased, but I’d imagine he was a funny, warm and good man, since that’s how his son had turned out. His son is one of the funniest people I know.
A short drive to New Jersey later I found myself, along with several Yeshiva students, who were dressed identically in black suits and in black hats, carrying the coffin of my friend’s father on our shoulders, over the dirt, to his waiting grave. He was surprisingly light in his traditional pine box. The Orthodox burial was a bit off-putting to me, in the way most orthodoxies are, and I recall standing by my friend’s wife and his mother at one point, over where they were forced to stand with the other women, at a certain distance from the men who were going about the serious, manly business of finishing the burial of their fellow Jew.
My thought now is what an honor it was, to be able to silently repay my friend’s kindness in this way. What kindness, you want to know? A few years before his father’s funeral, he and his wife had showed up unexpectedly at my father’s funeral, a surprise that touched me greatly. We’d been friends for a long time, but we see each other rarely and, to my memory, have probably called each other, at most, a handful of times. Yet there they were as the cantor was chanting over my father’s grave and I was moved to see them there.
But the kindness I was repaying as I carried his father’s body to his grave, and helped lower him in, and throw the first few shovelfuls on his coffin, happened after my father’s actual funeral.
After burying my father we left the boneyard in Cortland and went back to nearby First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill where a local kosher deli had gouged us for the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, pickles, cole slaw, the parve pastries and the two or three dollar cans of Doctor Brown’s soda. My father would have loved the spread, while not neglecting to make a subtle, yet trenchant, comment about the generous mark-up provided as a special courtesy to the mourners. LIkely also a little reference to the monopoly the synagogue had granted this deli, the only kosher place within miles, for catering all events at First Hebrew.
Directly on the other side of a folding wall from where the food and drink was laid out there was, my friend and I discovered, a small gym with a basket at each end. While the rest of the adult mourners were speaking well of the dead, hearing stories of his last days, consoling my mother, eating and catching up, my niece and nephew, then thirteen and nine, had nobody to talk to. Finding a basketball, with the help of the janitor, we challenged them to a game. Being two spunky kids they happily accepted our challenge and the four of us stepped around the wall.
As the mourners continued to eat their turkey, roast beef, pastrami and corned beef, while my sister was being consoled, and the rabbi came by, and whatever else was going on, the four basketball players ran up and down the court in our funeral clothes. It was a raucous game, with my friend’s antics quickly turning it into a hilarious circus. It lightened my heart to see the children who had just stood somberly beside their grandfather’s grave laughing, particularly my nephew, who, to this day is not easy to crack up. In spite of our clowning, we kicked their asses, I’m glad to say.
And that’s why, a few years later, I felt so fortunate and so honored to be carrying his father’s coffin.