Do It Yourself Goodbyes
“Daddy can fix anything,” my children brag, whenever I fail to manipulate a stubborn valve on my twelve-year-old’s clarinet or silence a menacing hiss from the pump in our fish tank. Of course they are correct. My husband and his family are proud do-it-yourself types: shoveling their own snow; filing complicated tax returns without assistance; and even lubricating the beast-like sewage ejector pumps that dwell in our basement. In a textbook case of opposites attracting, I had been raised in a family that excused ignorance in the basics of lawn mower or doorbell repair by claiming genetic links to centuries of preoccupied Talmud scholars.
At eighty-five years old, my mother-in-law refused to accept any help caring for her home or her ninety-four year old husband. Married almost fifty-two years, they tended to each other like binary stars caught in the other’s gravitational pull. In the evenings after dinner, they would clean their dishes, take out the garbage, and set the table once more in preparation for breakfast. In the first week of March, my father-in-law collapsed before he could sit down at the tidily set table for his morning coffee. The doctors told my mother-in-law to prepare to say goodbye. After being given this devastating news, my mother-in-law called me.
“In the event that he dies, he wanted you to give the eulogy,” my mother-in-law informed me in a strong, clear voice.
“What about the service? Have you called your rabbi?” I inquired, as my nose started to run, and my throat closed a bit.
“Our rabbi has that South American accent. Henry could never understand a word he said. You can read a few prayers, can’t you? Please.” She was asking me to lead the funeral.
Although for more than two decades my professional work has focused on Jewish education, I am an ordained reform rabbi. It’s not such a leap to think that I could officiate at my own father-in-law’s funeral. But I’ve always been rather shy, more comfortable leading a discussion in the classroom than standing in front of a congregation chanting prayers or giving a sermon. I’ve officiated at funerals before, but most of the life-cycle events in which I participate are joyful ones. Weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, and baby-naming ceremonies can be scheduled months in advance to coordinate with little league baseball playoffs or All County band. Graveside prayers often interfere with school pick-up and Hebrew school carpool. And they make me cry, even when I have not met the deceased.
“Are we really going to have a do-it-yourself funeral for Henry?” I asked my mother-in-law.
“He was a quiet man. He wouldn’t want a long service. No more than ten minutes,” she instructed me.
When one of the fish dies in that tank of ours, it takes me at least five minutes to provide a proper send off. “This purple and yellow fairy fish lived here for two years darting around the rocks and corals with the blue damsel. May she return to the large sea, and may her memory help us treasure the beauty of this world.” Then, one of the kids flushes the toilet, and we make sure no one else is missing an eyeball due to white spot disease or “ick.”
I didn’t want to give my father-in-law any less of a tribute than I would do for a fish. Almost a generation older than my own dad, Henry was more like a grandpa. With his shock of white hair and his thick accent that made you believe that somehow you had magically learned to understand German, even though he was speaking in English, he would pat me on my head in the same way he did to our children, and say, “you’re a good girl.” Good sounded like “goot.” He had fled from Nazi Germany as a teenager and built a life here in America. A natural athlete and artist, he loved to eat, especially my mother-in-law’s plum cake, which he called Pflaumenkuchen.
I called my dad for advice. “I don’t want to cry and ruin everything,” I told him on the phone. “I know it’s not a tragic loss, but we’re so very sad.”
“It’s okay if you cry,” my dad calmed me.
“Wouldn’t you rather have someone who loved you say goodbye than a stranger?” My dad continued.
I came up with all sorts of excuses. In the end, I couldn’t disappoint my mother-in-law. I knew that she would hate for that Portuguese-speaking rabbi to drive all the way out to the frigid cemetery in New Jersey to make a few blessings for a man he barely knew.
The hardest part of the funeral happened the night before when I needed to herd my husband, his brother, and their mother to my kitchen table so I could organize the service. In any other circumstance, I would be the respected clergy person, and everyone would sit down docilely. But on this day, no one wanted to plan the details. That would mean my father-in-law was really gone, and not just slowly winding down to the end of a long life like an old Bavarian clock.
Late into the night, I typed out the eulogy. The next morning, we held the brief service, which lasted for more than ten minutes. The grandchildren read excerpts from Ecclesiastes and helped shovel clods of wet dirt onto their grandfather’s coffin. Our feet were covered in mud.
I was glad not to have subcontracted out this task. Honored to recite the prayers for my almost grandpa, my father-in-law, I said farewell to him and retold his story. I did not carry his casket like a strong pall bearer, but I did utter the words to “El Malei Rachamim,” invoking a God we hope to be merciful who will watch over Henry’s soul, as it returns to its source and becomes one with the earth again and everything that ever lived on land or water and in our hearts.
Raised in Norfolk, Virginia, Sharon G. Forman is a reform rabbi and has worked for twenty-two years in the field of Jewish education. She is the author of Honest Answers to Your Child’s Jewish Questions (URJ, 2006), a chapter in Lisa Grushcow’s The Sacred Encounter (CCAR Press, 2014), and most recently The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings (2015). Her writing has also been featured in Kveller, and a blog post is forthcoming in Mothers Always Write (April 2016- “Cake Walk”), and an essay will be published in Literary Mama (May 18, 2016- “Ghosts at the Costco”). For the past ten years, she has lived in Westchester, New York, with her husband and three children where she teaches Bar and Bat Mitzvah students.