What You Should Only Know by Lori White
In case you’ve forgotten, when you get the call that your father died, here are the things you should only know.
The funeral is usually held within 48 hours of death, in accordance with Jewish custom.
This means you’ll need to get on a plane to Los Angeles pronto, foregoing the calls to the catsitter and the paperboy. Or forego bringing your wife, a last respect you can pay your father after his death. Pack a suit, well, at least something dark, like the jacket you were supposed to wear to their fiftieth anniversary that’s too tight to button now, or the cardigan your mother knitted after an ice storm hit Seattle and left you without power for seven days straight, the gift you wish you’d simply thanked her for instead of mumbling that a generator would have been more practical. No open-toed shoes, so leave your flip-flops at home. Though the trip may double as your mid-winter sun break (always the multi-tasker), it will be no vacation.
The service will be closed casket, and there will not be a viewing.
The pictures on your mother’s piano will remind you of what he looked like, though you never saw him completely gray. He’ll look disappointed, as though his missteps caught up to him in his seventies. Examine the shadows under his eyes, the folds of skin that line his neck. Here you’ll glimpse your future, traces of the tired, angry man you’ve already become. There will be other pictures: your sisters beside him, their faces glowing in the birthday candlelight; your niece and him on the beach, building a sand castle; and one of you in your bar mitzvah suit, preserving the memory they’ve clung to all these years. Wedding pictures line the mantel, though the one of you and your wife on the courthouse steps, taken by a man waiting for the bus, is missing. Your wife sent them a copy, set in a silver frame, with a note (Just Married!) taped to the glass. That was when all the trouble began.
A rabbi may speak; there will be some prayers (most likely in Hebrew, with English translations) and close family members may give eulogies.
You won’t be asked to speak, mostly because no one expects you would. Your sisters will tell stories from the last years, like how your father taught your niece to play pinochle and took her for ice cream after her riding lessons. Your aunt will talk about their childhood during the Depression, how, at eleven, your father worked behind a deli counter on Fairfax Avenue and then, after his bar mitzvah—the little man at thirteen—sold suits and ties downtown at Silverwoods. You consider telling about the special plate he bought you, the one that kept your dinner safely divided, the peas never touching the mashed potatoes. Or how, when your parents visited you in Seattle, the first time they met your wife, your father slammed his pinkie in the car door. You rushed him to the ER, but the doctor said it was too small to save. In the waiting room, surrounded by the sick and the injured, your mother marveled at the family’s good fortune: until that moment, after forty-nine years of marriage, they had escaped any real danger. At the funeral, she will be too upset to say anything. A lucky break. Her voice riddles you with guilt, an absence you’ve enjoyed for almost nine years now.
If you are close to the deceased, or their family, you may be asked to accompany the body to its final resting place.
In case you’re unsure, take the empty place at the coffin, a rough pine box, green and sappy at the knots, its plainness a reminder of how you live your life: straightforward and unadorned. Impatient with the niceties they expected. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe you never understood that, when it comes to family, you should never speak your mind.
After you toss your shovelful of dirt into his grave, don’t pass the spade to the next person. Instead, drive it into the mound of earth. The custom is not lost on you. You cannot hand off your anguish, no matter how hard you’ve tried.
Mourners usually sit shiva for a week, and may only be receiving guests for the first few days.
The house will be quiet, dark, the mirrors covered as a reminder for the living to relinquish self-concern. After washing the dirt from your hands, take a peek under the cloth; defy his faith. Though your mother offers you his chair, beg off by blaming a bad back and sit on the brick hearth. You left your return plane ticket open, but the hours move so slowly you end up silently rehearsing the excuses necessary to leave.
In a year there is an “unveiling” ceremony, where the headstone is revealed.
When your mother asks if you’ll return for the unveiling, learn from your past mistakes and simply say yes.
Flowers are not appropriate for Jewish funerals and should be reserved for happier occasions.
Once home, tell your wife not to send an orchid. The others she sent all died on the kitchen sill, just inches from the faucet. Your mother tortured them unwittingly, feeding them the occasional ice cube. Then, one by one, they landed in the trash, their nature too delicate for this house.
Lori White received her MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her recent work has appeared in KROnline, Necessary Fiction, and Spittoon. She lives with her partner and two dogs in a trailer by a lake at the edge of the Los Padres Forest.