The men in my family are gone. My uncle, a software programmer for IBM who made the same Thanksgiving dinner every year since 1987 from a menu in Esquire, died the most suddenly and recently of the three, though cancer took them all. “Suddenly” doesn’t do justice to the speed of the taking; he may as well as have been kidnapped. His voice still greets callers from my grandma’s answering machine—he recorded over my grandpa’s voice when he died. No one has had the guts to go next.
Grandma’s hair would be white with shock if it weren’t already white from her being 98. She never expected to outlive her husband, her son-in-law, and her son. As Thanksgiving approaches, I wonder whether she will manage her tart-apple pie. My father would kill for that pie. He used to elbow me and say, “When are you going to ask your grandma to teach you to bake?” I’d retort, “You want pie, let her teach you to bake.” Then we’d settle down on the couch and read.
When my father was dying, I read him Kipling poems: “A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke!” He managed only an outline of a laugh; the voice of the man who barreled into my bedroom at 6:30 AM every school day, reciting “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” was gone. His mobility had gone, and his independence, and his strength, but it was the loss of his voice that was impossible for me to accept. How could I get out of bed without being ordered to in incomprehensible, resoundingly beautiful verse?
Wake! For the sun which scattered into flight
The stars before him from the field of night
Drives night along with them from heaven, and strikes
The sultan’s turret with a shaft of light.
My grandfather died on my uncle’s birthday, November 11th. He was the first.
I was in college and visiting my boyfriend, taking long walks, renting movies, curling up together in his narrow bed. Minutes later, it seemed, I was at my grandparents’ apartment in DC, a child again, with three zits debuting on my face. Family funneled in into this new world, the apartment as waiting room. We murmured, fed each other, held each other, let go. We carried ourselves in our fists and our fists in our pockets. The rabbi came, encouraging my grandfather’s stories. Grandpa liked having him there. Even with only a brittle echo of his voice, he liked saying the word “Rabbi.”
The siddur sat open on the kitchen counter, turned to the viddui, the confessional traditionally read before death. My father sat in the kitchen dressed for the yeshiva, reading Psalms. My uncle sat with my grandfather, communicating via ice chips.
The rest of us ate too, more or less nonstop. Deli and Chinese takeout displaced the sensible food—yogurt, salad, nuts and tofu—my grandparents kept in the fridge. I made tea. A full day passed even though there were no meals to mark the time, just a endless buffet. Grandma told me gently that I made the tea too strong. I made more.
Because the family had gathered, it felt like a holiday, a strange, muted early Thanksgiving. We made jokes and small talk. We tried to watch The English Patient, though all I remember is long stretches of desert, billowing out like cloth. I went to sit with my grandfather. He smiled at me and rasped to the rabbi, “She’ll be America’s Poet Laureate someday.”
He was cogent. He knew who we were, if not who we would be. The rabbi asked him, “Do you want me to read the viddui?” Grandpa said, “Not yet.”
Not yet. Even under those circumstances, at 89 with his wife and family around his own bed in his own apartment, my grandfather wasn’t ready. None of the men were—not for their own deaths, not for each other’s. My uncle didn’t visit my father in the hospice. “We want to remember him as he was,” my uncle said. But my father had not been as he was for a year, since he had gotten the diagnosis. Every time I visited, I found him suffering from some new ailment: pneumonia, sepsis, pneumonia again, jaundice, diabetes, gluten intolerance. That last was particularly offensive—did he really have to spend some of his last time on earth vomiting up matzoh?
During one visit in May, my father called for me from his favorite chair in his bedroom. He didn’t need me to fix the TV or try to explain, again, why I had thought he would enjoy Shalom Auslander. He wanted to talk about the Indian pots, jewelry, first editions, kachina dolls—the beautiful things he had spent his life collecting. What did I want? What were things worth? How should they be sold? My eyes flooded so he couldn’t look at me while he gave instructions. “I’m sorry to make you sad,” he said at last, his voice unsteady. “But I only have months.”
Despite the pneumonia, the goddamned gluten intolerance, and everything else, I assumed he had at least a year, so the word “months” blasted through me. There was space between the words “sick” and “dying,” important space, space I wanted to curl up in for the next decade at least while I accumulated my own beautiful things: a baby, a book, a house, all to say, “See? Everything’s fine. I have what I need already. You’ve given me what I need.”
We buried my father on a cold and grim Columbus Day. My uncle landed in a hospice of his own in early November. My family and I flew to North Carolina, where my aunt and uncle had moved to build their retirement house on a mountaintop. It had just been finished when the doctors found the tumor shoved down my uncle’s throat.
My aunt was almost as gaunt with fear as my uncle was with near-death; we brought her protein drinks and chocolate and tried to cajole her into eating. From his bed, my uncle tried to bless us the way my grandfather used to, with a hand on our heads and a prayer. I heard only rustling air.
I had no voice either. Being in another hospice with my family made rage rise in me like acid reflux; it wasn’t safe to talk. Only minutes before, seemingly, we had been together sitting in my parents’ apartment in the little chairs.
When people talk about “sitting shiva,” they mean literally that, when you mourn, you spend the first week after the funeral in your house while the community brings you food and prays with you. You lie down normally and stand up normally but when you sit, you sit in a little chair. After shiva is over, you re-enter the real world, as though you have left the little chair behind. The truth is that the chair travels with you. It’s awkward and heavy, your grief, and it’s your place: lower to the ground than everyone else.
My aunt and uncle said comforting things to me while I was sitting shiva for my father. They loved me; they were kind. But why hadn’t they come to the hospice? The rabbi came, the same rabbi who had attended to my grandfather in his last days. Friends came, and other family members. Every year we had Thanksgiving and Passover together, our two families, and took a portrait so that my three cousins and my brothers and I could be witnessed growing up together. My aunt and uncle were very considerate while I sat shiva for my father and my greatest accomplishment was not doing some kind of violence in response. I don’t even remember what my uncle looked like, and afterwards, I never saw him again—only the cartoonish distortion that cancer had left of him in his hospice bed.
You don’t sit in the little chairs for uncles, which is just as well. I was still too irrationally angry at my uncle for dying at the wrong time, for adding another layer to the strata of my family’s grief, for not doing for my father what we then had to do for him. Besides, even at my uncle’s funeral, where, as pallbearer, I walked with one hand on another coffin to another cemetery, I was still sitting in the little chair for my father. You can’t dance in two weddings with one ass, the old Yiddish saying goes. You can’t sit in two little chairs with one ass, either.
When Thanksgiving barges in, in its annual brutal fashion, who is going to carve the turkey? We are a family of widows and kids. Should the oldest grandchild take a stab at the bird? A thirty year old without a wife or children makes a pathetic patriarch, but I would be worse: I’m female and a vegetarian. The turkey would take one look at me and walk off. We are left, bereft, bereaved.
Call off the holiday. I don’t even like pie.
Once, while my father was sick and he and my uncle were arguing, my father decided not to attend a family party. My mother told me that if anyone could change his mind, I could. I called. “You have to go,” I said.
“Oh yeah?” he said. “Why?”
“Because you’re the one who taught me that family is the most important thing. Are you going to turn your back on that now, like King Lear? He ended badly. Are you going to set that example for your children?”
He snorted. But when the time came for the party, he was dressed and ready to go.
This spring, I visited my aunt in her dream house on the mountaintop. She can’t live there; it’s too remote for one, so she rents a little apartment in town. Still, she radiated pride as she gave me the tour: she and my uncle had designed it, from the foundation, to live in, the two of them. They had painted it, filled it with familiar furniture, pictures, sculptures, and books. I could easily see my father spread out on the couch with a hardback, the way he did on Thanksgiving as he waited for the meal. I could see my uncle too, wearing his apron, cooking, never complaining that my father didn’t contribute to the meal. My aunt could see my uncle too, that was clear. It was exactly what they had wanted, this house. It was the beautiful thing he had left for her.
For several weeks after my father’s funeral, I could only hear his sick-voice in my head, the mangled, thin voice he was left with after cancer made off with everything. Then, one afternoon I spent sitting in the little chair, I opened his edition of Kipling poems. “If,” I could hear him say in the serious reciting voice I once woke up to. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs … If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; if all men count with you, but none too much …”
My father was there for me, my father as I remembered him.
Now that I can hear his voice again, I ask myself: What would he say? That Lear died wailing on the heather, having learned too late the lesson that love must subdue pride and anger, that family is the most important thing?
(I know, Tata. I know.)
My little chair is ready for me whenever I sit down, though as time goes on, I find I can occasionally sit on medium-sized chairs. Someday, I won’t lug it around at all; I’ll be able to sit anywhere without thinking. Maybe then I’ll realize I’m done with the anger too. I’ll rise from it as though from a dream, as though a commanding voice were instructing me: Wake! For the sun …
Not yet. But—maybe—soon.
Ester Bloom, winner of the Lois Morrell Prize for Poetry, has been published in Salon, Nerve, the Awl, the Hairpin, the Morning News, the Apple Valley Review, Conte: A Journal of Narrative Poetry, PANK, and Bundle, among other venues. She is currently at work on a book of comic essays entitled Never Marry a Short Woman, and is represented by Writers House.