I have noticed that I sigh many times over the course of a single day. Have I always done? Is it my body’s way of claiming more breathe periodically when I have been taking in only shallow breathes for a while and something inside decides that it needs more oxygen?
Yesterday, I sat beneath a green tent and listened to a rabbi speak about death. I sat surrounded by people in black, some standing, some sitting, some with bodies wracked with emotion, others sitting straight and stalwart.
The rabbi spoke in several languages—English, Hebrew, and a language of spirits.
“The Spirit is indestructible,” he told us. “The Spirit is eternal.”
When summoned, we spoke with him in Hebrew. We spoke with him in English.
“Amen,” we said as a prayer ended.
We breathed in. We breathed out.
Men carried the coffin from somewhere off-stage to a tent in front of ours. I wondered why only men carried the coffin, and I wanted to run up and help. I didn’t want to toss dirt from the back of a shovel. I wanted to feel it in my hands, to take a fistful and crumble it gently so the tiny pieces fell in patterns onto the coffin in the earth below. I wanted a direction connection with the ground that my cousin was joining. I didn’t like the heavy container his coffin say inside, and I liked the heavy lid that was lifted and placed over it even less. Ok, the Spirit is eternal, but why confine it so definitively? Why restrict its access to the body should it wish to return from time to time and remember its roots?
As I sat on a folding chair shrouded in a green canvas covering, I tried to imagine my cousin Bryan inside the casket before us. But it wasn’t real. I imagined he was there with us, as usual. I hadn’t seen him in so long, he could have been dead all these years but for the knowledge that he wasn’t.
I could only picture him alive, the sound of his voice, his body language, the way he would tease and joke around with us. He could be obnoxious, but I knew it was just a role he played. I knew he loved us, and I loved him.
I didn’t know Bryan well. He was like a big brother when I was little. My mom would take my sister and me to Detroit several times in a year. We would play with our younger cousins and be taken around by older cousins. I looked up to them. I wanted to be like them. My cousin Suzanne had a womanly body and shaved her legs. She told me about boys who liked her and boys she had kissed. No boys took any interest in me, even though my mom assured me that they would come around.
As I have grown older, my family and community has become the people I meet on this strange, twisting path I have followed around the globe. Yet, there is something beautiful and comforting and so very real in the people I have genetic connections with. And I felt such love for everyone around me at the cemetery.
As the Rabbi spoke, I felt for the first time a comfort in the Hebrew words that filled the air. “I guess I really am Jewish,” I thought to myself. This is familiar. This is comforting. I belong here. I know what the mourner’s Kaddish is. Were I someone else, I would feel like an onlooker studying the Jewish culture, but I am not someone else. I am me. I am a Jew. No getting around it, and I no longer need to.
Don’t get too excited now. This doesn’t mean I am going to walk around with my sandwich board and bell, calling out to the world that I am a 31-year-old Jewish woman. I am simply feeling more acceptance of who I am with each of the layers I continue to shed and those layers that I have begun to accept as part of me.
I breathe in. I breathe out.
The only other funeral that I have been to was for my grandfather, who passed away when I was twelve. I think I sensed the end was near when he gave me a gift for my half birthday. Looking back nearly twenty years later, I am not clear of anything with regard to truth or the truth we create in hindsight. I remember finding it strange that I would receive a gift in January, but I imagine I was still pleased to be given a present.
I love presents. I love giving them. And I love the response from the people I give them to. Typically, I buy or make gifts for the people I know well. And I get so excited when I find something I know they will love that I don’t hold onto it for very long before sending it their way.
Gifts come in many different forms. I felt this week that I needed to fly down here and that perhaps my present would be a gift, a small gesture of presence. At the funeral, I tried to send love and strength from myself to my aunt and uncle and cousin, who sat in the front row. I watched as one by one, they got up to speak. My aunt’s voice cracked as she began and grew stronger as she spoke so tenderly and lovingly about her son. My uncle stood beside her, quiet with dark eyes. When she finished, he said a couple sentences quietly. It didn’t matter what they said. There was love and sadness in their spoken words and also in the silences between.
My cousin Cherna and I drove with a family friend to my aunt and uncle’s house to begin the tradition of sitting Shiva. Our friend said, “We live through memories.”
“Are those the memories people have of us when we die,” I asked?
“Yes,” he responded.
In my mind, I could feel the energy of life around us, energy that transcends the shopping plazas and material elements of the lives we create when we are living. I felt that our spirits and the energy we give back to the earth when we pass away must be connected with the spirits of plants and animals that all join together and ripple out around the earth, in the ground, in the sky, in the water. Why would they be separate?
I can feel something, call it a spirit, call it energy, when my feet touch the earth, when I wrap my fingers around a stone and hold it tightly in the palm of my hand. I sense some form of communication with everything around me, the kind of communication that needs no words.
We are all in this together, whatever “this” is and however we each choose to define it.
And if we live through memories held close by the living, I guess that makes heaven a place on earth. As time passes and those memories cease to be knowledge held by the living, they return to the earth as well and our memories live in rock and stone, reed and fern. We cycle around the earth in droplets of water, racing in shifting cloud patterns through the sky, floating with others in a quiet pond.
We breathe in. we breathe out.
And one day, we cease to breathe at all.
From dust we come and to dust we return.
Our spirits may be unique, but as dust, we are all the same, composed of the stuff of the earth.