Two weeks ago, a strange and sad e-mail forward popped up in my inbox from my friend Nancy. Nancy is a friend of mine from my philosophy class and I’ve known her for about four years. She is completely insane in the best possible way – an artist, always dressed in some colorful crazy ensemble, always ready and eager to share a revelation with the class.
The Saturday before Father’s Day, Nancy’s brother Keith, an experienced recreational pilot, took off from an airport in Westchester with his wife, 14 year old daughter and and one of his daughter’s young friends in tow. The details are still fuzzy and the investigation is ongoing but for some reason, Keith radio-ed shortly after takeoff, saying he had to come back, that something was wrong and shortly after that, the small plane missed the runway, flipped over several times and crashed in the woods, everything ablaze in an instant.
And Nancy’s family as she knew it, was gone.
My mother told me that when I was a very tiny baby, the neighbor across the street suddenly dropped dead. Out of nowhere. A short while after the funeral, my mom got the feeling that she should stop by and see how the poor neighbor’s husband was faring but she felt uneasy. What would she say to him? Would he be mad at her for showing up? Would it be intruding? She didn’t know anything about how it felt to lose a wife.
But being my mother, she went anyway and took me with her. When the widower opened the door, his face contorted in pain and then relief.
“Oh, Rita,” he said, ushering her inside. “I was just sitting here by myself, thinking I might die of loneliness. And then you rang my doorbell.”
She kept him company and he held me and marveled over my little self (I’m assuming I was charming and perfect) and they talked and laughed and cried and spent time together.
“You show up,” my mother told me, a little lost in the memory. “It’s awkward and uncomfortable but you just. show. up.”
When I heard that there was going to be an informal shiva at Nancy’s parents’ house this past weekend, I took my mother’s advice. I drove to Westchester with a few friends from philosophy class. And together, we just showed up.
I grew up on Long Island and therefore it must shock you but I confess: I had never before been to a shiva, formal or informal. (Or a bar/bat mitzvah. My town was rather WASP-y, I suppose, for Long Island. Weird, right?) My experience with death was limited to mostly Catholic ceremonies. Open casket wakes and We Will Rise Again and On Eagle’s Wings, funerals with incense and from dust to dust and a priest always saying that the deceased went to a better place to be with Jesus which always rather annoyed me because at the moment, anyway, everyone was kind of thinking that they would rather the dead person come back to earth and be with them instead.
But, I suppose, that could be comforting for some people.
I was relieved to find out that the informal shiva was pretty much like going back to someone’s house after a Catholic funeral. There’s tons of food and people stop by and there’s that horrible moment when you hug a family member and you just sort of say automatically, “Hi! How are you?” and then you want to punch yourself in the stomach because HOW DO YOU THINK THEY ARE? PROBS NOT VERY GOOD, AMIRITE? OH MY GOD LAURA, SHUT UP SHUT UP.
Shiva, wake, funeral, all of it. It’s all the same. It’s grief. And it’s laughing while crying. And it’s human.
Nancy couldn’t believe we had driven up to Westchester and she shrieked when she saw us, inviting us out onto the back porch to sit. She babbled a mile a minute about how she was doing and all the irritating logistical stuff she was dealing with like the media and the detectives and trying to find out her brother’s dentist because who knows their brother’s dentist?!
We all listened and nodded and were like, yeah me neither! why would I know that!? And then it would hit me that she was talking about the dentist because there were no other remains left to identify her family members’ bodies.
Everything but teeth burned.
“At least my niece had braces,” Nancy said brightly. “She was easy!”
I met Nancy’s parents who are 85 years old and who have been married since they were eighteen. They were completely charming, welcoming, funny and heartbreaking all at once. The reality of their situation would sink in every so often and suddenly, their faces would darken. What I loved about them so much was how honest they were about it. They weren’t trying to pretend. When they had something to say, they said it. When they felt something, they let you know.
Nancy’s mother sat with me and my boyfriend for a long time. She was mostly irritated that no one was letting her do anything.
“I love to iron!” she protested. “No one would let me iron!”
“They want to take care of you,” I said gently.
“But I love to iron!”
She told us stories of how she met Nancy’s dad. How he walked in the room and it was love at first sight. She watched Nancy greeting her friends and remarked, “Isn’t she so nice? Nancy is SUCH a nice girl.”
We all agreed.
At one point, she turned to my boyfriend and apologized.
“I’m sorry I’m talking so much,” she said. “It’s just…I’m dying on the inside.”
And with that comment, I died a little on the inside too.
I wanted to wrap her up in my arms and take all of that sadness away. Instead I rubbed her shoulders and held her hand and listened while she spoke, asked her questions about her life. A remarkable, strong woman with so much to say.
“You’re so cute!” Nancy playfully said to her mother giving her arm a squeeze.
“You’re cuter!” Nancy’s mom replied.
She continued: “I have two cute kids!”
And then she paused as the room went silent.
“Well,” she said thoughtfully. “Now I have just one.”
I felt like I held my breath for hours after that.
Later she was talking about how her husband was inside talking to her sister.
“He hates my sister,” she said.
“Oh,” said me and my boyfriend.
“But I tell him! I tell him, my sister is a good person! She’s 88 years old and she drives me when he can’t drive me. So, he’s not allowed to hate my sister.”
“Oh,” we said again.
“Also,” she said, pinching my boyfriend on the cheek. “If he says he hates my sister? Well, then he doesn’t get his goodies.”
She winked and walked off toward the living room.
My boyfriend and I were silent.
“Was that just a sexual reference?” I asked.
“She pinched my cheek and winked,” said my boyfriend, flabbergasted. “AND THEY ARE 85 YEARS OLD?!”
“I guess you’re never too old to get your goodies,” I reasoned.
And then I just couldn’t contain my laughter anymore.
I hadn’t planned on staying the afternoon but the hours went by and I really couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. We all just sat together on a porch, on a sunny June afternoon, passing around plates of food, looking at pictures. It struck me that from the outside it might seem like any other summer Saturday. A gathering of friends, just spending time together. But then I would get a glimpse of the photo collage, Nancy’s young niece. Her brother in front of his plane. His wife.
It would then occur to me that those people in the pictures were no longer living and breathing, as I was. That I was meeting their family because they died. It was probably a tiny ounce of what Nancy will feel in the months to come. Reminders that will pop up out of nowhere, strong and full of force, that her life is changed forever.
Sometime around 6 or so, we finally took off back to the city.
“I cried when you walked in the door,” said Nancy. And I hugged her closer than I ever have before.
That afternoon reiterated to me the value in my very wise mother’s advice.
You just show up. You do. Because it’s about connection. And support. And though you might not know what to say and though people might be crying or making jokes about their goodies, you just go. Because it’s the right thing to do.
I saw that so clearly this past weekend.
“What do you feel like?” asked my boyfriend after we had returned to the city. He was referring to making plans for the rest of the evening.
“I feel like crying,” I said.
“Ohhh, I see. Would you like to be alone?” he asked me.
“That’s okay,” I said, the tears already starting to fall.
He wrapped his arms around me while my heart broke for Nancy and her family. For inexplicable horrors, for accidents, for the world which seemed so sad and hard.
All we really have to do in this life is serve each other. We can only offer what we have and it’s a continuous circle, we take care of someone and then someone takes care of us.
And when life seems really confounding and broken and stricken with grief, you just show up.
You just do.