My father’s was the first dead body I’d ever seen. It wasn’t a total surprise when he died; my dad, a couple months shy of ninety-one, had just left the hospital and was in a short-term physical rehabilitation center. He was determined, and even on his final day, worked hard with his PT therapist, gaining the strength to come home.
In the middle of the night, he called in the nurse. One second he was still with us, and then, he wasn’t. Heart attack? Stroke? It doesn’t matter; he was at peace.
The establishment called my mother, who called me. But I was asleep, with my ringer off. That’s when my mom and nineteen-year-old nephew showed up on the front porch. Seeing them standing under the dim lights, I didn’t need to be told. My mom said the words anyway, “Dad passed.”
My husband happened to be out of town at the time. It struck me how much I wished he was home. I started recounting the last time I saw my dad. You never know it’s the last time until you do, and now that I knew, I wanted each detail, the beautiful and the haunting, cemented into memory. He lit up as I walked into his hospital room, a smile brimming on his flushed face. He complimented the hospital’s soup while barely spooning more than a few sips. He told me he was blessed to have such a beautiful family after I showed him pictures of my boys, six and nine, the youngest of his ten grandchildren. “They are so precious,” he beamed.
I encouraged him to rest. It was selfish; I wanted time to work on my computer. I’ve tried to convince myself that he needed the extra sleep, but deep where the truth is kept, I can’t forgive myself for losing those final precious moments. When he drifted off, he had a vivid dream. Both his hands hung midair typing on an imaginary keyboard, and I was transported back to being a little girl, a teenager, a young adult, finding him in his office buried in a legal brief. An hour or so later, I woke him so we could spend a little time before I left. In my mind, I was already home planning dinner. He loved our visit. He told me so. “I love you,” my dad said. “Today was wonderful.” Later that night, confused, he called the nurse by my name, and then inquired about where I was …
Standing on the porch, in a world that no longer included my father, my thoughts were a blur. “Jenny can come inside.” My mom’s voice broke my trance.
Jenny? I didn’t know any Jennies. Jenny, my mom explained, was my nephew’s girlfriend … of two weeks. Jenny was waiting in the car and would stay with the kids while I said goodbye to my dad. I envisioned my boys waking to a Jenny in their home. They would be scared, confused, only to find out from a stranger that their grandpa died in the middle of the night.
Maybe it was the Ambien or shock, but I invited Jenny inside. Her eyes were bloodshot. Was she stoned? Was she weeping at the loss of my father? Even if during their two-week courtship, my nephew talked incessantly about the grandfather he loved, she couldn’t have known my dad. Yet, unlike Jenny, I hadn’t shed a tear. On a piece of scrap paper, I scrawled down mine and my husband’s cell numbers. I told Jenny to call one of us if the children woke. Then I prayed they wouldn’t, and quietly slipped out the door.
My father was very close with his older brother, Ezra. They both had an infectious laugh, wise eyes, and an unparalleled bond. When Ezra died a few years prior, my mother had a difficult time at the funeral—watching Ezra’s coffin being lowered into earth, she could not help but imagine it was my father instead. A few days later, my parents sat me down and expressed their desire to be cremated, asking for my blessing. I was not surprised. As Jews, we have restrictions against cremation, but neither of my parents were particularly religious. My dad believed when you were dead, you were dead. His only real wish was to ease my mother’s suffering as much as he could. I told my parents I loved them and respected their wishes. I thought back to this conversation while shoveling dirt onto my father’s casket without my mother, surrounded by Orthodox men I didn’t know.
I look back on the week between my father’s death and his burial with a different clarity than when I was living it. Living after someone you love dies is a different type of living. I went with my mother to the funeral home to discuss final matters. We selected a simple urn and planned my father’s memorial service for a few days later.
Both my brothers flew in along with aunts and uncles and friends from afar.
I didn’t speak at the service. I was in charge of writing my father’s obituary instead. I always knew I would be. And still. I sat in the kitchen where my father would have his morning coffee. I sat next to my mother. His chair at the other end of the table was pushed back a few inches. Or was I imagining it? Because he had not been home in days and could not have poured over the newspaper pages, reading obituaries as he often did. Looking at that empty chair, carefully crafting the words to bring the dead back to life, I knew he was gone.
I had seen him lying there in the bed, arms crossed—is that a thing the nurses do?—his mouth slightly ajar like he was sleeping but wasn’t. I knew I couldn’t bring him back to life with my words because when my tears finally came and I sobbed over him, he still didn’t wake. I whispered to him all the things I could think of that he might want to hear, what he might want me to say, and then, because I don’t know why, I’ll never know why, I forgave him. I forgave him for dying.
I arrived home, at maybe four in the morning, to Jenny sitting on my couch. I offered her a pillow and a drink of water; she looked at me oddly, like I was the stranger in the room. How she must have wondered: why was I not collapsed on the floor?
I told my children the news about Grandpa. Jenny was long gone. They never knew she was in our home; they never questioned the empty glass of water or the bed pillow on the couch. My husband took an early flight home the next morning. I went to my mom’s house and with her help, and the ghost of my father in that chair, finished the obituary.
I don’t know how to tell this next part. The hurt or the truth, or both.
My brothers were devastated to hear of our father’s directive for his remains. One in particular could not fathom a cremation for Dad, and relentlessly petitioned my mother to have a burial. After the memorial, my mom gave in to my brothers’ wishes and canceled the cremation. Their reasons were rooted in love and Judaism, and she acquiesced: my dad would want to lessen their pain. She gave them permission to bury my father’s body, but she didn’t want to know when the burial was happening and wanted no part of the process.
I was hurt because the three of them made this decision without me. I thought I had said goodbye to my father when I whispered, “I forgive you,” and again at his memorial service, but here I was, having to say goodbye one more time. We didn’t tell anyone about the graveside service. It was last minute; our out-of-town family had left for home, and local friends had given their day for the memorial; it didn’t seem right to burden those we loved with more death. Also, if we shared burial information, the details could get back to my mom and might be too hard for her to bear.
My brother Rob belongs to an Orthodox community and arranged the funeral. Besides my husband and siblings, I hardly knew anyone at the service, mostly compromised of rabbis and male congregants.
There was only one other female there. Tara was an old high-school friend of Rob’s, and I hadn’t seen her more than once in thirty years. Coincidentally, Tara, a social worker, worked in the same building, on the same floor as my therapist. Maybe six months prior, we shared an elevator, exchanging pleasantries. At my father’s graveside, Tara asked me how old my children were and seemed as perplexed as I was about her being there. She had called my brother the night before to offer her condolences. Despite not having seen Tara in years, my brother, in a grief-stricken moment, invited her to the funeral. When the coffin came out of the hearse and I watched my husband, two brothers, and other pallbearers wobble before steadying, Tara stood silently nearby.
I’d see Tara one month later, in hers and my therapist’s office building. She was peeing in a bathroom stall, the door wide open. She apologized profusely, explaining that she wasn’t used to anyone being here this late into the evening.
I ducked into the stall next to her, making an awkward joke. “We need to stop running into each other like this.”
Perhaps she didn’t recognize me with my mask on, or maybe she didn’t remember one of the worst days of my life. Tara asked curiously, “Where have we seen each other?”
“Here … and my father’s grave.”
She didn’t laugh. I could see her shoes below the partition. The long pause hung between us.
I would tell my therapist about this encounter and that it would be hard to see Tara’s office door every time I came for therapy without thinking of my father’s burial or our awkward exchange in the bathroom. My therapist listened graciously. She was a good listener. I had invited her to the memorial, but she was out of town. Our first session after my dad died, my therapist was glowing. She had gone somewhere warm, I don’t know where, but somewhere the sun had painted her skin. She had not put anyone in the ground. Her radiance felt like a betrayal. I told my therapist how in burying my father, I missed my mom. How I understood why Uncle Ezra’s funeral was so hard. I had compassion for my mom, but I was burdened with my own grief and understanding what it would feel like to be orphaned. What my life might look like when I lost my mom, too. A bulldozer pushed the final mound of dirt over my father’s casket, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt lonelier.
My father’s birthday was three months to the day of his burial. Mired in the global pandemic, my mom arranged a family Zoom. As a surprise, she crafted a slide show from written tributes made in my dad’s honor. I loved being with my family in that sacred space. We were all inspired by the man, the father, the husband, and the activist that he was. My dad marched with Martin Luther King, was a founder of the Patient Advocate Foundation, was appointed to President Clinton’s Health Care Commission, and fulfilled his life long dream to argue in front of the Supreme Court, winning unanimously.
Those weeks around his death become more distant. I can see more clearly. We all go through times of grieving. Even Jenny, at nineteen, young and in love, knows something of grief. She has a non-verbal twin brother who she has helped care for all her life. Tara is a mother, a daughter, a sister, and a lifelong friend to my brother. One day, hopefully long in the future, Rob will be on the other end of her call. My therapist, with sometimes sun-kissed skin, buried her mother first, and her father a few years later. My mom lost her own dad when I was twelve years old and then her mother five years before she lost my dad. Anywhere you look, pain abounds. Beneath bathroom stalls, in hospital beds, on front porches under dim light, at kitchen tables. But so does beauty and connectedness. Watching the slide show my mother made, that honored my father, I was reminded of this simple truth. In honor of my father, I will write to remember, to be brave, and to help connect. So that there is less pain in the world.
He would want that.
Rachel Weinhaus Yarkoni is a wife, mother, teacher, and writer. She earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television and a BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. Her memoir, The Claimant, will be published in the fall of 2022. The Claimant is Rachel’s story of being a member of a class settlement resulting from a sexual assault lawsuit vs. USC and the former ob-gyn George Tyndall. Rachel lives in St. Louis with her husband and two children.