1. What am I supposed to make of the recent news that they’ve found a new kind of life?
2. On the one hand, it’s kind of cool — a discovery that opens up the possibility that there are more options to find other life out there in the great vacuum of space — but on the other hand, does this create a distraction, a false hope that something is out there somewhere?
3. I mean, I love to imagine some planet with other beings running around creating a different form of civilization. But should we really be spending resources on imagining the outer Universe and who’s out there when we can’t even figure out how to celebrate the diversity of life we have on our own planet? (Wow, that sounds pretty curmudgeonly… must be the Holidays and all the mix of good and bad that’s floating around…)
Today’s Something Else: My First Funeral
As we get to the darkest day of the year, I always think about my first funeral.
I was 10, and it was my Grandmother Sophie’s, the woman who took care of me and my siblings from the day we were born while our parents were working. I adored her and was afraid of her and apparently followed her around like a little chick the moment I could crawl.
Her death had been kind of sudden. She was fine, then started feeling off and went to the doctor. She found out she had diabetes, and within six months, she went from the most powerful person in my short life to being weak, lying in a hospital bed and breathing with the help of an oxygen tent.
Shortly before Grandma’s death, my mother convinced the nurse/nuns at the Catholic hospital where she was being taken care of to let us sneak up the back stairs to be able to say goodbye. All I remember is thinking that Grandma looked like an alien: propped up and zipped into this weird bag that made strange sounds.
I was the last to go up and talk to her, and she reached under the tent with her hand and reached around until she found my hand and practically crushed it as she hung on so tightly. She mouthed something in Yiddish I couldn’t make out. Later, my mother said she was telling me not to cry. (I was an emotional kid, and she was always calling me tisbele trern, which means “crocodile tears” in Yiddish.)
That was the last time we saw her.
Following Orthodox tradition, the funeral was the next day. We got to the funeral home early and were shepherded into the family room, which was off to the side and separated from the rest of the mourners by a thin gauzy curtain. On the other side was where all the women mourners sat, the ones whose job it was to wail — a piercing, haunting sound I can never forget. It all went so fast: the Cantor’s beautiful but mournful chanting, the words said by the Rabbi, the women wailing and then the weeping and crying from everyone else.
In a limo back to our house, I rode squeezed in between my Great Uncle Sam (Sophie’s older brother) and Great Aunt Clara, who both wore those little round, dark glasses you got when you went to the eye doctor and they dilated your pupils. They were very sweet to me, talking about how proud my grandmother was and whether it would’ve hurt her to ask for help once in a while.
The house was different when we got home. All the cushions had been taken off of the furniture, the pictures had been taken off of the walls, the shades had been drawn, the living room was filled with hard-back folding chairs, it was dim with everything in shadows, and all of the mirrors in the house were covered. I asked my Aunt Sarah about the window covering, and she told me, “It’s to make sure the spirit of Sophie, of blessed memory, would not linger. We couldn’t give her a way back into this world, and the mirror would let her look in on us and that was not right.”
So I just sat there, soaking in everything: the prayers and the talk and the stories about “Sophie this” and “Sophie that” and the hard-boiled eggs and the crying until it was time to go to bed. I went to wash up and looked up at the covered mirror.
I whispered, “Grandma, are you really in there. Are you trying to see us?”
I waited for the longest time, thinking she’d respond.
She didn’t. At first.
All of a sudden, just as I was giving up and turning to leave the room, I was sure I heard a voice.
I ran back to the mirror, shouting, “Grandma! What did you say?! Are you there?!”
Before I knew what I was doing, my fingers grabbed the corner of the cloth. I was lifting it slowly at first, and then in one fast move, I flipped it up.
I think I screamed, because there were knocks on the door and my mother calling, “Is everything alright?” and my aunt saying, “Leave the boy alone — he doesn’t want us to know he’s crying.”
I dropped the cloth as fast as I had lifted it. My heart was beating so fast I thought it would leap out of my skin. I was practically having convulsions. I was sure I saw my grandma.
Sophie was in there. She saw me.
I told myself that she was going to be alright, that she wasn’t going to wander the earth forever, that she just wanted to see me one more time. But I still often look back at the mirrors I pass.
You never know who might be peeking back at you.
I find these memories especially potent on the Winter Solstice — the cold, the dark gloom of the dead of winter, the candles everyone lights — all of these things seem to take me back to that night of seeing my grandmother.
It’s strangely comforting, remembering how I said goodbye to the first person I lost.