So, the anniversary of a particular occasion in my life is coming up yet again. And, as it does every year, it reminds me of my favorite thing I ever wrote, which appears below the fold.
A traditional Jewish coffin isn’t sealed shut. Instead, the lid is held in place by two small pegs; one at the head, and one at the feet. Tradition dictates that this is because we wish our loved ones to return to us. Should they return to this waking life, or should the day come that God grants to those who have passed life anew on this earth, we wish to make certain they can do so with as much ease as possible.
At a traditional Jewish funeral, another custom exists. After the service has concluded, attendees and mourners do not simply walk away. A line is formed, and each person in his or her turn scoops up a handful of dirt, and pours it onto the coffin. Each loved one and well-wisher becomes personally responsible for the burial. This theme continues; when visiting a Jewish grave, it is customary to place rocks on top of the headstone or marker. We who have endeavored to make it easier for our dead to return to us take the grave responsibility of trapping them underground very personally. It makes sense; we wish for the physical return of those we miss, but their memories are best left trapped in the earth.
When I was twelve years old, I lost my house key. To teach me my lesson, my parents wouldn’t give me another one for a month and a half. Every day when I got home from school, I would have to go to the neighbors’ house, and patiently wait at their front door for Mrs. Travers to get me their spare key, and then I would have to run across the street, unlock my door, and run the key back. I remember having a mortal fear that in the minute or so that our door was unlocked and I was returning the key, that someone would go into our house and rob us blind, and that it would be all my fault for being too stupid to manage not to lose my keys. My parents’ lesson did its job though; I’ve never lost a key again. In fact, I’ve managed to do a very good job of not losing pretty much anything since then. Except for people. I haven’t done a great job of not losing them.
It is a difficult thing. One wishes to live, that is certain. Any person, myself included, doesn’t live for the moment, or seize the day, no matter how many bumper stickers and t-shirts we buy that tell us to. We spend years at jobs we loathe to make the money to pay the bills, we spend months taking classes we don’t enjoy to expand our knowledge, we spend weeks dating people we don’t love, and we spend hours doing laundry for future days we may never see. No matter how we slice it, one thing is certain: most of the minutes of our lives will be squandered. But we all wish to endure, truly many of us hope in our hearts to live well beyond our span of years. We wish to do so because we have hopes and dreams, and we wish to allow ourselves the opportunity to fulfill them. But that is a hard choice, even if we barely realize we have made it, because it is difficult to mourn. It is hard to lose things one once had. Think about all the people you truly care about. Make a list. Your parents, your siblings, your husbands and wives, your bosom friends. Are you prepared to have to bury them all, to lose them, to miss them for the rest of your days?
I met a man once, in a shitty townie bar about twenty minutes away from my college. He was a touch loaded; well, more than a touch. He started in about “You snotty college kids.” I was in an egalitarian mood, I suppose, but I offered to buy him a bourbon as if I had to make up for it. After two doubles, he asked me if I thought I had become a man yet. With a nice lining of sour mash wrapped around my conscience, I figured he deserved some honest soul-searching, so I rummaged about down there and answered him, with all the truthfulness I could muster, “I don’t know.” He looked right at me, stole one of my cigarettes from the pack I left on the bar, ripped off the filter, struck a match and looked right at me. He said, “I became a man the day my dad first took me out to the tool shed. Everything there is to know about being a man happened to me that day. The look on his face when he took me to the shed, what happened there, and the way he looked at me when he led me back into his house.”
As I stood over Seth’s coffin, I thought back on what that man in the bar had told me. I thought back, upon all the trials and errors, the fine moments and the sad ones, the blessings I had received and the good things snatched away from me far too soon. And I thought about that little boy and his father. I thought about the mixed look of anger and regret on the father’s face as his led his misbehaving son out through the yard to punish him; I thought about the regretful rage that possessed him as he whipped his boy; and I thought about the awkward way in which he tried to welcome his beloved son back into a loving home, the regret and guilt as he tried to atone for his own actions of just a moment before. I bent over and picked up the shovel; it was my turn in the line, and as I bent down, I made certain to notice the way the sun sparkled off of miniscule particles of quartz or something that were mixed into the dirt. I added my sad little scoop of dirt to the pile that was slowly covering the polished mahogany of the coffin, and wondered if the tool shed was the reason God had to fashion himself a heaven, and if that look would be on his face when he came forth to greet me, as he tries to find a way to welcome me back into his loving home.
Thanks for reading this. If anyone feels like sharing their own favorite piece of writing, I’d be eager to see it.