Late Wednesday night around midnight the phone rang. We knew why the phone was ringing before we even answered it. (And, really? Does anything good EVER end up on the other end of the line when it rings at midnight? No. It doesn’t.)
“Hi, Pam? It’s Maurice. Gene has passed.”
And there it was. The words that we had all been anticipating for days, that were making Husband jump with anticipation every time the phone rang. They had finally come. And he was finally gone.
We decided not to tell The Swimmy until she got home from school that day. There were meetings to be had, details to be discussed and arrangements to be made and having her at school was better than dragging her through all that.
We told her about her Grandpa Gene and she was okay. We talked again about the funeral that would be the next day, the burial that would happen afterwards and all the things that she would see and hear tomorrow.
The next day we got up, hung around the house a bit, helped everyone get dressed for the long day ahead and left to meet the family at Husband’s aunt and uncle’s home. I told The Swimmy we would all be riding in a “special long car” (limo) and she was excited about that new adventure. The whole way to the temple she looked around, chatted about being in first grade and giggled about things she saw out the window. It was good to have her in the car – she brought some light as she always does to our little world.
When we got to the temple, I took her privately into the chapel where the casket was so that she could see it and ask any questions before we were all bombarded with friends and family and their kind wishes. She walked straight up to it and stood there for a contemplative moment. I kissed my fingertips and put them on the casket’s warm wood and she imitated me holding her hand on the wood a bit longer and with great curiosity.
She was kind and charming with the people who came to pay their respects. She shook hands and smiled and said, “Nice to meet you,” and “Thank you” right on cue.
When we took our places in the front row, she shared ArtsyDaughter’s lap during the service. She sat quietly and respectfully. Husband’s sister was very sad and cried openly and redfaced during certain parts of the rabbi’s remarks and The Swimmy couldn’t stop looking at her. I watched her face and could tell in her little head she was thinking, “Why are you so SAD? Am I supposed to be sad? I think I am a little…” And a few times I’d see her close her eyes and bow her head. I wasn’t sure if she was imitating what she saw, but it was touching nonetheless.
I kept waiting for the moment where all this would hit her. I didn’t expect tears, but I knew something would happen that would help her realize the weight of the situation – or the permanence of it. This moment happened at the cemetery.
We all loaded back into the limousine to ride to the cemetery after the service. Again, I walked her over to the gravesite privately to make sure she could ask questions or react without the hundreds of people around. We spent some time talking about the headstones – she was very concerned we wouldn’t know where Grandpa Gene was going to be – and reading the others that were around his site.
Then she wanted to see “the hole” as she called it. We walked over so she could look in and she looked straight down to see a cement liner at the bottom of a very deep hole. You could see on her face that her mind was racing. “That’s so far down. You can’t get out of that kind of hole…” When she looked at me I could tell that she was beginning to realize that this particular situation may, in fact, be irreversible.
We took our seats again in the front row before the gravesite and the cemetery workers placed scaffolding on top of the opening where the casket would rest. I told her that her cousins will take the casket out of the hearse and place it on top of this and then after some prayers are said, the casket would be lowered into the hole.
This time she sat on my lap during the brief service. I told her they were getting ready to lower the casket and she asked, “Mommy? Is Grandpa Gene sleeping?”
“No, sweetie. He’s not. Sleeping is different from being dead.”
”Because when you sleep, you are still breathing. Why you die, you don’t breathe any more.”
And as they started to lower the casket, she hopped down off my lap and walked up to stand next to it with her little feet together, hands clasped in front of her and head tilted slightly to the side in a pose that simply said, “I am sad for you.” I wish I had a camera to capture that image, but in my mind I know I will never forget it as long as I live.
It was at that point that Husband became redfaced and cried. And I definitely joined him a bit.
In Judaism we are taught that one of the finest things you can do (a mitzvah) for someone is to help bury them by placing a scoop of dirt on their casket. I talked with The Swimmy about this and, at first, she didn’t want to, which was fine. THAT could be a bit much for a six year old to deal with. But then, they brought out a small pail full of sand/dirt and a small hand trowel and she decided it was okay. She may have thought she was playing sandbox, but I think she felt more comfortable with the little shovel as opposed to dealing with the full sized one.
She was so okay with it that she put 6 scoops of dirt and I finally had to stop her. I told her that this next one was the last one so she took a scoop, placed it over the casket and said, “G-d bless Grandpa Gene.”
I might have cried a little more.
As I think back, I know I wrestled with whether or not she should attend the funeral and burial. And I now know I made the right decision. I am amazed at how well she handled everything and completely blown away by her thoughtfulness, inquisitiveness and compassion that she showed. Oh, sure, there have been more questions as the days went on, but she continues to thoughtfully consider the answers and weigh in from time to time on her experience.
As a parent, this has completely floored me. This little mind and heart asks such complex questions and all I can do is try to be straightforward, honest and simple in my response. And it’s hard. It’s hard to boil all this down to simple, meaningful words. It’s hard to figure out a way to educate not only on life, but on faith…to try not to instill fear of the unknown…to help her not feel left behind but to feel connected to those who are with her now AND those who have gone before us.
I’ve gone to bed exhausted these past few days, but we’re all sleeping pretty peacefully in the scheme of things. I hope you are, too.