Saturday, August 09, 2008

Mykel's Column for MRR 304 September 2008

Mykel Board sez
Column for MRR #304
September 2008

"Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they will not go to yours” --Yogi Berra


Mom died yesterday. Or the day before maybe. I don't know. In the morning I go to the gym. I come back home, take a shower, check my voicemail. Three calls. First, from my sister, Gayl. Tearful. “You gotta call me.”

Second, from the hospice lady taking care of Mom. “You gotta call me.”

Third, from the hospice lady taking care of Mom. “I hate to leave this on your voicemail, but I know it's the only way to contact you. Your mother passed this morning-- or last night-- in her sleep. She was very peaceful. They're coming to pick up the body at around 1 PM. I'm very sorry.”

I must be in shock. I don't cry. I don't do anything but think.

Why do you hate to leave the message on my voicemail? I'd LOVE to leave such a message on voicemail. Somebody dies? I don't want to break the bad news. I don't want to sit there while the embarrassed receiver chokes back tears to thank me for telling him something horrible.

Last time I cried for a death was when Timmy Yohannon bit the big one. George Tabb left the message on my voicemail.

Stutter dialtone. That's what they call it. Instead of a BAAAAAAAAAAAA, it's a BAH BAH BAH BAH BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. You know you have a message. Shock. Then the tears. Did George want to listen to that? I don't think so.

Leave a message. The truth. All the facts. Not some mystery that I'll agonize about until I finally reach someone.

Family wiped out in a terrorist attack? Leave a message. I've got cancer? Leave a message. End of the world? Leave a message. The last thing I wanna do is blubber to the messenger. Tell it to the machine.

I call my sister. Dad's alone with a dead body. Somebody has to be there. She has a car and is 20 minutes away. I have to rent a car and drive an hour. I call her cellphone. Before she speaks, I hear what sounds like an announcer over a loud speaker. Then her voice.

“It's me,” I say.

“Oh,” she says, “I'm at the ballpark. I took Josh (her son) to the ballgame. Dad's okay. I talked with the people at Sunrise.” (That's the old folks home where my parents have been living).

“You what?” I don't say. “You took the kid to a ballgame when your mother's lying dead and your father's 'sitting the body? You went to a ballgame? Holy existential batman! That's harsh.”

“Mykel,” says Gayl, “are you okay? You don't sound too good.”

I hang up, call the rabbi, get his voicemail. Whew!

“Mom died this morning,” I tell his voicemail. “I'm heading to Sunrise now. Could we meet at 1 or 2?”

I call Hertz and make an on-the-spot reservation. I'm in New Jersey in an hour. As I pull into the parking lot at Sunrise, the rabbi calls me. “I'll give you a few minutes alone with your Dad. Then I'll come over.”

On entering Sunrise, the receptionist gives me a hug. Then the attendants, one by one. “My condolences,” in Tagalog, Spanish, Chinese accents.

Each hug brings tears. I'm dry-eyed, in control, until I get a “my condolences,” hug. Then the tears flood and the snot drips.

Dad sits by himself in the corner of the group livingroom. He's slumped in his wheelchair. Maybe asleep. His blackening gangrene food is propped up in front of him. Multiple strokes, final stage diabetes. On and off dementia. I thought he'd be the one to go first.

I wake him with a kiss on the top of the head. He looks at me and smiles. Then come his tears. Then come mine.

“I feel like my whole insides are being torn out,” he says. “They woke me up this morning and said they had bad news. I thought they were going to tell me I died. They said, 'we're sorry, but your wife died.' I thought they must have been wrong. It was me who died. I've never felt like this in my life.”

One of the attendants comes over to me. “Your mother is in the other room. We took your father out right away. You want to go in?”

I excuse myself from Dad and walk into the room. Mom is the most peaceful I've seen her in years. Looks like she's sleeping. I expected the smell of death. The shit released from uncontrolled bowels. The piss from a useless bladder. But there's nothing. Just like she's sleeping. I heard that dead people are cold, but when I put my lips against her forehead, Mom's skin feels warm. Not hot, kinda neutral.

“Bye Mom,” I say.

Then I leave the room, not crying, but furious. I call my sister. Luckily her voicemail answers, “If you're not too busy at the ballgame,” I say, “your mother is dead and your father is in pretty bad shape. If you could make it over here, it would be much appreciated.”

“We called your sister this morning,” says Carmalita, Dad's favorite attendant. “We scheduled someone to pick up the body as late as possible, but they will be here soon. You have to sign some papers.”

She gently places a pile of papers in front of me. I look for blank lines and sign all of them. Who knows, they could be knocking on the door tomorrow to take this computer. Maybe I'm giving 'em permission. Show me a line. I'll just sign.

Dad and I just sit quietly for some time. Tear flow a bit. I get up to find tissues. Not finding any, I bring some paper towels from the kitchen. They'll do.

The body snatchers come at around 1pm. They wrap Mom in a red blanket-- head-to-toe-- and wheel her out through the livingroom where I'm sitting next to Dad.

“Is that her?” asks Dad.

“Yes,” I tell him.

They go out the back door. Dad and I sit quietly. What's there to say?

In a few minutes the door to the livingroom opens again. It's the rabbi. There, open arms. A big hug. I start crying again, pressing my head into his chest. Like that famous picture John McCain with George W. The rabbi is younger than me. He's a Chassid, with fringes and a long brown beard. No gray in it, unless he too uses JUST FOR MENTM. After we separate, he comes over to Dad. Hugs him. And sits with us.

“How are you feeling?” asks the rabbi.

“Like someone took all my insides out,” says Dad. “I've never felt like this. I want to yell, but who can I yell at?”

“You can yell at me,” says the rabbi. “If you need someone to yell at, you can yell at me.”

Dad doesn't say anything.

“Look at what you're using on your eyes and nose,” says the rabbi. “Don't use paper towels. You'll hurt your nose. I'll get some tissues. You shouldn't use that.”

From somewhere, he scrounges up a box of tissues and returns to us. We take the box and use it.

“I don't even know what was wrong with her,” says Dad.

“Maybe it was time,” I said. “Maybe it was time and she knew it.”

“You know.” says the rabbi,“we once had a neighbor. An old woman. One day, she went door-to-door... all over the neighborhood. She was just saying good bye. We thought she was crazy. But the next day she was dead. She knew. You know, I think. You know a few days before. You just know.”

“I feel like my insides are being torn out,” says Dad.

“Your wife's Hebrew name is Hannah, right?” asks the rabbi.

“That's right,” answers Dad.

“I remember,” he said. “When I visited before. Your wife was not always so happy. But when I called her Hannah... her face lit up. Like she suddenly recognized something.”

An attendant came over to us. She gave me a big hug. She gave Dad a big hug. Then she reached for the rabbi. He raised his hand to decline.

Orthodox rabbis are not allowed to touch women. I'm not sure of the reason. I think it's related to the Hebrew idea of building a wall around the law. Adultery is forbidden. But then, you need to avoid temptation... a single touch may be all it takes. A rabbi has to be especially careful. Can't even look funny.

This building-a-wall idea you see a lot in Orthodox Judaism. You can't say the name of G-d. Or even write: G-O-D. So The Bible uses only the Y.H. initials. But the initials are close to the real name. You know, like the J*h*v*'s Witnesses say it. Jew've got to say it in a way that means “our lord,” not using the original pronunciation.

When you're not reading the bible, you need to take an extra step back. Another wall of protection. You say “our NAME” meaning the name of the of the name of G-d, substituted for the REAL name of G-d that you're not allowed to say. Layers of protection, like DEPENDS under rubber underwear.

I'm not SURE that's the reason Orthodox rabbis don't touch women, but I THINK it's the reason.

The door to the common room opens. It's a family visiting a relative. It IS Father's Day, after all.

Time passes. Dad cries. I cry. The rabbi doesn't cry, but often puts his arm around Dad and I. More time passes. The door to the common room opens again. A man about ten years older than me enters. He's visiting his mother... for Father's Day.

Time passes. Dad cries. I cry. The rabbi doesn't cry, but often puts his arm around Dad and I. The door to the common room opens. It's my sister.

The care-givers around come and give her a big condolence hug. She walks over to Dad and me. I'm not so warm.

“How was the game?” I don't ask.

“I didn't tell Josh yet,” says Gayl. “Presley (my niece) knows.”

“They took Mom away an hour ago,” I say as icily as I can manage. Then she starts crying.

“You look like you need a hug,” says the rabbi. “I wish I could do it. Wait. Let me call my wife.”

He takes out his cellphone. There's discussion. The rabbi's wife knows my father, but not the rest of the family. I met her for the first time the week before at the local Torah dedication. You can read about that in my diary blog if you want.

In half an hour, the rabbi's wife arrives, giving Gayl a big hug. I don't know if I'm allowed to touch her or not. I don't.

[Aside #1: When Mom went into hospice I suggested that Rabbi Lewis officiate at her funeral.

“I don't want an Orthodox funeral,” my sister said. “My friends would feel uncomfortable. All that separation. My rabbi is on call. He'll take over when something happens.”

For the uninitiated, Jewish funerals have to take place soon after death. We don't embalm. Ashes-to-ashes, y'know? It's the original recycling program. Even the coffins are 100% biodegradable. No metal handles. They take too long to go back to the earth.

Without embalming, bodies, like fish, get pretty rank after a couple days. We need quick funerals. Move fast. Today is Sunday. Tomorrow would be best. End of Aside]

“I couldn't do it Monday,” says the rabbi. “I just have too much I agreed to do. My sister just had a baby. My own daughter is sick. Urinary tract infection.”

“That's okay,” says Gayl, pulling out her cellphone. “I'll call my rabbi.”

[Aside #2: Although I was raised a Reform Jew, I never felt comfortable in the sect. It's a kind of JEW LITE.

The movement started out copying the church. They changed services from Saturday to Sunday. The first prayer books said “Minister” rather than “Rabbi.”

Reform introduced choirs and organs. Most heinously, they installed an American and an Israeli flag right in front, where the Torah is, as if to prove their dual patriotism. Reform Jews are the most pro-Israel fanatics, but least JEWISH of the Jews.

It's weird. The most fanatic of the Muslims are the most religious: the prayer-mat-kneeling, robe wearing, play-music-and-die zealot. For Jews, the most fanatic are the LEAST religious. The I'm-a-Jew-because-I-eat-a-bagel folks. They are the flag-wavers. The kill-all-the-Arab bigots. Someday I might figure out why. Not today, though.

Another reason I dislike Reform Judaism is all that English. Hebrew is mystical, and cool sounding. But when you know what all that walla walla really means... all that CUT DOWN MY ENEMIES, EARTH SWALLOWS THEM UP, STONE THEM FOR WORKING ON THE SABBATH shit. Oy. I don't want to hear that! It's awful. The worst kind of religion is one you actually understand. I'll take gobbledygook any day. End of aside.]

My sister stands up and walks to the other side of the room. In a few minutes, she's back.

“He can't do it until Wednesday,” she tells us.

“Do you want me to do it?” says the rabbi.

“Actually,” I said, “my sister said she'd be uncomfortable with an Orthodox funeral. Our family has a lot of people raised in a Reform tradition... and...”

“The service is the same,” says the rabbi. “There's no separation. It's almost the same service as reform.”

“No, it's fine with me,” says Gayl, looking helpless.

“What do you think?” she asks me.

“I say yes,” I tell her.

“There are a few important things,” says the rabbi. “One is a ritual body washing, Tahara. The Chevra Kadisha will take care of it, but you must ask the funeral home. I'll do it if you like. They do it for free.”

Gayl hands her cellphone to the rabbi. She gives him the number of the funeral home. She's made all the arrangements earlier in the day. Handled the bookkeeping. All the phone stuff that needed to be done.

“It's the only funeral home in Rockland County,” she tells me. “Can you believe it? A third of the county is Jewish and they only have one funeral home!”

“You'd better check on the prices,” says Dad. “They always try to stick you with extra charges... and I thought it was ME who was dead. I thought they were coming to tell me.”

“Don't worry Dad,” I tell him. “The bath is for free.”

The rabbi makes the call and arranges for Mom's last bath.

(As it turns out, dad is right. Although the bathing is for free, the funeral home charges $500 for the use of the facilities.)

“And another thing,” the rabbi says. “I know in Reform the rabbis tear a piece of ribbon and give it to the mourners to symbolize mourning. But Jewish tradition is to tear a garment. A pinned-on piece of cloth is like a pinned-on grieving. I recommend you wear an old sweater or something that can be torn then thrown away. But you need the tearing, like your heart is tearing.”

“My insides are tearing,” says Dad.

The rabbi and his wife leave. My sister and I leave, dividing up the tasks. I arrange for the wheelchair van to pick up my father. My job is to set up the schedule for the next day. Gayl, the kids, the rabbi and my cousin Barb will meet at the old folks home along with the van.

Gayl does all the relative calling, and the arrangements for obituaries. She's got the hard part. I HATE the telephone, I don't think I could manage.

I don't have space to write about the actual funeral. My father collapsed in the middle of it and had to leave in an ambulance. I rode with him to the hospital.

“Yo,” I ask one of the EMS guys. He looks like a college jock: crew cut, muscles out to here, “you guys ever have a pick-up at a cemetery before?”

“Happens all the time,” he tells me.

Flash ahead: It's the Saturday after the funeral. Jews are supposed to go say a special prayer, the Kaddish, every Friday and Saturday for the year following a funeral. I originally had classes scheduled for Friday, but I decide I'll feel like shit if I abandon Mom right in the first week.

I cancel my classes, learning that “a death in the family,” can get you out of a whole lot. Friday night, I go to the local homogogue... the gay synagogue. It's the one I go to on the high holidays every year. Usually, I go with one of the many girls I've turned into lesbians. It's not exactly Reform, but it's like Reform, with the organ and the flags.

The homogogue has its temporary quarters in a church just north of Chelsea, the rich gay area of Manhattan.

I walk in, my shirt torn. (I did NOT go for the ribbon.) My face wears a suitably grieving look. Working hard to exude a Mom-just-died smell from my armpits, neck, anywhere I can exude, I choose a seat on the right, toward the back.

The only other person in the row is a large black human of indeterminate gender. Grief-strickenly, I smile at her/im and sit down. S/he flashes me a tight-lipped acknowledgment and adjusts her/is yarmulke.

A few seconds later, s/he taps the shoulder of the young attractive guy sitting in front of her/im. He leans back in his chair. They whisper for a minute. Then, my rowmate gets up and moves to the seat next to the good-looking guy.

For the first part of the service, I'm alone in my row.

Later, out of the corner of my eye, I see someone slowly moving up the aisle. I turn to look at the oldest human I've ever seen on two legs. Agonizingly slow, he shuffles one foot forward, then the other. He's bent nearly double at the waist.

SHHHHH SHHHH SHHHH SHHHH, he shuffles. The soles of his shoes never leave the floor. He won't make it another row. I'm sure. He'll die right there in front of me. Two dead bodies in a week. It's more than I can take.

I pat the seat next to me. He looks at me, smiles and sits down. At the end of the service he hugs me, giving me a big kiss on the cheek. That's the only human contact I have at the place.

No one spoke to me, let alone touched me in this open-inclusive house of worship.

Up to now, the only physical contact I've had since I got back from the funeral has been my two local bums, the homeless guys on the corner. They hugged me until I cried. Their comfort was worth more than all the quarters I've ever given them.

I walk out the front door, past a couple of very butch girls, and down the front steps of the de-goyified church. On the corner is a street sign reminding me where I am.

Holy Hoegarten Batman! I'm right down from The Blarney Stone, one of the two or three REAL dive bars left in the city. (As opposed to faux dive-bars, filled with punks or college kids.) I head right for the place.

Linda, the bartendress has been there eight years. The rest of the clientèle look like they were born there.

Linda is blond and heavily cleavaged. Her accent is so thick I understand less than half of what she says. For her, day and flea rhyme.

“Hello, Mykel,” she says, “yer not a-lookin' so feen t'dee. You be wantin' a beer?”

“I just buried my mother,” I tell her. “Gimme something stronger. Irish whiskey.”

She pours me one. Then puts one leg on a crate under the bar and fixes her body in a story-listening position.

“Wenn did she dee?” she asks.

I drink and talk. Soon the tears begin falling and the snot runs from my nose to my mustache. The woman next to me, about 50, big, black, rubs my back. The Puerto Rican guy next to her puts his hand on my shoulder.

I never saw these people before and here they are, worshiping with me at the synagogue of the bottle. They hug me, tell me their names: April and Roberto, and then tell me about their own losses, their parents, a brother and a sister. They give me their phone numbers. Tell me to call if I need anything.

Somehow, my glass is never empty. I just cry. Drink. Hug my neighbors. Repeat. Linda tells me my money's no good. She's taking care of everything.

“I learned something really important tonight,” I say, drinking up my fifth glass of whiskey.

“What's that?” asks April, her arms cradling me like a baby.

ENDNOTES: [email subscribers ( or website viewers ( will get live links and a chance to email comment on the column]

-->1984 in 2008 dept: Holy shit! They're trying to market it as a “cure for social phobia.” Yeah right.
Here's the (edited) Press Release:

A nasal spray which increases our trust for strangers is showing promise as a treatment for social phobia, say scientists from Zurich University.
They found that people who inhaled the "love hormone" oxytocin continued to trust strangers with their money - even after they were betrayed.

Nicknamed the "cuddle chemical," oxytocin is a naturally produced hormone, which has been shown to play a role in social relations, maternal bonding, and also in sex.
Lead researcher Dr. Thomas Baumgartner said: "We now know for the first time what exactly is going on in the brain when oxytocin increases trust. We found that oxytocin has a very specific effect in social situations. It seems to diminish our fears.”

Yikes! Wait till the government and corporate America get a little TRUST US spray! You know you're gonna put this in THE AIR. Fox 5 News'll spray it from the back of trucks. It's the beginning of the end!

-->Steal my number, please dept: Entrepreneur Todd Davis has dared criminals to try stealing his identity: Ads for his fraud-prevention company, LifeLock, offer his real Social Security number next to his smiling face and name.
Now, Lifelock customers in Maryland, New Jersey and West Virginia are suing Davis. They claim his service didn't work and he knew it wouldn't. It failed even him.
Davis acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press that his stunt has led to at least 87 instances in which people have tried to steal his identity. At least one succeeded: a guy in Texas used Davis' Social Security number to dupe an online loan company into giving him $500.

-->At first it seems like a tough choice dept: Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a friend-of-the-court brief when a Pennsylvania public school refused to allow a parent to read from The Bible for a "Parents Reading" event.
Seems like a violation of free speech, huh? That's what the right wing Alliance Defense Fund said when they sued.
Here's the test. You allow The Bible. I'll read from THE SATANIC BIBLE. Howie's mom will read from the Marquis DeSade. If all that is allowed, I say, why not the Bible? But if you've got any censorship at all, then the school is right. The Bible should go. It's the most dangerous of all those books.

-->Daddy's at The Office Killing People dept: Newsweek reports that Sesame Street has a video package for the children of soldiers. In one clip, "little Rosita asks how she can still dance with her dad even though his legs don't work like they used to." The answer? Rolling to the beat-- in Daddy's wheelchair.
According to Newsweek, "The DVDs leave out some of the complexities of war, such as where Daddy is going or who hurt him. Instead, Daddy Elmo simply tells his son that he must leave to do "grown-up work." Yowsah!

-->Another reason to stay free from K.I.D.S. dept: Bottom Line Health reports that childless men are 16% less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than their progeny-encumbered counterparts. The reason is unknown.

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