Help Us See Your Face
Chesed shel emet they call it – the truest loving-kindness, preparing a body for burial. Truest, because it is done at inconvenient times, in harshly-lit rooms. Truest, because touching dead people isn’t fun. Truest, because the kindness can never be repaid by the recipient – and that’s just fine with Blanche Blick. If the dead can’t thank you, they can’t NOT thank you. Can’t forget you on your birthday and Mother’s Day; can’t leave you off their guest lists and committees. But this committee, the Chevra Kadisha – the holy burial society – had actually sought Blanche out (well, Blanche and whoever else received the VOLUNTEERS NEEDED letter a while back). And she liked the idea of doing what the letter called “God’s sacred work.” Blanche isn’t sure she even believes in God anymore, not since Ed Marmelstein from the shul died trying to save colleagues in the stairwell of the North Tower. But if God does exist, she figures, she is more likely to meet Him while performing the “truest loving-kindness” than when she’s singing jaunty prayers about animal sacrifices on Shabbos morning, or shopping at Jacobson’s Butchery for kosher meat.
When she told her husband, Murray, that she was thinking of signing up for the Chevra Kadisha, he’d just rolled his eyes. “Well, maybe you can make friends with some dead people,” he’d muttered. “Lord knows none of the live ones seem all that interested in you.” Blanche had made a big show of throwing the letter away so that he would stop knocking her. But then, when he wasn’t home, she had called to volunteer – the first time, the only time, she had ever gone behind Murray’s back to do anything. Now, whenever she slips out at dawn to perform her service, she just tells him that she needs a few things at the store for his breakfast. And how would he know differently? The man hasn’t opened the refrigerator himself in 45 years.
Today, when she gets the call, she tells him that she is out of eggs.
She starts her car and turns off the radio. There’s no prohibition against listening to music on the way to a tahara, a ritual cleansing of the body, but it just doesn’t feel right, somehow. The first time she volunteered, when she thought music might calm her nerves about touching a corpse, she’d had the car radio on for a moment, but then turned it off immediately. It reminded her of when she had the C-section with Jonathan all those years ago, and the obstetrician had been singing along to pounding rock-and-roll music and telling jokes to the residents observing the surgery, as if Blanche’s having a baby was nothing special; as if delivering a healthy little boy was just the same as removing a polyp. Even now, 40 years later, she is mad at herself for not asking the doctor to quit it with the jokes, to turn off that awful music. Blanche prides herself on not holding a grudge against anyone. Not against Al Edelstein, who left her off the New-Rabbi Search Committee even though she has lived here in West Cloverdale longer than almost anyone. Not against Barbara Kranzler, who didn’t ask her to be on the West Kloverdale Kosher Kooking Konnection budget committee even though Blanche has been a bookkeeper at Saint Francis Hospital since 1979. Not even against her own mother, she should rest in peace, who had shrugged and said, “Well, you’re not getting any younger,” when Blanche brought Murray home, instead of maybe saying that Blanche should hold out for a man who was nicer to her. No, she likes to let bygones be bygones; forgive and forget. But she can’t forgive herself for not telling Dr. Fenster to shush it up in the delivery room. Some things, she thinks, should be done in silence.
So now, she keeps the radio off and the windows open, and tries to think pure, sacred thoughts as she makes her way down Wordsworth Avenue towards the funeral parlor. She wonders which other volunteers will be there today. There are nine women on the committee who take turns: four from her own shul; four from the Orthodox shuls in surrounding towns; and Karen Goldberg from Temple Beth Judah over on Keats Boulevard, which isn’t Orthodox at all. That had caused something of a stir at first, but Blanche is glad Karen is on the committee. Karen has a calming presence and a kind smile, always looks you in the eye when she talks to you. More than once, after working side-by-side with Karen, Blanche has thought she might like to try Beth Judah herself, just once, to see what it’s like; if maybe everyone there is as sweet and as calm as Karen. But then she imagines the argument about it with Murray and just goes back to their regular shul and sits in her regular seat, under the air conditioning duct that drips even in December.
Karen is already at the funeral parlor when Blanche gets there this morning. She has been guarding the body all night, as custom requires. In Judaism, only the living are left all alone. Sandy Gabor arrives right after Blanche does, and then the tahara-leader, Carol Gold, who is a little bossy for Blanche’s taste but always keeps things running smoothly. Carol nods a wordless hello to the rest of them and wheels the gurney into the cool, bright room where they will perform their ritual. She assigns each woman her role – who will remove the nail polish; who will lay out the shroud – and then, she recites the opening prayer:
“Source of kindness and compassion…Help us see Your face in the face of the deceased, even as we see You in the faces of those who share this task with us…”
Blanche takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, the way she has seen Karen do. She wonders if Karen does yoga and whether she, herself, should try it. But who is she kidding? Yoga! She hasn’t been able to touch her toes since junior high school, and she probably couldn’t cross her legs without throwing a blood clot and killing herself these days, what with her varicose veins. But the breathing part might be nice. She takes another deep breath and a slow exhale as she puts on her latex gloves and fills a bucket with the water they will use to wash the body.
“King of the Universe,” the women begin reciting in Hebrew. “Have mercy on Leah Shayndel the daughter of Yitzchak Moshe. May her spirit rest with the righteous.” There is a moment of anticipation before they unzip the body bag. Blanche is embarrassed by her thought, each time they do this, that it’s almost like opening a present, the way you wonder what lies beneath the wrapping, and whether you will find a surprise.
But nothing really surprises Blanche, not anymore. She has seen everything: Pierced noses and pierced pupiks. Concentration-camp numbers, of course, and plenty of other tattoos too – birds and flowers and butterflies – because the burial society prepares bodies from the Reform synagogues, as well. She has seen mastectomy scars and hip-replacement scars; the faded pink scars of long-ago skinned knees and the bright red scars of recent kitchen mi
shaps. She has seen tan skin and pale skin, wrinkled skin and smooth skin, soft skin and skin fish-scaled by what those old TV commercials used to call “the heartbreak of psoriasis.”
If your skin is your biggest heartbreak, Blanche used to think when she saw the commercials, you have lived a lucky, lucky life.
Blanche would guess that today’s deceased, Lois Levitan, probably didn’t have psoriasis. Lois was one of the luckiest people Blanche knew. Well, lucky up until she died of an aneurism while she waited on the checkout line at the Gourmet Shoppe yesterday. “Dead before the ambulance even got there,” was what Carol had said when she called Blanche about this morning’s tahara. And even that was lucky, Blanche thinks now, as the sound of the body-bag zipper being undone echoes in the tiled room. Lois didn’t suffer, didn’t waste away like Ruth Haberman, who died of leukemia just last month, hollow-eyed and sharp-boned; bald and eyebrow-less. No, Lois had died just as prettily as she had lived, with her perfect clothes and her perfect hair, perfectly matched to her perfectly-handsome husband and their magazine-worthy house. “More goddamn money than God” was how Murray always described the Levitans’ financial situation, and it was true; everyone knew it was. But still, Blanche wished Murray would say something more polite, like “very comfortable” or “well-to-do,” just as she wished he would find a less vulgar way to talk about how pretty Lois was. She could never decide whom she hated more when Murray said “that Levitan gal is one hot tamale” – Murray, or Lois herself.
She is brought back to the here and now by Sandy’s voice: “Oh, shit!”
There is a collective intake of breath. None of them has ever cursed, has ever heard anyone else curse, in a tahara. For a second, Blanche wonders if maybe Sandy has Tourette’s syndrome; she saw a documentary about that once, on PBS. But then she sees that Sandy is pointing to Lois’s body; to a series of bruises in the shape of fingers on each of Lois’s upper arms, and a line of marks, like burns, across her chest.
“Maybe she fell when she had the aneurism,” Blanche says, “or slipped on some oil in the kitchen.” The other women look at Blanche with pity: You poor old fool. And then Blanche understands. Lois died yesterday afternoon; the bruises are faded to weeks-old shades of plum and gold.
“We need to call the police,” Sandy says, but Carol points out that the EMTs would have seen the bruises, too; that if anything had to be reported, the officials would have already taken care of that. Karen takes deep breaths with her eyes closed and Blanche stands silently, motionless, while Sandy and Carol debate about Jewish ethics and New Jersey law and common decency, until Carol decrees that she will consult Rabbi Garelick when the tahara is done.
The hubbub in the room quiets down and the women get back to work, rinsing and combing, draining and drying in respectful silence for over an hour. Gently, they place Lois’s body in the plain pine casket mandated by Jewish law, unlined and unvarnished, even for rich bigshots like the Levitans. Carol lights a candle and places it at Lois’s head, and together, the women recite the final prayer: “No evil shall befall you, for God will send his angels to watch over you…”
Blanche wonders what good the angels are going to do Lois now.
The women tidy the room and ride the elevator up to the lobby – all except for Karen, who will remain behind to recite Psalms until the actual funeral. Sometimes, when Blanche is the one guarding the body, she wonders if it would be okay to sing lullabies, or maybe some nice Rogers and Hammerstein, instead of struggling with the Psalms’ Hebrew words. But she is too embarrassed to ask anyone.
Outside the funeral home, the sun is rising over the bowling alley across the street. Sandy and Carol get into their cars and pull away, but Blanche is feeling too dizzy to drive. Barry Levitan. Never in a million years would she have guessed. He was always so sweet to Lois, bringing her drinks and cookies at kiddush while she chatted with her girlfriends; always calling her Babe and Honey, even though they’d been married for over 30 years. And the jewelry! Cocktail rings the size of unshelled walnuts; diamonds strung on delicate gold chains. Once, when Lois had come to shul wearing a gold bracelet so heavy she seemed to be having trouble lifting her arm to touch and kiss the Torah scrolls, Blanche had complimented the bracelet and asked if it had been a gift for a special occasion. Lois had lowered her eyes and muttered, “Oh, it was special all right,” and Blanche hadn’t known what to make of that. Now, she wonders whether all of those gems and jewels and baubles had been apologies, the way Murray had once, years ago, brought her a bunch of limp tulips on his way home from work after he called her a “fucking idiot” in the morning because he wanted an Eggo waffle for breakfast and she didn’t have any in the house. “Sorry, about… you know,” he had mumbled as he thrust the tulips at Blanch that evening, not even waiting for her to say thanks before he walked off into his den and turned the TV on.
When Blanche finally forces herself to drive home, Murray is on his way out the door to catch his bus. “Whadidja, get lost or something?” he snaps as he pushes past her. “I gave up and had one of those muffins. It was stale.”
She mumbles an apology and wishes him a good day, showers and puts on a beige dress for the funeral. She always goes to the services – another un-repayable lovingkindness – even though the hours she misses at her office are deducted as personal time.
When she arrives at the funeral parlor, the sidewalk is crowded with men wearing expensive suits and wingtips and women in sleek black outfits and high heels. Self-conscious of her dowdy dress and her Rockports, Blanche makes her way inside to sign the guest register, follows the crowd into the chapel and takes a seat in the back row. “Even at a funeral, you pick the cheap seats,” Murray had grumbled when Ed Marmelstein’s memorial service had been on a Sunday and they had both gone. Blanche had tried to steer them towards the back, but Murray strode right up to the third row, as if he were someone important, as if he had more than a nodding acquaintance with the Marmelsteins. Blanche had had no choice but to follow him, feeling like an imposter, a social climber, a fraud.
Now, here alone, she settles herself into the carved-wood corner of a rear pew and waits for the service to begin. The pallbearers wheel in the casket – the same plain pine box into which Blanche had helped place Lois’s bruised and burned body just a few hours earlier. She looks around for Carol, wondering what the rabbi had said. But Carol isn’t there.
Rabbi Garelick ascends to the podium, and Blanche wonders what he will read this time. “That crazy hippie,” as Murray calls him (which makes Blanche secretly like the new rabbi, even if she wasn’t on the search committee that hired him) never sticks to “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” At Bill Bernstein’s funeral, he had recited a poem by somebody called Rumi, and at Ruth Haberman’s he had read from Khalil Gibran. It had been so beautiful that Blanche had bought a whole book of Gibran’s writing, which she now keeps hidden between her box spring and mattress so that Murray won’t see it and make fun of her.
After Ruth’s funeral, Blanche had considered writing out a list of requests for her own death. She would want someone to call the girls she works with at the hospital, Milagros and Carmen and Elena, who are nicer to her, actually, than her own kids are; and for the rabbi to read that Khalil Gibran poem, or maybe some of the Whitman she had loved so much back in high school. When I die, she had thought that afternoon, I don’t want them to serve herring back at the house after the cemetery – herring, which she always keeps on hand for Murray but can’t stand the sight or smell of. No, she wants them to serve foods that SHE actually likes: asparagus and artichokes and some of the delicious arroz con pollo she had made once with a recipe from Milagros, which Murray had pushed away, grumbling something about “wetbacks.” Yes, she wants arroz con pollo at her shiva, and seven-layer cake! Too bad on her daughter-in-law, Amy, who is always on a diet even though you can practically count her ribs through her fancy cashmere sweaters. Amy won’t have to eat the cake if she doesn’t want to. But before Blanche could write all of those requests down, she realized that Murray would probably just laugh at the whole thing, the way he had always laughed at her other ideas – the creative writing class she wanted to take at the JCC last year, and the shade of red she wanted to paint the foyer when she saw it in a magazine back in the 90s – and that the boys would be too busy, as usual, to take care of things the way she wanted them to. So she hadn’t even bothered writing the instructions, and instead had spent the rest of the day feeling sorry for herself, making a mental list of everyone she wished she could trade places with.
Now, as the rabbi clears his throat and says, “I’d like to share some thoughts from the Tao de Ching,” Blanche remembers how Lois Levitan’s name had been at the top of that list, and she thinks, Murray was right, that morning with the Eggo. I really am an idiot.
After the final prayer – “God full of mercy, who dwells on high…” – everyone files out of the chapel and Blanche heads towards the parking lot. If she leaves now, she can catch the 10:45 bus into the city and not be docked for too many hours at the hospital. And anyway, she doesn’t belong at the interment. She is a congregant and a committee member, but she is not friend or family to the Levitans. She doesn’t like to push in where she doesn’t belong.
But then, about ten feet down the sidewalk, she sees Barry Levitan pull a gold lighter and a pack of foreign cigarettes out of his suit pocket, and she chokes back a wave of nausea. No, those marks on Lois Levitan’s breasts weren’t from Canola oil.
The funeral director puts his hands around his mouth like a megaphone and announces that anyone going to the cemetery should turn on their blinkers. And before Blanche knows how or why, she finds herself pulling her old Impala into the long line of shiny black limousines and fancy foreign cars, heading towards I-95, with her funeral-procession lights on.
As she inches her way up the traffic-clogged Turnpike, she remembers – gosh, it has been years since she even thought about this; she forgot it as soon as it happened – the time she came home from work, soaked from a sudden rainstorm and bleary-eyed from a day of debits and credits. When she’d pushed “play” on the answering machine, the recording said, “This is Lois Levitan, please call me back at 555-8987.” Blanche had figured that it was a mistake. Maybe Lois had meant to dial up Betty Blumberg and had looked at the wrong line – Blanche Blick – in the shul Sisterhood directory. Or maybe Lois was soliciting donations for some charity that Murray would never let Blanche donate to. Ignoring the call was less embarrassing than explaining that she wasn’t allowed to write checks herself at home, even though she handled all those accounts payable at the hospital. But now, for just a moment, she wonders: had Lois phoned her for something else? Had she heard Murray call Blanche “the world’s first living brain donor” in public, the way he did, and think maybe Blanche was a kindred spirit? Had she been looking to confide in someone who could be counted on not to gossip – and who better than Blanche Blick, who doesn’t have any close friends to spill the beans to? But no, Blanche tells herself now, as she bears right onto Route 4. It had been a mistake, that was all. A misdialed number.
She follows the other cars to park near the Levitan family plot, crowned with a giant ornate headstone, and quietly makes her way to the knot of mourners chatting near the open grave. A few of Lois’s close friends are there – Pat Newman and Daisy Marmelstein – and some people Blanche figures are relatives. If anyone is wondering why Blanche is among them, they are too polite to let on.
When the talking stops, Rabbi Garelick announces that in the Jewish tradition, it is customary for anyone who feels a need to do so to step forward and ask the departed soul for forgiveness before the burial. Blanche feels her stomach clench, and wonders if there is going to be a scene. But Barry stands still as a department-store mannequin, gazing into the distance as if he has no real connection to these proceedings. His grown children fidget, but they do not speak.
Blanche wonders whether Carol has called the rabbi yet; whether he knows what Blanche knows. Whether he knows THAT she knows. She tries to catch his eye, but he doesn’t seem to see her.
“In that case…” he says, reaching for a shovel to start burying the casket.
But Blanche holds a hand up, traffic-cop style, to silence him. She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, thinking that Karen Goldberg would be proud of her.
And then, Blanche Blick steps forward in her beige dress and her sensible shoes, approaches Lois Levitan’s grave, and bows her head.