Everything tonight hinges on morning.
In an Orthodox Jewish household, on a Friday, sundown is the more familiar hinge. Everything feels like it hangs in the balance at a certain point in the day, when the laundry is folded and the crock pot is all set up and all anyone is waiting for is for the mundane white shine of day to give way to sunset and then stars and moon – to a landscape truly fit for angels. I remember as a kid a sort of impatience, my toes curled around it – this need for the tension of day to break, for the sun to be released from its tight heat, to melt soft into the orange glow that became circles of family and food and candlelight and lace-‐trimmed dresses and shiny shoes in our living room.
Tonight we ate dinner and though the moon sang the round edges of its halo in through my parents’ blinds it was a mostly quiet dinner, a little like we’d all come to the table straight from the middle of sleep and hadn’t found our mouths yet. The light hadn’t fattened in the warm way, nor had the voices grown into a blurry harmony, nor had children knocked on the door on their way home from synagogue to wish my parents a good Shabbos and stay for a piece of challah with honey. The meal hadn’t spun pleasant words or tumbled into pleasant songs sung with the kind of tired that hums with love and wine. My father hadn’t fallen asleep dangerously close to his chicken soup and my mother hadn’t told a boisterous story.
This is because throughout tonight’s Shabbos dinner my grandmother was dying in the family room. She had spent the last month on a futon with decorative pillows in this room in my parents’ home, watching black and white nostalgia on TV and indulging the occasional bite of stuffed cabbage or sip of grape juice on Friday nights.
Savta had a heart plucked from the old world and she loved fiercely, but was also a contained and unsentimental woman. She was self-‐conscious about letting too much rip in public, usually revealing only some of her teeth when she smiled, reserving big toothy grins for special occasions, or for when she was a little tipsy on slivovitz or Kedem Plum Royale. In those moments, she threw back her head and guffawed unglamorously despite herself and her cashmere sweater and pillbox hat days. She had been a first-‐chair violinist when she was young until she realized there was no such luxury, wiped down her bow, snapped her violin case shut and pushed it firmly under the bed to become a preschool teacher. She thought we were spoiled but loved us all the same. When she hugged, she hugged with the garlic fervor of the shtetl and the smells of leather purse and peppery sweat came almost aggressively off of her clothing onto our faces and arms.
Savta was proud and private. Her stories happened outside of her heart, outside of her eyes. What happened inside was a knot of secrets. What I did know was that she would have so hated how she looked now, skin tightened, features sharp and beaklike, the way someone looks when their soul no longer quite fits in its confining casing. Her bald head and bulging eyes something almost past human, squeezing hard and squinting tight before the final release.
Everyone has come for death, as everyone does, and no one is quite comfortable – my mother with her two sisters and her brother and their sometimes strained and untied histories. My father, tired and grey from the energy of holding my mother up and from playing softly on his guitar for Savta, whose affections for him were always hard-‐won, even now as her eyes dimmed and teared at the sounds of Yiddish tunes coming from her bedside, my father’s sweet velvet lullaby.
So we ate dinner tonight together in a waiting quiet reserved for libraries and funeral homes and then went to sit at the edge of sleep. When my father wakes me to tell me she’s gone it feels anticlimactic at first, like she’s actually been gone for weeks, and I get up quickly and unceremoniously, nudging my sister to come downstairs with me.
Dasi, I say. It’s our turn.
Jewish law states that from the moment of death until the moment of burial, our dead may not be left alone. There are even dedicated people called shomrim whose job it is to take turns guarding the dead overnight when waiting for a morning funeral. I’d always thought this sounded creepy – sitting alone overnight in a room with a body. I was glad that people were there to do it, because I appreciated it as a sacred task – I was just grateful that it wasn’t me. Because it’s Shabbos, of course, no one can use the phone to call the funeral home. And besides, it’s late at night. My father will ask Savta’s nurse to call the funeral home in the morning to take the body, but tonight we will sit with her, guard her. We will do this in shifts for fear someone might fall asleep, leaving her unguarded or alone.
Dasi and I enter the room holding hands. We shut the door. It is thickly dark. Savta is a shape in sheets on the futon, rising from somewhere else, somewhere I’ve never seen or been. It is early April but still cool during the nights and the windows are wide open so that the room is ventilated. The wind tonight feels as swirling as the ocean and the blinds rattle and the drafts cross the sheets that hold our grandmother. We sit on the loveseat together and wrap ourselves in cotton blankets that feel damp with the spring cold. We tighten into shivering in the stillness and the hushed song of swaying shadows.
My voice catches somewhere. It is part still-‐sleep and part a new kind of disbelief.
What should we do now, I whisper.
We have prepared for this but you can’t prepare for this.
I don’t know, whispers Dasi. Read psalms?
My father, no detail lost, has left a tiny book of psalms in the room where the shape of my grandmother cools, and Dasi and I open it and squint at the pages in the dark. I am not sure I’m reading. I know I’m seeing the letters and that feels significant enough.
We are shapes, too, my sister and I, under these blankets, and I am struck to feel my body breathe into sharp focus. Every moment of air feels heightened on my skin. I feel made of years, centuries older than 32, and also small and frail despite the relative girth of me. My shoulders tense with cold and tired, but my heart instantly arrives home, sinking into a kind of rest, like there’s a hammock made of warm light in my chest that I hadn’t known lived in me before. I have never been that good at having a body. Sometimes I forget it’s there. Sometimes I don’t realize what lives in me. Sitting here inside my childhood home with Savta’s secrets roaring catastrophically free in the room between breaths and night winds, I am suddenly positive that everything lives in me. That I am burning. That everything is terrifying and that everything is possible. That too much is possible.
And it feels bigger than that, even. How can I tell you this? Sitting in that room, feeling my bones reach for my unfamiliar surface, I understand the creation of the world. I understand what lives behind smiles and inside loaded pauses and I understand what whispers are made of and that somewhere there’s an alley where forgotten ideas and threads of conversation still quiver, waiting to be remembered. I feel transported to another time. I feel the texture of everything so acutely it stings my face and I feel the curve of the ancient moon on the tenderest parts of me. If it sounds romantic it is and that feels strange and wrong and true. The room swells with story and dreams and what lives while we sleep. I want to ask Dasi if she feels it, too, but she is still looking at the book of psalms, even as she squeezes my hand without relenting.
Everything tonight hinges on morning. When this gorgeous lurid indigo night lets out a breath and the last bit of blue fire winds up into a wisp of smoke that will light the bottom of the sun and slowly peel back this shroud that feels like the whole universe, we will get dressed and watch as men wearing shirts with the Hines-‐ Rinaldi funeral home logo on them come in and nod the practiced greeting that balances kindness with a somber respect. These men will put Savta’s body in a car and because this is an Orthodox Jewish household and it is still Shabbos so we can’t drive, my uncle will pack a bag of snacks and water and walk the five miles to the funeral home to meet them there and to sit with her until we bury her for good. The quiet will dissipate and then it will erupt into noise, and the kinds of tears we shed moving forward will be salted differently than they were before.
And suddenly I don’t want this. I want to stay here with this body in this terrible beautiful room all night into forever. I can see the names of angels carved into the trunks of gnarled trees in a wild jungle I’ve never met. The greens and the blues and purples like bruises and endings, marshes and swamps, the deepest pools of afraid I’ve ever known. I think of home in Brooklyn, the ways that I’m unhappy, the ways that I’m not sure, the ways that tend to I forget myself and my own shape. I think of my jewel of a tiny room where I talk on the phone and write late at night alone, and how close and eternally faraway it feels all at once. I think of all the weeks I’ve forgotten about Shabbos dinner. I think about how time sometimes means losing things and building them again. I think of the things I have missed for longer than I’ll admit about the ways that in an Orthodox Jewish household, there are rules and the rules are there to hold you. I am held here. I sit and I sway and I don’t want morning to come, not ever. I want to stand guard and sit still and hold hands and wait for what other mysteries might seep in through the windows while we’re waiting and we’re watching and we leave them this wide open.
Temim Fruchter lives and loves and writes and eats copious pickled things in Brooklyn, New York.