18 June 2009

Sister Act

Four month old bits of Beth Tfiloh Cemetery dirt from the burial of my beloved Aunt Merelyn still clung to my heels as we approached the implausibly technicolour red clay piled next to the void awaiting my sister Sharon's plain pine box, the simplest one Sol Levinson offers and so appropriate for a woman so frugal that the theme humorously permeated the remarks made at her funeral an hour earlier. All I could think was that Sharon, who favored clothes in jewel tones, would nonetheless never wear that colour. I also wondered why the earth was so much redder than across the way where Merelyn lay and I uttered a thank you to the universe for amazingly saving the single burial plot just steps from our parents' resting place so suddenly, shockingly needed, acquired and half-filled 36 years ago.

The dirt-shoveling seemed unusually endless and all the mourners eventually drifted away until only Fred and I were left to assist an anonymous rabbi complete the task of filling in the grave. The clay encased Fred's shoes and my favorite sassy boots, worn hundreds of times, but forcibly retired that April day - such a sad metaphor for saying goodbye to Sharon.

I had prepared for my return from the cemetery by leaving a jug of water and a linen towel in my vestibule, but the customary routine ended there with drying my hands, as Passover precluded shiva immediately following her death. Maybe it was that lack of continuity, or my complicated relationship with Sharon, or losing my first sibling, or coming home to a house where I was the only beating heart, or tossing those pointy black (and red) leather boots, or not knowing what to do with the slashed black ribbon, a modern adaptation of rending one's garment, as I unpinned it from my coat, but the experience left me much bluer than what is usual.

On 18 April, the eighth day following her death, one blue replaced another with the unexpected gift of my English cocker spaniel breeder's retired blue roan champion. When Mary Ann affirmed a few days later that this headstrong six year old "danced to her own tune" - the very words I had used to describe Sharon in the Baltimore Sun obituary - I knew the name I chose, Sister Faye, to honor and memorialize one Sharon Faye Shapiro, could not have been more apt, and the timing certainly no coincidence, as 8 is the symbol of infinity (the number is an endless ribbon) and in Hebrew the number 18 is comprised of the two letters that also spell chai, the word for life.

Sister Faye both restored the equilibrium to my house (being dog-less was, quite simply, unnatural) and totally shook it up (every plan now revolving around my new best friend). Tumult of a different sort then set in, entangling me in the emotions of soon turning 50, survivor's guilt/Sharon's ridiculously short life/our parents' even sickeningly shorter ones, but then, almost mercifully, the more concrete problem of a patch of repairs to my awesome 18 year old Suburban, prompting my normally frugal brother Allan to urge me away from my safe and huge old friend (my words)/security blanket (his words) and towards a replacement (how is that possible?) with something more sensible (yawn).

Admitting I do very little for myself (I've never even had a massage) and even less for fun (despite what I learned from my Daddy - gone at age 43 - that life is short, so have as much fun as possible), I did some homework and then went shopping for a second vehicle I wasn't sure I should/could have. The universe, as usual, put the kibosh on two cars I thought I could stomach and just as the journey quickly led me to my long-time, modest dream car/colour, I was stunned to learn Sharon had remembered me in her will. A riff through the range of emotions resulted in the realization that the only way to thank her for her extreme kindness, besides supporting her favorite charity, was to find that elusive fun in what she had made possible.

And so on 18 May, I took ownership of that Aquarius blue 2006 VW New Beetle convertible with 36 (double chai) thousand miles, placed the ripped black ribbon in the glove box as a reminder of my sister's generous act that sealed the deal, and drove off into the wild blue yonder, praying all the while for the blessing of blowing way past Sharon's scant 56 years.

Not long after, I drove the Bug to Sharon's house to scout for a memento, but all I could focus on amid her things - and all I really want, anyway, to honor where we always connected - were CDs from her voluminous collection. Turning to leave after sizing up the mountains of music from which to choose before the house empties, my eyes fell back on a pile already scanned, yet on top perched an item seemingly shot up like a springtime seedling, a sealed package bearing a "VW Drivers Wanted" CD case. Why did she have this? - as the former owner of a 1977 oil-obsessed Rabbit, Sharon was certainly no VW enthusiast. How long did she have this? - Volkswagen discontinued use of this long-time tag line on 18 April 2006, two months before my Bug was born. I took all this as affirmation that she approved of my appropriation of her gift.

Driving home on 95, lustily singing along with Andrea Bocelli, I was slowed to 20 mph by rubberneckers. Down rolled the window of the car to the left and a lady with a lovely lilting African accent shouted "I just had to tell you how great you look in that car." Fun found, for sure.

I spent part of 6.13, Sharon's birthday, in Rehoboth, remembering how she and I so painfully passed that day together there a few years back, which so oddly made me miss and appreciate her more. Heading home, the sky opened over the Bay Bridge, drenching Sister Faye and me. It was bound to happen sometime and I was somehow comforted that it had befallen on her birthday, reminding me that although Sharon's kindness insures that getting there, wherever that might be, will always be more than half the fun, I'll never forget what I lost to find that.

10 April 2009

Why Is This Night Different?

My sister Sharon was mercifully released from the grips of breast cancer this morning. She and I had a complicated relationship. So much lost, too little found.

We shared a love of music and my nascent tastes were the fruit of hers - Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Laura Nyro – though through the years, I'd occasionally return the favor. She worked as a sound engineer at several D.C. venues and well-known artists would specifically request her services, such as Nancy Wilson, who wrote Fred and me a note of apology and good wishes a week before our wedding when Sharon was supposed to be at a pre-nuptual event, but was instead with family of a different sort. In fact, the majority of my favorite memories center on the ways music enabled her to connect, and not just with me – on the Kirby Scott show (in an orange windowpane suit she sewed); at the Civic Center seeing the Beatles; in musicals at Northwestern High School; playing her guitar; scrubbing Anita Baker and Patti Austin tracks of vocals so I could serenade Fred at our wedding; and the haunting and ultimately heartbreaking full-length feature of my family she crafted from home movie patches and tape-recorded snippets, on top of which she laid the perfect soundtrack. I can’t bear to watch the thing, what with the shots of Daddy cuddling little blond me in Bubbie and Zadie’s backyard to the strains of Debarge’s “Who’s Holding Donna Now?” and the video and audio of Shabbos dinner at Grandma’a house around what is now my table, set to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and Grandma’s surprisingly thick Russian inflection.

I sat at that table tonight and remembered Sharon was smart, sensitive, a wicked Scrabble player, articulate, funny, and the sweet side of saucy and sassy. The me who emerged from my chrysalis in my twenties and gained so much confidence in my thirties is partially a product of trying to emulate the best of her. Why she and I never could connect long-term is a question, one maybe I’ve wrongly avoided asking, even today in my grief, though until a few years ago I didn’t fully appreciate her significant challenges. It was more than the cancer that made her disappear. I used to describe the twenty-two hours she spent as a guest in my Rehoboth house as the worst in my life, and it’s not because she ran into it with her car, but because of the crash course I got of another kind.

It is somehow appropriate that freedom was delivered during Passover. The fifteen stanzas of Dayenu, for her (and my mother) the pinnacle of the seder, all conclude with the word dayenu, the translation of which means "it would have been enough," and though for any of us there could probably never be enough, she miraculously managed to eke out another year after last year's crisis. She even breathed two days past Wednesday morning's dire prediction. I wish she had fought as hard to live her life as she fought having it taken away.