This Is What Families Do

Author: Ed Cohen

I could tell the hug came as a surprise. Dad had just given one to my wife, Sue, as usual, and I was next through the door. He extended a hand to shake in our usual in-from-out-of-town greeting. But I put my arms around him instead, and squeezed, and held him for just a second. I didn’t say why, and he didn’t ask. But he had to know.

We had just come from my friend Matt’s house, where for the past two hours Sue and I had been mingling and eating from extravagant deli trays and plates piled with artistic baked goods and sweets. One plate was nothing but chocolates, topped with a large chocolate tile embossed, “With sympathy for your loss.”

We arrived at Matt’s to find a pitcher and a roll of paper towels set on a table just outside the front door. I poured some of the water from the pitcher onto my hands, glad, and a little surprised, to find it still warm on this snowy day during the first week of January. With the paper towels I wiped them dry and threw the crumpled paper into the nearby waste basket.

Inside the house were dozens of friends and relatives of Matt’s, most of them strangers to me. After a few minutes we crowded into the den, read prayers out loud from books with the pages numbered backward. Then came the mingling and the overindulgence in carbohydrates and salted meats. This is what Jewish families do when someone dies. Hebrew reads right to left, so Hebrew books and even Jewish prayer books written in English start at what we think of as the “back.” People who attend burials — and I’d just been a pall bearer — are supposed to wash their hands before entering the home of the bereaved. The family’s opening of their house to well-wishers is called “sitting shiv.” In this case, they were sitting for Matt’s father, who was only 63.

“He was a good guy. I really liked him,” I had told my colleagues at the office the day before, feeling obliged to explain my taking a day off and driving four and a half hours to be at the funeral of someone who wasn’t even a relative. And it was true. Matt’s dad was a good guy, and we went way back. He coached my second Little League team, “Dayton.” We didn’t live in Dayton or anywhere close. It was just that, unlike most places, where the Little League uniforms are glorified billboards for sponsoring pizza shops or plumbing contractors, ours had mostly the names of odd midsize cities such as Dayton, Sacramento, Fort Worth. Matt was the star of Dayton that year, a pitcher who during one incredible inning struck out the other side on nine pitches. I played third. I was a decent hitter and could scoop grounders like a boy two or three years beyond my age, but my throws to first were pathetic rainbows that cut down only the chubbiest of kids or those who didn’t bother to run.

I don’t recall any of Matt’s father’s baseball wisdom, but neither do I recall him ever yelling or contesting calls like some fathers did. Matt’s dad always had a smile and a friendly, sincere hi for me and his son’s other friends when we’d come over for three or 20 games of Ping-Pong in the basement or driveway hoops till dark. He always seemed to be home. To this day, none of us who grew up with Matt has any clear idea what his dad did for a living. We were told he owned properties, an unfathomable occupation to a child. I could hear and see my dad, an accountant originally, in his home office crunching columns of numbers into long rolls of adding machine tape. All Matt’s dad seemed to do was putter. In the basement, he had an electronics shop, from which we were barred. Upstairs, off the family room, he outfitted a family music room with drums, which Matt played, a piano and organ and an array of multitrack recording equipment.

Matt’s was a large house, one reason we spent more time there than at mine. I remember being told his father had designed it himself. It seemed to be put together normally, except for an awkward convergence of doors at one end of the kitchen. One door led to a mudroom off the garage, the other down to the basement, which had an aquarium built into the drywall. I swear I never saw it with water, much less fish. Upstairs near the kitchen was a powder room, which had a nifty sign on the toilet tank I’ll never forget. It was a drawing of a monkey that reminded visitors, “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and lift the seatie,” which I did.

After graduating from college and moving away from my hometown, I would see Matt and other friends perhaps once a year when I’d come to town. I can remember only a time or two meeting up with his parents. One was when my son was just a toddler. We went over to Matt’s childhood home, where Matt’s parents have lived all these years. It’s just a few blocks from where Matt lives today with his wife and two daughters. I was the first of my friends to marry, just a month out of college, and we had our son a year later. When we went over to Matt’s parents’ house my son crawled around the same cozy family room with the rock fireplace to which Matt and I and his other friends would retire for cold drinks after furious games of Ping-Pong. Matt’s mom and dad watched the little guy in delight and, I suspect, some amazement. Little Ed, that freckle-faced no-arm third baseman, a father? The notion must have seemed pretty ridiculous.

That big house with the music room and the wall aquarium and, I suppose, the advisory monkey is where Matt’s dad died. I’m told Matt’s mom had arisen at 5 a.m. as usual to go to work. His dad, retired (from whatever) kept sleeping, as usual. He had a lunch appointment with a friend. When the friend rang the doorbell to pick him up, there was no answer. More rings brought no response. Finally he called Matt’s mom at work. She found him where she’d left him. A heart attack or brain hemorrhages were said to be the likely causes. He had no history of such problems, but neither had he seen a doctor in years, having become enamored with holistic medicine. There was no autopsy, which meant the family could follow the Jewish custom of burying on the second or third day after death.

Thankfully, Jews also believe in closed caskets, so at the funeral home I didn’t have to look at some mannequin-like facsimile of my old coach. Sue and I sat in a pew near the front, close to the little privacy room off to the side where Matt, his mom, brother and sister, their spouses and children sat. I tried not to look over there.

There came the point in the service when the rabbi suggested that perhaps the most we could do for Matt’s dad was to offer our silent prayers. No prayer came to my mind, but as I pictured him a tear rolled down either cheek. Behind me I heard a sob and sniff. I was pretty sure it came from another friend of mine and Matt’s, Scott, who, like Matt, I’ve known since first grade. Scott’s now a partner in a large law firm and, like Matt and me, the father of two. Nine months before, it was Scott and his sister and their spouses and children in the very same privacy room, mourning the loss of their father.

First Scott, now Matt. A year ago my wife lost her mother after a long illness.

Over at Matt’s house, they’d be sitting shiv for another two days (in former times and among Orthodox Jews this would go on for a week, shiv being an abbreviation of shiva, Hebrew for seven). Sue and I were heading home the next day.

The news of Matt’s father’s death stunned me and everyone else, and I couldn’t help thinking about it on the drive in. I promised myself to say something to my dad about how I loved him and appreciated having him as my dad. But open sentiment doesn’t fit comfortably into a quick visit or maybe any-length visit between men. Besides, I didn’t want to depress him. He’d lost a close friend in the past year. So we slipped into the usual topics of conversation, the football team’s coach, the remaining free agents available to the baseball team. Heading out to the car the next morning, I hardly hesitated before putting my hand out to meet his for the usual parting handshake. He said, “Drive safely,” as usual, and we backed out of the driveway.

But something was different, for me anyway. After helping bury Matt’s 63-year-old dad, I couldn’t help but be more cognizant of how precious and finite my time is with my 68-year-old dad. He’s in good health and may live another 20 years, another whole generation, for all we know. But you never do know.

I want to know what the right thing is to say when you feel that clutching realization of mortality about someone you love and need. Maybe there is nothing to say. Maybe a lingering hug delivered in obvious circumstances says enough. I hope so.

Ed Cohen is an associate editor of this magazine.