The Day it All Worked Out

I’m going to share a personal story with you. It’s the story of my father and our relationship (or the lack of one, after the divorce), and how after 50 years of little contact and many unresolved feelings on my part, I managed to exit that pain-filled arena on eagles’ wings. While I know that I cannot be considered impartial, this happens to be a pretty amazing tale. Everyone who’s heard it agrees with me.

I have spent my life taking in the world through the eyes of an artist. I run art classes for women and children and have painted quite a few canvases in my day. My artistic talent comes from both my mother and my father. There is one picture, especially, that tells the whole story.

In the photograph, my oh-so-young-looking father is standing in front of an easel, holding me in his arms. There is a painting on the easel. It’s a painting of a clown. But the detail that turns this picture into something worth returning to is the fact that I’m holding a paintbrush in my hand. A tiny baby with a paintbrush in her hand. A real Kodak moment.

My parents divorced when I was a child, and they both subsequently remarried: my mother to a Jew, and my father to a gentile. My relationship with my father never truly withstood the breakup, for a number of reasons. The fact that his wife wasn’t Jewish made it difficult for me to relate to her. And then, of course, there was the fact that my father, though a good man who didn’t speak badly of people, really didn’t talk much at all. It was that simple.

I’d call him up and say, “Hi, Dad!”

“How’s everything?” he’d ask me.

I’d tell him how everything was. But he never told me how anything was with him. Weather was a prime topic of conversation, but that’s pretty much where it ended.

Years passed, sliding by the way they do, and suddenly I found myself not so young anymore, while my father and his wife had grown old. It was then that I made a startling discovery during one of our conversations. I asked him a question about his will, and he replied that he didn’t believe in wills and hadn’t written one.

“But Daddy,” I protested, “you have to make a will! It makes everything so much easier when the time comes!”

“I don’t believe in wills.” He was immovable.

“Please reconsider. It’s so important,” I told him over and over. In the end, he hung up on me.

I called him a few times over the next few months, but every conversation we had was banal and completely pointless. Some instinct was telling me that things weren’t so rosy across the ocean, in that valley in LA, where my father and his wife lived. But any question I posed was invariably met with the words “I’m fine.” It was worrisome. I knew that he wasn’t doing well from a medical perspective, but he wasn’t letting me into the picture.

A few days later, I did something that I’d never done before. I called my stepmother to wish her a happy birthday. My father had been married to his second wife for nearly 50 years, and in all that time I hadn’t called her once on her birthday. For some reason, this year I decided that the time had come. Though she’d always been a rational person, she sounded awfully strange on the phone, as if she was slowly slipping into dementia.

It’s Debbie,” I said.

“Hi, Debbie. How’s everything, honey?”

“Wonderful. I wanted to wish you a happy birthday.”

“That’s so sweet of you.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I don’t know if we should continue our conversation right now. I think the police department is listening in on the line.”

She offered the remark with the air of someone making a logical and accurate claim. I didn’t know how to respond. When I got off the phone, the first thing I did was call some of their friends. Most of them had long since moved away or died, but I finally reached a couple who had been close to them for years and now lived a good three hours’ drive from the Valley.

“Something’s wrong, Mark,” I said with conviction.

“I know,” he agreed. “I spoke to them just yesterday and got off the phone with a bad feeling.”

“Could you drive down to the valley to check up on them?”

“We were already planning on driving down today.”

Baruch Hashem, that’s wonderful news!”

Mark was as good as his word. When he reached my father’s home, he found a house that was spotlessly clean but inhabited by two very sick people: my father with sores all over his body and hair flying every which way, and his wife suffering from ever-increasing dementia. Mark quickly drove my father to the hospital, where he checked him in and remained for as long as he was needed.

I called my father over the next few months, but every conversation followed the same script. Our dialogue was like a broken record-player. Everything was fine. The weather was great (as if I cared about the weather). And that was all.

Two months after my father had checked into the hospital, he was moved to a hospice. There was nothing more that could be done for him. And then I called him one morning, and the man who answered the phone informed me that my father had passed away only two hours before. I stood in my living room in Eretz Yisrael and felt a host of conflicting emotions threatening to engulf me all at once. My second phone line began ringing right then (I would later learn it was my brother, trying to reach me to tell me the news), but I couldn’t answer it.

“Now what?” I asked the man who’d given me the news.

“Your father left verbal instructions.”

“What kind of instructions?” I asked sharply.

“Well,” he drawled, “it seems that he told a few people here, and the rabbi who comes to visit the patients, that he wants to be cremated. Some specific organs are to be removed and donated to science, and then on to cremation. The rabbi wrote it down in his file.”

Some rabbi, I thought, while exclaiming aloud, “Cremation!?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This was terrible! Daddy had never made a will because he didn’t believe in one, and now his only verbal instructions were for something that would haunt us forever!

“What happens next?” I asked the man, feeling so helpless and out of my element that it was becoming almost impossible to stand up.

“Well, in cases like these, we usually move the body within four hours after death.”

“Where do you move it to?” I asked, desperation creeping into my voice.

“There’s a science pathology lab fairly close to here that deals with the harvesting of organs and all that kind of thing, before they send the body on to the funeral parlor for cremation.”

Every word he uttered was like a knife in my heart.

“Can I have their number?” I heard myself asking.

“Certainly.”

It was at this point that my husband recalled the name of a friend in LA whom he hoped would put us in touch with a local rabbi who might be able to assist us in contacting the chevrah kaddisha out near the Valley. Long story short, the rav whom his friend recommended put us in touch with the chevra kaddisha mortuary within a very short time. They, in turn, informed us that they couldn’t do anything for us without the consent of the lab to which the body had been sent.

“You need to speak with the lab and find out what type of consent they need to allow us to remove the body. Are they going to demand written consent, or is a verbal one sufficient? The fact is, since your father didn’t write anything down, it should make it easier for you to get what you need from a legal perspective. But say a couple kapitlach Tehillim before you make the call…”

“Meadow Lawn Science Lab. Floyd speaking.”

“Hello. My name is Debbie and I need to ask you something.”

“Anything. Name it.”

“My father’s body was just moved to your lab.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Me too – The thing is, cremation just won’t do for our family. Though my father gave verbal instructions to be sent to a lab like yours, none of his children would feel comfortable grieving for him if his body were to be cremated.”

“I see.”

“So what I’m asking is this: Would it be possible to move him out of the lab and into a regular Jewish burial home, where he would be given a grave and a place to rest for all eternity?”

“Ma’am, we want the best for you and your family. Whatever makes you feel the most comfortable is good for us. If you don’t want us harvesting his organs, then we don’t want to either. At our lab, it’s all about the families and supporting their wishes in the easiest way possible.”

“So we can just send someone over from an Orthodox Jewish burial society to remove the body for burial?”

“What? No. Not exactly. It’s a tiny bit more complicated than that. I’m afraid I’ll need a verbal agreement from the spouse before I can release his body.”

That’s not going to be so easy, seeing as she’s suffering from dementia, I thought.

“I’ll call my father’s wife and then I’ll be in touch.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

I decided to call my father’s widow the next morning. It was already late, and I’d just experienced one of the longest days of my life. Against all odds, I had a restful night, and when I woke up in the morning my mind was clear and I knew what I had to do.

I was going to offer to pay for a Jewish funeral.

I had some ma’aser money that had come at the perfect time, and I suddenly knew that this was the right move to make. Quickly, I dialed my stepmother’s phone number. Would she answer the phone? Would she remember me at all?

“Hello?”

“Hi – it’s Debbie.”

“Hi, Debbie. How are you?”

“I’m O.K. … but not so O.K.”

“Well, obviously. Your father just passed away.”

“It’s more than that. Daddy gave verbal instructions to the rabbi at the hospice that they should donate his organs to science and follow that with cremation.”

“I know. That’s what he wanted.”

“But we don’t feel comfortable with that plan.”

“We?”

“None of his children. We’d really appreciate it if you would allow us to bury him in a way that would not constitute disrespect according to Jewish law.”

“Cremation is disrespectful according to Jewish law?”

“Yes, it really is, and none of us want to cause Daddy any disrespect. It would mean the world to us if you’d allow us to pay for a Jewish funeral.”

She was silent for a few seconds. Finally, she spoke.

“If Jewish law demands that a person be buried,” she said, “and all you kids feel so strongly about this, then I won’t stand in your way – even though Daddy would have been really angry at me for not listening to his final instructions.”

“This is great! I’m so happy! I just need you to do one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Call the lab and give them permission over the phone to release the body to the chevra kaddisha.”

“Oh, I can’t call them, Debbie. Ask them to call me.”

Nothing I could say would change her mind. If I wanted this to go any further, I was going to have to work for it. But that was O.K. I was more than willing to work.

I called Meadow Lawn back soon afterward.

“Hello, Science Lab. Geraldine speaking.”

“Hi, Geraldine. My name is Debbie. I spoke to Floyd not long ago – “

Geraldine was sympathetic. “Yes, Debbie, I recognize your name. Floyd wrote down all the details of your conversation in your father’s file. We want to help you get the body out of here and over to the – hevrah kaddisha. Did I pronounce that right?”

“Just fine. And I must say that I truly appreciate your being so easy to deal with.”

“We want the best for you and your family.”

“You have a wonderful attitude.”

“Just like the rest of our team.”

I would get to know the rest of them over the next few hours, as we took turns calling my stepmother and helping her grant the verbal permission that would get Daddy’s body out of the science lab and into a cemetery. It was a great team. Floyd. Geraldine. Mr. Santos and Amy. Each one more helpful than the next. And I came to realize that they truly had our best interests in mind. They wanted us, the family, to be left at peace after the dust had settled and it was all over. Eventually, one of them – I think it was Floyd – convinced my stepmother to say the magic words. As soon as that was done, they got on the phone to the chevrah kaddisha, telling them that the way was clear for them to come pick up the body.

The cost for the grave was $7,500, and the cemetery was located far out in the Valley – where it begins sloping upward into the California mountains and underdeveloped wilderness. My brother laid out the money, and I promised to wire it to him as soon as possible.

Shabbos arrived. While walking down the street, I happened to run into a friend. For some inexplicable reason I felt the desire, and maybe even the need, to share the tale of the last few days with her – how we had persevered and rescued my father with the help of Hashem.

“He was picked up by the chevrah kaddisha in LA,” I told her.

“I know exactly who you’re referring to,” she said, coming right back at me.

“How do you know them?” I asked incredulously.

“It’s our family business,” she replied with a smile. “Those are my brothers whom you’ve been in contact with for the last 48 hours!”

Things were coming together. Daddy was going to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, despite his wishes while living in this world. But we knew that he didn’t feel the same way anymore. For him, there were no longer any questions. Everything was crystal clear.

We were facing a challenge, however. With the cemetery we’d been able to afford located so far out in the Valley, it was going to be more than a little difficult getting a minyan together for the funeral. In fact, we were short three men. What to do?

My daughter-in-law happens to manage a website that allows people around the world to arrange for someone to daven for him or her at the Kosel in Yerushalayim. She has an extensive list of contacts and has shown prodigious skills at networking in the past. When I told her we needed another three men for the minyan, she swung into action, posting a request for an emergency funeral minyan on a widely read LA list for the religious community.

Almost immediately, someone responded.

“This is Yoram. How many men do you need?”

He left his phone number, which my daughter-in-law forwarded to me. I picked up the phone and called him directly.

“Yoram,” I said, “this is Debbie. The minyan is for my father.”

“How many are we missing?”

“Three men.”

“Okay, I’m going to yeshivah now and will see what I can do. Where’s the funeral?”

I gave him directions. Five minutes later, he called me back. “We’re on our way.”

One of my sons lives in California, and he granted me a priceless opportunity to be a witness to at least part of the funeral through Skype. That was how I was able to see three men in black suits and hats, tzitzis hanging down the sides of their pants, walk into the cemetery and take their places alongside the rest of the crowd, who had come to pay their final respects with an entirely different look in the fashion department. Their presence allowed my brothers to say Kaddish and elevated everything that happened that day to another level.

My father was laid to rest in peace and tranquility, with a minyan of frum Jews in attendance who davened for his neshamah and gave it a proper send-off from this world. When the body was safely ensconced in its final resting place and the grave was covered, the assembled utilized the opportunity to say good-bye by spreading a few shovelfuls of dirt over the grave. All but the three men in black, who didn’t know our family and had never met my father in their lives.

When everyone had finished putting as much dirt as he wanted on the grave and was waiting for the bulldozer to come and finish the job, the trio waved the driver off and, using shovels, covered the remainder of the grave by hand, exactly the way it’s supposed to be done. Daddy didn’t just merit a kosher funeral. He merited a funeral that was halachically picture-perfect in every way.

So that’s the story. From start to finish, it was an incredible array of events that led to one another until its satisfying conclusion in a Jewish cemetery at the end of the Valley. I was left with a feeling of true gratitude to my stepmother, for agreeing to go against Daddy’s wishes in deference to us and our desire to do the right thing.

All the pieces had fallen beautifully into place, from my husband’s friend and the rabbi in LA, who suggested that we call the chevrah kaddisha to Floyd, Geraldine, Amy, and Mr. Santos from the science pathology lab – gentiles all – who went above and beyond what could have conceivably been expected of them by calling my stepmother and coaxing her through the words she had to say. In the end, there was no harvesting of organs or burning of bodies. There was a minyan and even people willing to shovel enough dirt to cover Daddy’s grave until Mashiach comes.

Last but not least, by accomplishing this modern-day miracle and working so hard to give my father this chessed shel emes, the unresolved feelings that I’d carried around for so many years toward the man who had left me when I was small suddenly disappeared as if they had never been. Instead, I felt reconnected with the joyful relationship that we’d clearly possessed in that old photograph.

I guess when you give that much to a person, something beautiful happens between the two of you. And that’s exactly what occurred with my Daddy and me.

As heard from Debbie.

ALL NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED

(Reproduced from I Have an Amazing Story for You! by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer pages 67 – 76, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)

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