Getting Dead

Judith Lichtendorf

 

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The ending was just that—the ending. From the little batboy sentence to everyone (except poor Nora still in Rome) gathering in the room, it took just about eight hours. Eventually he stopped breathing, and then Joe was dead.

We used to have a cat, Dummy, and when he was dying I’d held him in my lap and petted him while the vet tranquilized and then killed him. Then, that vet had said the same thing to me that Joe’s nurse said now: I think he’s gone. And it was the same phenomena— in an instant, the living thing was gone, and just a carcass or a corpse remained. And again, just like the cat, Joe’s body looked a little smaller, a little emptier.

Joe and I had talked about what he wanted. A party, he had said. No goddamned Rabbi. A roast; I want people to talk about who I was and laugh, and then a big lunch for everyone with people getting drunk and they keep on telling funny stories about me. And I want to be cremated.

The cremated part is a good story. I objected, saying you’ll be dead, so it really won’t matter to you, but have you asked your daughters what they want. Maybe they’ll want to come and visit you, cry at your grave, act a little country…

When he asked them, it was unanimous—whatever you want, Daddy. Just don’t die.

So okay, cremation.

But a few days later, Joe said to me, well, maybe I could be cremated and my ashes could be buried in the Springs cemetery.

The Springs is an area on the outskirts of East Hampton, where artists and writers as well as regular local people – teachers, accountants, restaurant managers, hospital administrators – people who for varied reasons want to live near the ocean can still actually afford to live. And there’s a famous cemetery in The Springs, where major 20th century iconic artists are buried. As well as non-iconic regular, long-time residents of The Springs. Like your electrician. So Joe decided, okay, cremate him and buy him a plot and bury his ashes there.

Just a slight problem. A few months before Joe’s final remission ended and we moved back to Manhattan, a very very very very wealthy Hollywood producer, who with his wife and family had the good taste to ‘second home’ in East Hampton, died of the same prostate cancer that Joe had. I remember reading in the Star about the really rich guy, and burning with envy that he was able to pay for experimental treatments; for instance I’d been told he had his blood—all his blood— replaced. Obviously to no avail— he died just a little before Joe did. But it’s true, money talks. He, the ultra rich guy, wanted to be buried in the same famous Spring’s Cemetery, and he was. But his wife also bought every one of the remaining spaces, so she could select, approve, reject, anyone who might eventually lie beside her husband. Joe read about it in the East Hampton Star and like a lot of people in town who weren’t rich and powerful enough to buy up the cemetery, went ballistic, and made me promise. And I did.

Joe thought Frank Campbell was too sterile and Christian. Do something a little more real, he told me. West side? East side? I asked.

He was okay with Riverside.

After a doctor declared him dead, the nurse told me to call the facility I had selected— I love the language— and I called; Riverside said they would pick up the deceased, and I should come tomorrow to discuss the arrangements.

We all left the hospital, Enid, Joe’s youngest daughter, saying how awful it felt leaving Daddy alone in the room like that. And I said to her, Enid, Joe is dead as a doornail. That’s not him lying there – he’s gone.

Years later she reminded me of that conversation, and told me how relieved she had felt—it wasn’t Daddy there anymore, and we could leave.

Nick, my son, had gone outside to buy me a pack of cigarettes, and missed the exact, Joe-stopped-breathing moment. It’s so surprising to me that he remembers that, and with a certain amount of resentment, like, mom, you sent me out during the best part. And yet, I don’t remember it that way at all. In my memory, he was there, and had his arm around me.

At any rate, he did have his arm around me as we all walked the few blocks back to the apartment and started to think about next steps: making phone calls – when should the funeral be? When would Nora get here? Did Joe’s ex-wife and her husband want to fly in from San Francisco? Where would we have the lunch? How would we organize this? We ordered pizzas, beer, cokes. Eventually everyone went home. The plan was to meet tomorrow, me, Nick, oldest daughter Leah, and her husband, Jim.

I’d had enough to drink that I don’t remember anything else. I went to bed and I don’t remember crying, or washing, or anything much. I don’t remember waking up, but obviously I did, and there I was, the next morning at the Riverside Funeral Chapel, with Nick and Leah and Jim.

We needed to select a container for the ashes. The salesman escorted all of us into the container room— a large display of little urns, statues, geometric shapes, mantel pieces, sort of like a shoe store but you’re looking at ash holders. Imagine four people engaged in deciding on one perfect pair of shoes. Suddenly, there were standards. Aesthetics. Too large, too small, too ornate, overdone, boring, clichéd, he would have hated this one…. One of the strangest shopping trips I’ve ever been on. We finally picked a very plain, stainless steel pyramid.

Now, the salesman said, before the cremation can take place, someone has to officially identify the deceased (A.K.A. Joe.)

When Nick or Leah or Jim didn’t volunteer, I said, okay, I’ll do it.

He led me to an elevator, we went to some floor, walked towards some door, and he held its doorknob and said, I’ll leave you alone, so you’ll have some time.

Inside, the room was dark. There was a spotlight at the front of the room, and under the spotlight was a big slab, about four feet high, six feet long, and two feet deep. And lying on the slab there was a naked body, with a large Israeli flag draped over it, covering it from neck to toes. As I walked towards the front, I saw that, of course, the corpse was Joe. Though it was hardly Joe—he was so small in death, and smothered in the flag, so white and lifeless. Someone had closed his eyes. He looked like a bizarre mannequin— as if someone doing Barney’s windows had gone mad and no one realized it until the windows went public.

I wasn’t sure how long I had to stay there. If Joe were alive he would have been roaring with laughter until tears came to his eyes at the irony of him, a devout supporter of left wing, pro-Palestinian rights, draped in the Israeli flag and displayed like some precious relic in a Jerusalem museum.

The next day Nora was flying in. But I had a lot of time until she arrived, and I had nothing appropriate to wear to the funeral. So, like any newly widowed woman, I went shopping. My mother wanted to come with me, my sisters wanted to come – I wanted to be by myself. I tried on black dress after black dress. Sometimes you look good in black, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes black makes you look even fatter than you are, which is blasphemy, but it’s true.

Anyhow, eventually I bought a dress, Nora’s plane landed, and the next day Joe’s ex wife and her husband, the three amigos and wives, the business people, his clients, his partners, the friends, the relatives, his sister Carol, his mother, Violet, my family (I remember my orthodox Jewish sister telling her daughters, now, this is not going to be like the other funerals you’ve gone to…)—everyone was there. Easily one hundred and fifty of them. My lovely son had selected photographs of Joe at different ages, and had them blown up, mounted on foam board, and hung them around the room. He’d picked music Joe loved— Basie, Armstrong, Torme—and had it playing as people walked in. And it all worked the way Joe had wanted it to work. People got into it, and stood up and told stories about him. Most were funny, and everyone was laughing. Some were awful, so sad and mournful, particularly when his daughters spoke – and finally I thanked everyone for coming and said food and booze per Joe’s instructions were being offered a block away at whatever the name of the restaurant was. It, too, has subsequently died.

The container of his ashes stayed in a corner of my living room until March. One rainy afternoon, two of Joe’s daughters, one of my sisters, my son, Joe’s sister Carol and her husband and I met at the Springs Cemetery. I had brought the silver pyramid. The rain, naturally, got heavier as we gathered, and we stood in front of the very very rich guy’s grave, and figured out how to open the pyramid. Inside was a thick baggie full of ashes, hard to rip open, but we managed. Then we all grabbed handfuls and threw the contents – all of Joe, why not toss all of Joe— over Mr. Rich, Mr. DeKooning, Mr. Electrician, Mr. Educator, and anyone else around who was fortunate enough to get a dusting of my husband.


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Judith Lichtendorf is a native New Yorker, born in Manhattan and still a resident. She’s worked in the garment district, advertising and most recently for the NYC Department of Education.

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