The sun was hot and I was sweating. The velvet chair cover against my bare thighs felt strange, like wet dog. The Rabbi finished herding the guests into a semi-circle behind the chairs, which were reserved for family, and began to speak. The gist of it was that we were all invited to help bury the deceased. I’d been to Jewish funerals before so I knew the drill; we’d file by and toss some dirt onto the coffin. According to this Rabbi, though, it was “…customary to put in three shovelfuls and to turn the shovel upside down for the first one.”
How did you shovel upside down? Did you hold the shovel end and balance a bit of dirt on the handle? I tried to picture that and instead flashed on the first and only time I’d seen Deborah doing drugs. She’d forgotten to lock her bedroom door and I opened it just as she used her very long pinkie nail to scoop up some powder, bring it to her nose, and inhale. I was too young at the time to fully understand what I was seeing, but there was no mistaking what she did next. She put her index finger up to her lips to indicate that I wasn’t to say anything. Then she narrowed her eyes, pointed at me, and slowly drew that same finger across her throat. That I understood. I was only six, but I knew what she was capable of.
That was a lifetime ago. I’m forty now. Deborah had just turned fifty. My parents were quite young when they had her; it was a shot-gun wedding. You would think, with a ten year separation between us, that I had been a mistake, and you would be right. That was never one of the family’s secrets, nor was the fact that Deborah was their favorite. I glanced to my right. My mother had her head on my father’s shoulder; his arm wrapped around her. I couldn’t hear her crying, but I could see my father’s arm moving up and down as her shoulders shook. He sat stoically, staring at the Rabbi, with tears streaming down his face. I flicked a fly off my skirt, unmoved.
Deborah’s drug problems consumed the family. They chipped away at us until there was no family left. Even after she moved out, ostensibly to go to college, she absorbed everyone’s attention. Her absence was as large as her physical presence. In and out of rehab she bounced, ruining lives along the way. During one rehab intermission she lived with my grandmother in Rockaway. When she left, all of Grandma’s jewelry went with her. She stole from everyone and sometimes when she wasn’t in rehab she was in jail.
The Rabbi touched my father on the shoulder and gestured toward the grave. My father stood up and pulled my mother with him, propping her up as they walked the few feet to the mound of dirt next to the hole in the ground. My father let go of my mother long enough to take the shovel, turn the rounded side up, and stick it into the pile of dirt. Now that I saw how it was done I felt foolish. I may even have blushed a bit in my secret shame. My father handed the shovel to my mother and she flinched as if she’d been burned.
“I can’t,” she moaned. “I can’t.” And then, just loud enough for the family in front to hear, she whispered, “I can’t bury my favorite child.”
My throat tightened, as if there were an obstruction that made it impossible for me to take a breath. I stood up, peeled my skirt from my legs, and did what I should have done many years earlier. I walked away.