By May of 1979, I had seen two dead people in my life–three, counting the junkie who died on Sue DeNaro’s front steps when I was 6, but I only saw him for a second, because my mother ran outside and scooped me up in her arms before I could see any more. The two others were my grandfather (my father’s father) and my grandmother (my mother’s mother).
I had no business being at my grandfather’s wake, since I wasn’t even 8 years old, but my parents couldn’t find someone to watch me–nobody had babysitters then–because all my relatives and even some neighbors were at the wake. The day before, my father told me that “the angels took Grandpop up to Heaven” to be with Jesus, so it was quite a surprise–and very confusing–when I saw him in a coffin with flowers in the shapes of pillows and hearts all around him. I knew it was a coffin–I don’t know how I knew; I just did–but I thought dead people became skeletons, so it didn’t make sense to me. None of it made sense to me: How could a dead person be a skeleton if the angels took him to be with Jesus? Did that mean that all the people in Heaven were skeletons? And why was this thing called a “wake”? Did that mean he was going to wake up?
It was kind of fun being at the wake. For the first time, I got to see people who were related to me, but whom I’d only heard about until then. And I got to see my aunts–my father’s five sisters–together for the first time. I met my “Jersey” cousins, the rich ones, and it was mind-boggling that these strangers sort of looked like my brothers and me. Same teeth. My regular cousins were there, too, the ones who lived in Philly, and I was fascinated that their cousins were also my cousins.
The funeral parlor was a little scary, but not completely. There were lamps and rugs, and lots of people dressed up. It was an adventure, and also, we got to ride in a huge car with little seats that pulled out from the backs of the front seats. The car was called a “limousine,” a word I’d never heard before, and one I would come to associate with funerals. But for now, it was exciting–exciting to be in any kind of car, since we didn’t have one, let alone a fancy car with my parents and brothers all dressed up.
My grandfather was Russian and I didn’t really understand what that meant, except that he had a heavy accent and he came from a country that was very cold. I remember the sickening smell of Frankincense in the funeral parlor–though it wouldn’t be until decades later that I knew that’s what it was–and walking up to the casket when all the grownups were occupied, kneeling on the padded kneeler, and smelling a scary, scary smell. What made it scary, I don’t know. But I was frightened. I recall looking around to see if anyone saw me at the casket, and then reaching up to touch my grandfather’s chest. It was ice cold and felt like stone. My finger somehow slipped between two buttons in his shirt, and I ran to my brother Gregory and cried, “Greg, I felt a bone! I felt a bone!” Gregory held me close and I had my arms tightly around his waist. “You didn’t feel no bone!” he said, kissing me on the head. “It was a tie clip. They put that on there to hold the tie in place. It’s metal.”
The priest said much of the mass in Russian, chanting and holding the censer filled with incense and suspended from three chains, swaying it back and forth, as I held onto Gregory, my teeth chattering from fear. “Greg, I’m scared,” I said. “Can you lay in my bed with me tonight?” He said he would. “Don’t worry, Stinky. I’ll lay with you.”
I had nightmares about my grandfather’s Russian funeral for what seemed like years. It became like a ritual: Say my prayers with my mother or father, get tucked in, ask my mom or dad to put the night light on, stare at the ceiling, think about the bone, remember the incense, see shadows on the ceiling that looked like monsters, be frozen with fear, and call out, “Mom!! I’m scared!” I would hear chatter downstairs, and sometimes my mom or dad would come up and lie with me, and sometimes Gregory would come up. My parents would comfort me, but they would turn off the lamp and tell me to close my eyes and go to sleep. Gregory would always leave the lamp on and tell me a story that he’d make up on the spot, and he’d tell me why there was no reason to be scared–because he would always protect me, and because God was watching over us and would keep us safe. He would hug me, and I would hear the wheez in his chest as he breathed in and out–from smoking, though I didn’t know that–and it would comfort me. And before long, the rhythm would lull me to sleep.
When my grandmother died a year later, it was not quite as scary, because there was no Russian histrionics and no incense. There were lots of warm Italians, but my mother was crying and sobbing, as were my brothers and even my father. I loved my grandmother and, by this time, I had an awareness–as much as a 9-year-old could–that death was permanent and that she wasn’t coming back. I saw my brothers kiss her, and I was afraid to feel that cold stone again, but I kissed her, too. Same coldness. Same scary smell. Another limousine.
Eight years later, on the same date, May 25, I lay in my bed frozen–literally unable to move, unable to sit up, unable to cry or scream or swallow–as I heard Gregory’s wife telling my parents that Gregory had died. It took several minutes before I could move. Later, I would learn that there was a term for this phenomenon: hysterical paralysis. Today, it is known as conversion disorder or, in this case, a short-lived conversion syndrome brought on by extreme shock.
A neighbor drove us in the teeming rain at 3 am to Thomas Jefferson Hospital, where my brother had been in a coma. I was still and quiet again as my parents, my brother Jeff, and my sister-in-law sobbed. I had chills and held tightly onto the blanket someone had wrapped around me and I remember wanting to scream because Dottie, our neighbor, was riding directly on the trolley tracks, sliding on them instead of straddling them. But I couldn’t scream or cry or talk. I just listened to the windshield wipers on high speed, and the car slipping and sliding on the tracks. I don’t remember getting out of the car or going into the hospital. I just remember the Snoopy cut-out Scotch-taped to the door. I never knew why or how it got there.
Jeff held my hand as we walked into Gregory’s room. The door had a small, envelope-sized window on it. I could not let myself look through that window. As Jeff opened the door and began sobbing for Gregory, I saw Gregory lying there in my peripheral vision. I finally was able to look at him. He was wearing a white T-shirt and had a white blanket pulled up to his waist, his arms straight down at his sides. He looked so young–younger than usual. I fell onto the bed, screaming. It was as if I was hearing someone else’s blood-curdling screams, and I wanted to stop but couldn’t.
As I hugged Gregory, I saw my tears soaking his face and his neck. His face was cool but not cold and, for a split second, I had hope, hope that they’d made a mistake.
I put my head on his chest and there was no sound. No wheez. Just silence.