At the end of a long life, it seems to be a goal in most families to get to the dying before they take their last breath. Actually, “just” before a person dies. Last thoughts, farewells, favorite memories, going through old photos together—all reminders of a life well lived.
Well, that’s the dreamy view that many of us see in our heads when we are sitting on the plane or long drive home. Sometimes we make it there for the best of the last. Sometimes that just can’t happen. No matter how hard we try.
In a pandemic, such as now, with Covid-19 taking our world by storm, the idea of getting anywhere fast seems just as crazy as sharing a straw with a stranger.
In my case, when I got the call that my father was close to dying, I was sheltered in place 1500 miles away. If I flew, I’d have to quarantine for 14 days. That was a big “No” because, what’s the point? I would drive, just as soon as I could bust my car out of the repair shop. Dad’s timing —or the car blowing a head gasket, couldn’t have been worse.
The day I got the car back and had started to pack it up to head south, I got that dreaded call that Dad had died. It had only been four days since he had fallen at home and was flat on his back and surely not to recover. He was heavily medicated and surrounded by family, love, and music. The only thing missing—
was me. I drove. I didn’t rush. Just drove. Part of it was a blur of thoughts and feelings, all of it was a beautiful and timely ride. No traffic, lots of calls with friends, and stops at a handful of gas stations and rest stops along the way.
Three days later, I arrived to a string of family members who had shared in an amazing, intense, and final farewell for and with my father. Dad was nearly 101 when he died. He was quite aware, although diminished and fragile. While I didn’t feel like there was anything left unsaid between us before he died, I had missed out. They all said their goodbyes. They watched him slip from “alive” to “not alive.” To them, his passing was real and final. To me? An idea. He was
there, and then when I was, he simply wasn’t. What a strange and unsettling time that was.
At his request, no memorial service, no obituary, no fanfare. Even if we wanted to gather, we couldn’t—Coronavirus. Aside from telling friends and receiving well-meaning visitors, the only thing left to do was the cremation. None of my family had any interest in attending the cremation. Not one. Each, in their own way, had already said their goodbyes. Not me. I wanted to go. Don’t other families do this, I wondered? I have never really been around many people who have died, let alone grown to be so very old. Raised eyebrows all around, heads turned, the awkwardness could be felt in the room. As a cremation “virgin,” and having no idea what to expect, I wanted some sense of closure of my own. I went.
The day had arrived. What happened then wasn’t anything I could have predicted. Greeted at the top of a long driveway by an older man in a beige suit from the mortuary and a kind looking facility attendant in khakis, the place in Mill Valley, CA was actually quite beautiful.
A curved concrete building set into a hillside, surrounded by rolling hills and trees and grass. The tall trees even smelled good as I made my way up to meet them.
They showed me to an area that looked like a side garage with a really cool glass and metal door. A gurney with a casket was placed in front of one of two metal doors. From the side, they looked like two big pottery kilns.
As I looked toward the plain, brown, unadorned casket, I was kindly invited to take as much time with Dad as I needed. Earlier, on the way there, I had been listening to old Yiddish folk songs, the same ones we heard at home throughout my childhood. I brought along my phone, pulled up
some favorites and standing at the end of the casket, played them. I thought of the best times with my
father, when I was young. After all, when we grieve the loss of a parent, it is the grief of a child. The casket looked so stark. I
knew it was just a vessel and going to burn along with Dad,
but still, it begged for something. An artist all my life, always encouraged by both parents, I knew I could do something here. I left the area, found the attendant, and asked for a sharpie and permission to “mess” with the casket. He not only said yes, he encouraged me to do whatever I wanted in my final moments with
my father. Pen in hand, I wrote messages. I sang along. I drew five birds,
representing our family—my parents and brothers and me. It seemed right…as we were when times were uncomplicated; happy, safe and secure. That was when I felt most seen and treasured. It felt right that I was there
to give a little flare, to sing some songs in my broken Yiddish, to remember the best of my father and send him off—for good. He would have been singling along. Of that, I am sure.
In those final moments and when I was done, I was glad to have had this time alone with him. I hadn’t imagined this process would feel anything but uncomfortable, let alone, good. It did feel good.
When I motioned to the attendants that I was done, the tech guy came down,
smiled at the casket, and asked if I wanted to “push the button.” Of course
I did. The metal door opened to reveal what looked like a large kiln—like the ones used for pottery. Not creepy, not at all like my images of where so many of my own must have perished during the Holocaust. It was just a big “kiln,” where
dad would be transformed from the physical form I had always known — to
ash and air.
After the casket was placed inside, The man gave me a nod and I pushed the button once again. I watched it close every inch of the way, knowing this was the last time I would be near my father—alive or dead. At the time, I suppose it felt a bit surreal. Sam Bloom was an atheist, but also a traditional Jewish man—a member of a rich culture into which he was born. A vital man and engaged for most of his almost 101 years, he had a long, conscious, full life—and lucky for him, a relatively quick death. And there I was, his youngest child, perhaps the most culturally observant of his children, there to help send him out into the ether. It seemed apt and right. It’s a generational shift—if we are lucky.
Many years ago, my mother died of a brain tumor. She was young—and wonderful. I was 23. Toward the end of her life, she told me,“At least, it’s the right order—it would be too hard to survive the death of a child.” As a mother myself, I now understand what she meant. It’s a passing of the torch. As it should be. We send off the elders. If we are lucky, we get to have the next generation
send us off, and if we are really lucky, we might also get some snappy Yiddish music, a few kind words, and perhaps a wish at the very end for a touch of peace here—and for whatever lies beyond.
– Debby Bloom
Here are a couple of items you may want to look at to capture memories at the celebration of life you may be planning:
Cards where guests can share their memories
Tree seedlings, friends and family plant a tree in remembrance.