My brother, Mikey, died on a beautiful day. The temperature was eighty degrees. He had borrowed his friend’s raft. It was a delicious spring morning, perfectly suited to floating between waves in Lake Michigan and delighting in being alive. Mikey was wearing a life jacket at the time. He had been careful. He wanted to live. But he was not an experienced boatman.
The winds gusted to fifty miles per hour. The raft, unstable amidst the turmoil, capsized. The water temperature was thirty degrees – below freezing.
Ah, deceptive, deceptive winter day … for it still was winter. When Mikey hit the water, his heart stopped and he died.
Just like that.
Every morning for two weeks, my father attended sunrise services at Beth El Temple to say kaddish for my brother Michael. Kaddish is a prayer for the dead. It is also said every year on the anniversary of the loved one’s death.
I went with my father and mother to each one of these services, and I saw the faces of the regulars who could be counted on to form a minyan. The old Europeans … the miscellaneous middle-aged businessmen … the few committed youths. I had seen each of them at other sunrise services, always chatty, friendly, filled with gossip and good will, with maybe a few amiable complaints thrown in here and there just to keep their blood flowing.
On the first morning after my brother’s death, though, there was a fragile silence in the sanctuary as we walked up the stairs. In hushed voices, the men came over to my parents and offered their condolences. Although some said nothing at all, their looks conveyed the firm hand-grasp of bottomless empathy. They knew what my father was feeling.
He was one of their own. One of those who could be counted on when the rabbi needed that tenth man. My brother, Mikey, too, had been a member of that minyan. In grade school and in high school, he had regularly accompanied my father to temple. To keep him company … to make him happy when the telephone rang and the voice on the other end complained, “Sam. We need another man.”
My father had asked so little of his chickadees. We all wanted to make him happy.
And so, the old men at the temple had known Mikey. They knew and loved my father, the way you love a familiar, gentle, respected presence.
They grieved for Samuel Reuben.
Every day, we went into the sanctuary at sunrise and every day we were met by the same tenuous and respectful silence. Every day for two weeks.
And then one morning before services, I noticed something different about my father. Nothing overt or drastic. Maybe just a slight and unconscious up-righting of his posture … or a subtle flicker of increased awareness in his eyes as he looked at his children … or a barely perceptible decrease in his response time to some form of stimulation – like a door slamming, or a weather report, or a joke. But that morning, about two weeks after Mikey’s death, something had happened, and whatever it was, I decided it meant that my father was going to live.
At sunrise services, the old timers picked up on it, too. The very instant we walked into the sanctuary at Beth El, they sensed that the period of intense mourning was over, and their friend was going to make it past the grief.
Sam was back.
And even before that sunrise service began, the sanctuary began to buzz and hum with the friendly activity of early worshippers, just as if no tragedy has ever intervened.
“Good morning, Sam.”
“And this is you beautiful daughter. How long will you be staying before you return to New York?”
The sounds of prayer books opening.
And ten or twelve men, all praying at slightly different rates and paces, and maybe even saying slightly different prayers. Some mumbling. Some day-dreaming. And some saying not very much of anything at all.
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com
Copyright © 2009, Shelly Reuben.