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The Goodbye Room

Before you read this piece, please be warned it is a very sad story. I wouldn’t usually put something like this on val’s road, but due to the many hours that went into it, I felt compelled to share. This is the final assignment of a non-fiction writing class I just finished. The assignment was to write a complete scene in 1500 words. (The instructor also added: “Make me cry.”)

The Goodbye Room

The goodbye room at the Stanetsky Memorial Chapel looked tired and worn. The furniture belonged in a Miami Beach senior center. White shiny end tables joined couches and chairs covered in a pale blue floral pattern. Stripes of a similar blue decorated the wallpaper and drapes. I sat restlessly in one of the sagging chairs. My burnt shoulders itched under my heavy sweater and the waistband of my nylons dug a ditch across my stomach. I avoided eye contact with everyone in the room, especially my dad. I hadn’t looked into his face since he told us what happened.

I searched the goodbye room for my sisters. Forty-eight hours had passed since our meeting at the airport, yet their demeanors hadn’t changed. Like opposing weather patterns, Sandy’s forecast called for cold and cloudy conditions. Dianne’s called for turbulence with heavy showers.

Dianne and I left our Spring Break celebrations in Bermuda as soon as we received a summons from our dad. A teacher chaperone, who sought us out, read the note: “Come home right away, your brother has been in an accident.”

Sandy and Dad met us at the baggage carousel at Logan Airport in Boston. They greeted Dianne and me with ashen faces and expressionless bodies. My dad appeared to have shrunk overnight. It seemed to take a great effort for him to stand up straight. While waiting for the luggage to arrive, I asked all the questions.

“Dad, Sandy, how is Jason doing?” I did not receive a response. Dianne started crying. I secretly hoped we could go back to Bermuda once we visited Jason in the hospital. Still upbeat, I persisted. “Please, tell us, how bad was the accident?” Silence again. Exasperated, I raised my voice. “Come on Dad, tell us what is going on?”

“Wait until we are in the car,” he sighed.

Sandy and Dad took the front seats. Sandy stared out the window, not moving, not speaking. She did not want to play a part in this scene. Dad turned to face Dianne and me in the back. With moist blue eyes he met our worried faces. His lips trembled as the words fell out.

“Jason died yesterday. He drowned in a scuba diving accident.”

Rage smacked me so hard I couldn’t hear anything else he said. I quickly realized a cruel irony. At the same time Dianne and I were frolicking in the warm sea in Bermuda, our brother was drowning in the same colder ocean near our home. Dianne’s crying escalated and she started hyperventilating. Stuck in the car, isolated in our little prisons of grief, we could neither comfort nor hold each other. My hands curled into fists. I wanted her to stop. No more, I whispered, no more tears, no more death. Then as if possessed by a serpent, I hissed.

“Enough. Hasn’t this family had enough?”

No one answered my question. There was no answer to why this macabre hat trick of death had been played on our family.

I have sat in goodbye rooms before. In 1977, I sat in one before saying a devastating goodbye to my mother. She died young and quickly from a cerebral hemorrhage. In 1978, I sat in one before saying a sad goodbye to my grandmother. She died a slow death from an ugly cancer that didn’t stay hidden inside. It ate its way through her mouth onto her face. Now in 1980, I waited to say goodbye to my 15-year-old brother. This goodbye was a simmering stew of selfishness, rage and blame.

I picked at the arm of the saggy old chair in the Stanetsky goodbye room until I unraveled some threads. Twirling them between my thumb and middle finger, I remembered how my brother used to do that with the silk edge of his blanket. He would drag his blanket into my room every night when he was a little boy. Frightened of a scary antique chair in his room, he slept at the bottom of my bed curled up like a dog. The top of the chair had two monster heads carved into it. The arms of the chair resembled a wild beast with hairy paws and sharp claws.

The sniffles, soft voices and sad bodies in the goodbye room were suffocating me. Out the solitary window, I saw the weak morning sun. I yearned for a breath of the chill April air. The floor shook as Rabbi Pikelny entered the room. I welcomed his huge dimensions, more room for God to dwell. He nodded at us, and warned that we would be going into the memorial chapel soon. Jason was being buried as a Jew.

Because of our parent’s mixed marriage, we turned out to be a bundle of religious mutts. Blond and thin like my mom, I chose her religion, Christianity. Dianne, tall and brunette, favored my dad and celebrated Judaism. Sandy, with her light brown hair and shapely body, picked escapism. The youngest daughter had not coped well with our mom’s death. Jason, a mix of all of us, chose dangerous hobbies. He hung out with the older boys at school and worked with my dad on the weekends.

My dad asked the rabbi to convert Jason to Judaism the day before the funeral. Because of the rabbi’s graciousness in honoring my father’s request, we would follow an important Jewish tradition. Jews believe that it is disrespectful to look at a person who cannot look back. Jason’s casket would be closed for the funeral.

The aunts took charge and led us out of the goodbye room. We shuffled into the chapel like war refugees. As I edged my way down the wooden pew, overcome with curiosity, I lifted my eyes from the floor and gazed into the crowd of mourners. In every pew there stood a 15- year-old boy or girl. My brother’s entire high school class came to pay their respects. Their kindness shot another grief arrow into my heart.

My dad, his girlfriend and Dianne took the first three spots in the front pew. I sat between an aunt and Sandy. Sandwiched in between, I felt safe from Dianne’s tears and my dad’s pained eyes. In the dimly lit chapel, I heard the restlessness of people who have waited too long for something to start. I searched for the casket so I could avoid it for the rest of the service. We were seated on the left side of the room, and it rested in the far right corner. Rabbi Pikelny started the eulogy. The words of Psalm 23 hung on a huge plaque behind him. I focused on that psalm, repeating it over and over. My aunt reached for my hand. I let her hold it for a few minutes and then feigned the need to dab my eyes. I could not receive comfort nor could I give it.

The rabbi did his best to extol a few virtues of my brother’s short life. He spoke about Jason’s love of the ocean. He said Jason died doing something he loved. Jason and two friends were stealing lobsters from lobster traps off the coast of our hometown. Sometime during the dive, he separated from them. When the two boys surfaced, they found my brother floating nearby with a bloody gash on his head and without his respirator.

In the local daily paper, The Swampscott Reporter, the front-page headline read “Boy Dies in Diving Mishap.” The accompanying photo showed one of Jason’s friends walking with his diving gear, his head bent and a police officer supporting him. His diving friends were in a pew somewhere behind me. The six-year age difference between Jason and me could have been sixty years. Those two friends knew my teenage brother better than I did. The rabbi ended the service with the traditional memorial prayer. I exhaled long and slow to the comforting words.

The rabbi raised his arms for us to stand. Anxious to leave the chapel, we waited for our father’s cue to lead the way. Then, in one moment, the congregation froze in place. Stunned, we watched him walk towards his son’s bronze casket. When he reached it, he placed a tender kiss on the top of it. He turned toward us briefly then back again to the casket. Riveted by his anguish, we saw him raise his arms over the casket. Very slowly, lifting one arm at a time, he started hitting the casket. When the futile fight with death ended, he stretched his weary arms over the top of the casket. His body lay broken and limp as a rag doll in this last protective embrace. We heard only the heart-breaking sound of his weeping. Rabbi Pikelny made the first move. Bravely, he went to my father’s side and lightly touched his arm. My father turned to look at him. The rabbi whispered the words “it’s ok” over and over. He placed his hands on my father’s shoulders and gently pulled him away from the casket. My father grasped on to him for support. Wrapped in the rabbi’s big arms, he found an anchor. Quietly, they walked as one out of the chapel.