Second Acts - FIRST LOOK!
Pages 16 - 20
I expected to see Helen when I landed in Jacksonville. Instead, Sidney was at the gate, ashen and jittery.
“There’s—um—no party, Sarah,” he began. He was fiddling with his car keys. “Martin had a heart attack. We got the call from what’s-her-name, the girlfriend, Pauline, early this morning.” He paused for a moment, and then he began to race uncomfortably through the rest of his news.
“Martin died en route to the hospital. We’re going to have his body flown in from Nashville. You know, Jewish funerals should be the next day after, so we don’t want to wait. It’s a little complicated because of the distance, but I’m trying to arrange everything for tomorrow. He’ll be buried next to his parents in that cemetery on the north side of town.”
“Sidney, slow down. What do you mean?”
“I know, it doesn’t seem real to any of us. Young guy, always active, seemed healthy.”
“And Ellie? My God, how is she?”
“She came in late last night. She was still asleep when we got the call. It was so early this morning, and then I had to—um—go make some arrangements for the—um—and then I came here to get you, so I don’t know.”
We were moving along with the tide of people heading for the baggage claim. My mind leaped to the family drama that had ensued when Martin and Helen’s parents died. For both funerals, each family member took on a predictable role, as if they were working from a script. Helen was expected to remain dignified and self-effacing in her grief, and she didn’t disappoint. Sidney, famous for his allergy to open emotion, was permitted to retreat, and, except for his occasional appearances to provide bulletins about funeral arrangements, we barely saw him. Martin, as usual, remained in charge of being angry. He criticized the rabbi; he snapped at the funeral director; he made snide comments about well-intentioned neighbors who brought casseroles and cakes for us as we sat shiva for a week. Practical details fell to me—calling family and friends, making sure there was enough fresh coffee on hand. I wrote eulogies for both of Martin’s parents and read them at the funerals. Ellie was so small and so sad, too young for the rituals surrounding death to offer her any comfort. I imagined her now, stunned and silent, trying to figure out her role.
Ignoring the wheels on my suitcase, Sidney picked it up by the handle and walked me to his car. As he drove, I tried to evoke the feeling of being in love with Martin, but all I could recall were the last years of our marriage, when I dreamed frequently of my husband’s demise. The widow fantasies I had confided to Violet, and my caustic wit at Martin’s expense, now seemed surreal and reckless.
“It’s so good that you’re here,” Sidney said as we pulled into the garage of the yellow stucco house that he and Helen had lived in for more than thirty years. I knew Sidney wouldn’t want to deal with Helen’s raw grief alone.
I found Helen curled up on a chintz-covered chair at the kitchen table. Her eyes were swollen and red. She stood and put her arms around my neck.
“Helen, I know how awful this is for you,” I began, but she interrupted me.
“I’m all right, sweetie. Go to Ellie, she’s in the guest room.”
I let go of Helen and made my way down the hall. I knocked softly on the guest room door.
Ellie was sitting cross-legged on the bed, still in pajamas. She was pale, but she didn’t look as if she had been crying. I sat on the bed and put my arm around her.
“Honey, I’m so sorry,” I said.
“It doesn’t seem real, Mom. I spoke to him yesterday. He told me about a book he was reading on transcendental meditation.”
From the front hallway, I heard the doorbell ring and then Sidney’s voice greeting the family rabbi.
“Can I get you anything?” I asked Ellie.
“Um, maybe find me an iron, okay? I bought a new dress for Uncle Sidney’s party,” she said. “It’s just a black linen thing, and it got a little creased in my suitcase. I guess I’ll wear it to . . .” her voice broke, and then she asked me to leave so she could get dressed.
“If you want to talk . . .”
“Not now, Mom.”
I returned to the kitchen. Rabbi Weisgall introduced himself. He had never met Martin, and he was asking if we knew who might want to say a few words at the service.
Helen wiped her eyes and stared at me. “Sarah, I remember what you said about Mama and Daddy at their funerals. Would you please . . ?”
The rabbi looked at me expectantly. I thought about the poem that I had written the day I divorced Martin. Not exactly the stuff eulogies are made of.
“Helen, I . . .,” I began, and then saw Ellie standing in the doorway to the kitchen. The rabbi told her how sorry he was. She looked away.
Helen pressed on. “Ellie, don’t you think your mom should say a few words tomorrow?”
Ellie remained stony-faced. “I don’t know,” she shrugged.
Rabbi Weisgall looked at Ellie and then at me.
“Sarah, why don’t you and I go outside?” he suggested, and so we excused ourselves and walked out the back door.
We sat at the wrought-iron table on the patio. The mid-day Florida heat and the fragrance of orange trees were overpowering and familiar. Years ago, Martin and I had wept with Ellie as we buried her goldfish under the satsumas in our own backyard, only a mile from where I was sitting.
“In some ways, this may be harder for you than for the others,” Rabbi Weisgall began. “Death is always harder for those who have unresolved conflicts with the departed.”
I shook my head. “Rabbi, I’m sorry that Martin died, but I have no conflicts about him. We had an unhappy marriage and a bitter divorce, and except for Ellie, nothing that passed between us has meaning for me anymore. I loved him a long time ago, but I can’t summon up many positive feelings for him, even now. He disappointed Ellie so many times over the years, and I can’t forgive him for that. I just want to help her get through this.”
“I understand that forgiveness may take some time, but I hope you’ll find a way,” he said. “You may be surprised how doing the eulogy will help you. And Helen. And, especially, Ellie. I expect that Helen is asking a great deal of you, but I think you’re up to it. She has great respect for you.”
“I love Helen. But my relationship with her has nothing to do with Martin anymore.”
“I can perform the service without your saying anything, but you may feel different by tomorrow. For your own sake, I hope you do. I can’t begin to know what you’re experiencing now. But perhaps God is offering you a way to unload a burden you didn’t even know you were carrying.”
As we walked back in the house, Sidney met us to say that Pauline would be arriving with Martin’s body late that night. The funeral was set for the next morning.
Ellie pulled me aside. “Are you going to do it?” she asked.
“Oh, Ellie, I’m not sure I can.”
“You should do it, Mom, for Aunt Helen. She can’t do it, and Uncle Sidney wouldn’t know what to say. Otherwise only the rabbi will speak, and he didn’t even know Dad. Really, you knew him best.”
“Let me think about it,” I said. “Listen, I’m going to stay with Violet tonight. Would you like to stay with me?”
Ellie sighed. “No thanks. Maggie will be here soon, and I want to stick around.” Maggie was Helen and Sidney’s daughter, a few years older than Ellie. Unlike me, Maggie wouldn’t press Ellie to talk or cry.
I borrowed Helen’s car to drive to Violet’s house, grateful for the solitude of the ride. In my head was a slide show of events I hadn’t thought about in years. The funny telegram Martin sent me after our first date. Martin and I happily cooking our first Thanksgiving dinner in our tiny New York apartment, and our last Thanksgiving together in Florida, when I demanded that he pack his clothes and move out. Martin’s dark moods and punishing silence during our last years together. Ellie’s face when she caught sight of Martin and me in the bleachers at her swim meets. Ellie’s face when Martin didn’t show up to see her in the school play. The promises Martin and I had made and broken to each other.