My brother Gary died on a Thursday afternoon. Although we were not observant Jews, growing up, nor as adults, G was to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, and the funeral would be at a Jewish funeral home. So we had two choices. Either wait until Sunday, when the Friday night-Saturday Shabbos had passed, or arrange the funeral for the next day, Friday, service and burial before sunset.
It was the first week in February. The days were slightly longer, but still short. It was bitter cold days, grey, which I saw out of my eye-periphery in the intense days travelling from home to hospital where G lay dying.
He was my big brother, and that was that--your big brother is your big brother. Mentor, hilarious, haimish, outlier, political activist ( as a teenager he simply got on a bus and went down to help in Selma, during the civil rights era), computer programmer, --one of IBM's first-- he ran the family map business, and he lived around the corner from me.
He was diagnosed with lung cancer well into the third week in January, and by early days of February he was a shell with an ample use of a pain button. "I am not in this body, Susie," he said to me.
So, after G closed his eyes, on the Thursday afternoon, we began the ritual of the phone lists. We had dozens of cousins and multi-dozens of aunts and uncles and many close second cousins and that was in Toronto alone. Some cousins were on the list to call to say that my brother had severe pneumonia, and then, that after the pneumonia had cleared that my brother had cancer, and by the time we phoned them, it was to say that my brother's funeral was the next day at 1 p.m.
G and his second wife K had gone to China for the Christmas-New Year's time. She was from Chungking. They had been married only six months and the trip was a glorious chance for G to meet his new in-laws and his new stepson, who lived with K's ex-husband in China.
The funeral home said there were only two slots available for the Friday, being as the days were short, and nightfall came in late afternoon. The 11 a.m. slot or the 1 p.m. slot. So we took the 1 p.m., the better to rustle up the family. Even in his short time in hospital, G was lucky to have so many visitors. One of the most devoted visitors was M, the husband of a first cousin N. She was my brother's age, and in the posey of cousins the same age G grew up with. M was the same age as my brother, 53 years old. They shmoozed in the hospital room. M, the consoler, G the man dying.
So, there I was, in the middle of the night, calling another first cousin about my brother's funeral the next day and I said, "I guess you know why I'm calling."
"Yes," she said. "M's funeral tomorrow."
"M?" I said. "M? No what are you talking about. G died.--My brother G. Your cousin G.-- Not M. What's going on? M was just at the hospital visiting G."
"M died last night. His funeral is at B's funeral home, at 11 in the morning."
"No," I said. "That's impossible. What happened?"
"M had a heart attack last night."
"But," I said, in the logic of a mourner, "M can't have had a heart attack, he was just at the hospital visiting G who died yesterday. You're telling me my brother died in the afternoon, and the cousin who was at his bedside telling him stories died a couple hours later."
"M's funeral is at 11 in the morning," she said.
"We're burying G at 1 in the afternoon," I said.
And so it came to pass, that long ago, on a certain Friday in a cold short February in the year 1997, the two-only slots at Toronto's biggest Jewish funeral home were filled by two male adult children, each 53 years of age, cousins from the same family.
After we buried cousin M, we came back and buried my brother.
My sister-in-law K at the graveside, looking into the steel grey sky as we shovelled dirt on my brother Gary's casket said, "It's the first day of the Chinese New Year."
And so it was.
And so together we say: amen.
(Photos of my shovel in the garden, autumn 2012)