Raining in Sheffield
M. Scott Lowell
The skies over Sheffield mourned her slow passing for days before and days after. Winds so strong the moment she died that outside the hospice ancient trees were torn from the earth. Gnarled fingers of mud-covered roots left naked, exposed, pointing uselessly to the heavens.
Months earlier, as we drove from Darlington to Sheffield, transporting Dale to the hospital for one of her blood transfusions, she commented, “It always rains when we come to Sheffield.”
And when we leave it, as well, I learned.
It was not raining when we awoke the day we buried Dale. The sky was heavy with clouds and an overpowering stillness that pounded in our heads as we slept-walked to the car to begin our drive.
It did not rain during the forty-five minutes we drove in silence to the rabbi’s house where we met the limo that would take us the final two miles to the aging stone chapel on the cemetery grounds.
There was a fine mist appearing on the windows when David began silently to cry for the wife he would never again see and for the mother his seven-year-old daughter would hardly remember. The other undead — my parents, my brother, and I — were dry-eyed and silent as we traveled with him in the small black limo — a simple sedan by our American standards — following closely behind the miserable hearse. My sister, forever twenty-nine, making her final journey through Sheffield with an entourage. I wished I could lift the lid and crawl in beside her.
The mist was heavier when we stood outside the chapel and watched four short, bent-with-age strangers, wearing threadbare, worn-to-a-shine suits, lift Dale’s black-draped, plain pine box from the back of the hearse.
And it became a light rain when one of the strangers mis-stepped, losing hold of his end of the box and catching it barely an inch before it hit the cobblestone pavement. The black cloth slipped from the coffin, exposing the box’s hideous and heartbreakingly cheap simplicity.
Dave gasped, shocked by the crudeness of the carpentry. But, I tried not to laugh, even though I knew Dale would have let loose a laugh loud and hearty, when the men desperately grabbed at the cloth and restored it to its original position, briefly snagging and stretching the polyester fabric on a sliver of wood that had been partially ripped from the edge of the box and stuck out like a claw.
We followed the box into the chapel where my father, brother, and I were placed at the front, standing on either side of the coffin — Chucky and I on one side facing our father on the other. The closed and covered coffin was not positioned in the familiar way with it’s length running parallel to the front of the chapel, but instead was placed perpendicular, so Dale’s head was to the main pews and her feet to the front wall.
We three were given prayer books opened to the page where the service would begin. My mother and brother-in-law were shown where to sit, women and gentiles apparently having no legitimate place in this congregation’s solemn observance.
I looked up to see that we were standing in a tall alcove of an ancient stone chapel. I had to strain my neck and eyes to catch a glimpse of the distant wood-beamed ceiling. On the narrow wall of the dark, damp alcove, just below the ceiling, was a small, round stained glass window. Just large enough for a sister-sized apparition to slip through as it soared heavenward.
I told myself, as I had at the hospice two days earlier, that I would be a man. I would not shed a tear. I would stay in control. I would show that I was strong.
My mind flashed back to a half-hour after Dale’s powerful heart had finally stopped its mechanical pumping. When one of the hospice nurses realized that Dale’s jewelry, her rings and bracelets, needed to be removed. And no staff could legally do it. By this time, we were all in a small, private lounge drinking our brandy and listening to my father and brother-in-law sob while the hospice staff “prepared” my sister.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
Shocked, my mother gasped, half-questioned, “You can’t.”
“It’s OK. I can,” I calmly, maturely — paternally — whispered.
I followed the nurse back to what had been Dale’s home for the past two weeks, my shoulders squared, back rigid, head held high as I strode down the long hall, past the rooms containing the others waiting to die. Smiling as I strode so they would not know that death was now one room closer.
A momentary, silent gasp from deep within me when I saw Dale, stiffly wrapped in a clean white sheet, the whites of her eyes partially visible, her lips slightly parted but no longer emitting their little bursts of air minute after minute, hour after hour, mechanically, maddeningly, for days and nights on end. Her skin a shade of yellow-white I had never before seen. In just minutes, her chestnut-haired, almond-eyed, olive-skinned beauty had fled.
I may have breathed deeply. Perhaps I didn’t breathe at all as I approached the bed, lifted my big sister’s lifeless hand — the first lifeless hand I had ever touched — and cautiously fought the rings off the stiffening, uncooperative fingers. My hands shook and, therefore, so did hers.
When I was done, I stuffed the rings and delicate gold bracelets into my pocket, leaned forward and gave her one last, tentative kiss on the cheek. At that moment, I wanted to curl up beside her and sob. I wanted to go with her wherever it was she had gone. But, I remembered to “be a man,” sucked the tears back into my eyes, stood up straight, smiled tenderly and thanked the nurse, and left the room.
As these recent memories raged through my head in the chapel, my eyes again began to moisten with tears. I searched in my mind for a way to survive this day’s ordeal without losing that all-important, masculine control. I looked again at the stained glass window and heard Dale’s voice — a little boy’s big sister’s voice — singing:
“John Jacob Jingleheimer-Schmidt.
That is my name, too.
Whenever we go out,
The people always shout
There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer-Schmidt.
Da da da da da da da.”
And then, just like she did when we were children whispering (although only in my mind):
“John Jacob Jingleheimer-Schmidt.
That is my name, too.
Whenever we go out,
The people always shout
There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer-Schmidt.”
And then screaming:
“Da da da da da da da.”
Over and over and over again.
And I smiled, but not too broadly, and I sang along with her — silently — while remaining passively aware of our place in the service, since Chucky could not read Hebrew (or for that matter English) and had to carefully watch me for his cue to turn the page in his prayer book.
And watch me he did, my little brother the mimic — between the meaningless dips and bows he had carefully learned to imitate during his years at the Orthodox academy for "retarded" children. At the age of twenty-one, he might not know how to read or sing or pray, but he could certainly look like he did. The elders of the chapel smiled at his devout choreography. They smiled at these two good Jewish brothers, these mensch, as they periodically circled us monitoring our progress through the service. And each time one of these men reached my father’s side, they would turn the pages of the prayer book held numbly, dumbly, in his once sure and strong hand.
The service came to its end. Dale and I together completed our final chorus of John Jacob Jingleheimer-Schmidt.
Da da da da da da da.
And then we began our death march behind the strangers who carried our sister/daughter/wife/mother out of the damp and musty chapel and into the dank and muddy cemetery, and the pouring rain.
My mother reached up high with her left hand — from her height of 5´2" to Dave’s of 6´1" — to protect both their heads with the tiny, folding, travel umbrella, a little umbrella brought all the way from Brooklyn, just in case. She was always prepared. Perhaps not emotionally prepared, but always physically. With her right arm, she tried to support Dave’s mass, which over the three-and-a-half years of Dale´s illness had increased in size as dramatically as hers —feeding her cancer — had diminished. Dave stumbled up the muddy path until my mother caught my eye with a desperate look that said, “Help him.”
I was indifferent to the rain that soaked my hair and face and clothes. I took two steps forward and gave Dave gentle, yet firm, support on his right as my mother released his left arm, and we continued our walk, umbrella-less, together through this tiny cemetery that had somehow, suddenly, become miles and miles long.
When we finally reached our destination, a vacant hilltop containing a freshly dug hole and beside it a pile of dirt under a plastic tarp, we stopped and silently, except for the sound of Dave’s sobs, watched the plain pine box — “My sister is in there,” I thought — as it was lowered into the saturated earth.
I forced my eyes up to the sky to keep the tears from coming at the thought of my beautiful sister being left in this flimsy excuse for a permanent resting place. With little protection from the wet and the filth and the cold. ‘And the worms crawl in and the worms crawl out, crawl into your stomach’ ... and I forced myself to put another song from our childhoods out of my head.
And — inside my head — I screamed. And sobbed. And fell to my knees. And called out her name. And insisted that this all was a huge, horrible mistake. That this couldn´t really be happening. While outwardly, I remained composed and erect, and swallowed my tears.
And then someone handed me a shovel. And somehow, although I cannot remember hearing a voice, I knew I was meant to shovel some dirt into the hole and onto the box containing my sister. I had never done this before. Didn’t know this custom. A sob caught in my throat. A sob I forced back to lodge somewhere deep inside me to reside for years with all the other sobs. I shoveled some heavy, wet dirt onto Dale. I then passed the shovel to Chucky, who was also dry-eyed and “being a man,” and helped him do the same. Dave stepped forward and continued to sob loudly as he performed this rite. My father—this hollowed-out man who was always so powerful—cried like a little boy as he took his turn. And then the strangers followed.
Some more prayers were recited leading to the final “amen.”
We turned to leave. At some point between the time that I picked up the shovel and before we walked back to the limo, the rain had stopped. I didn’t notice when. My clothing must have been soaked, but I didn´t notice that either. All I noticed was that I was angry.
Angry with these men who ignored my sister’s adoring and adored husband and treated him like nothing.
Angry with my mother for not knowing how to be closer to Dale before her illness. For seeing herself as the victim, as I believed she always did, of another of life’s tragedies. For making all the funeral decisions without any input from us—from me—even though I knew she had done so because no one else could.
Angry with my father for never letting Dale know he loved her more than he loved almost anything else in this world — including me.
Angry with Dale for leaving me alone with our family and its demons — my demons.
With myself for not being as good a brother as Dale was a sister. For not being as good a human being.
And angry with God, although I doubted his existence, because — if he did exist — how could he have allowed our lives, these disappointing lives, to be.
And I did not.