I want to die, just not any time soon.
Two days after reading in the morning paper that Allen Ginsberg was dying of cancer, I read that he had died. In high school, alone and afraid, I’d heard there were men who loved other men, but I’d never heard anyone admit to it. Ginsberg was the first. Not only did he love other men, but he was Jewish as well. So I felt hopeful, knowing I wasn’t the only one. Later, when he became interested in Buddhism, I found that equally wonderful. (I’ve always felt like a Buddhist trapped inside a Jewish body.) But when I read his writings, I was surprised to find that I didn’t like them. And when, many years later, I had the chance to spend time with him on several occasions, I found Ginsberg the man as difficult as his words. But Ginsberg the idea, Ginsberg the symbol has always remained important to me, so I was deeply saddened by his death.
In this morning’s paper, there was a long obituary for Laura Nyro. She was the first singer-songwriter I discovered in college. To this day I sing her music in the shower. It’s hard for me to imagine a world without her achy, joyous voice, her rich, delicious lyrics. She was survived by her son, Gil, and her companion, Maria. Her death is a greater loss for me even than Ginsberg’s: the loss of the voice that accompanied my passage into adulthood.
Ginsberg died at seventy-one, Nyro at forty-nine. My Great-Aunt Mina once told me that, when she was a young girl, if someone died in his or her fifties, people nodded and said, “A good life.” (Of course, her earliest childhood memory was of being hidden in a cellar coal bin by Christian neighbors during a pogrom in which one-third of the Jews in her village were killed, many of them children.) Fifty seems young now.
Two weeks ago I turned forty-six. Four lovers and numerous friends and family have so far died before me. By most estimates I am closer to my death than to my birth. My father died two days after his fifty-seventh birthday: cancer. His sister died at fifty-four, my mother’s sister at fifty-one, and my grandmothers in their early sixties. My mother is seventy-two but suffers from a rare autoimmune disorder and has spent the last seven years jousting with Death from her wheelchair. So it seems I don’t come from very strong genetic stock.
When Dad was dying, my brother, Rich, handled the doctors and insurance while I dealt with Dad himself — especially when it came to difficult subjects. There were a lot of topics Dad didn’t like to talk about, but his brain tumor had paralyzed him on one side, so at least he could no longer walk out of the room if you brought them up. It was my job to ask him what he wanted us to do with his body. If he didn’t want to talk about it, Rich and I decided, we’d have him cremated. Cremation has never been a favored option among Jews, and in recent times the spectre of Nazi crematoriums has made it even more distasteful. But in his last years my father was a follower of Rajneesh, the guru made famous by his fleet of Rolls-Royces, while my brother was a follower of Swami Muktananda. In both gurus’ traditions, cremation was the obvious choice, so it didn’t seem entirely out of the question for Dad. When I asked Dad what he wanted done with his body after he was gone, he looked up at me from his wheelchair and said that he wanted to be cremated.
I called a cremation society, which sent us an application form. The family-membership rate was only fifteen dollars more than the individual rate, so the three of us decided to join. Two weeks later, the society sent us each another form to fill out. It was multiple-choice:
Check one of the following. Would you like your ashes scattered:___ in the desert ___ in the mountains ___ at sea ___ privately (extra fee)
I chose the sea, Rich chose the mountains, and Dad chose the desert. We laughed as we made our choices — laughed until tears ran down our faces.
An hour after Dad’s death, the cremation society came to get his body, and it was all burned up by the time I arrived in the morning. The society sent us a map showing the location in the desert where Dad’s remains were scattered. Rich went there; I didn’t. Several years later, Rich visited the spot again and found a golf course where there had once been desert. He was furious, but I thought Dad would have found it amusing; he never played golf.
Last summer, when my mother’s doctors gave her between two weeks and two months to live, Rich and I found ourselves facing the same uncertainty about what to do with her body. She’d never talked about it. In accordance with our brotherly division of labor, I broached the subject with Mom, who said she wanted to be cremated. This was fine with me, but Rich was upset. He now missed having a grave to visit for our father, and didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. I, on the other hand, wanted symmetry: no grave for Dad; no grave for Mom, either. But a grave was important to Rich, and, after several conversations with Mom, he got her to change her mind.
So, for four thousand dollars, we purchased a grave site in the same Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles where my father’s sister and her husband are buried. To me, four thousand dollars was a lot of money, even if it did include “perpetual care.” (Just how long is “perpetual”? I wondered.)
Buying the site reminded me of a dream I’d had shortly after Dad died. In it, my father had come to me and told me that I should sell the two grave sites in New York City that he’d purchased for himself and his second wife. I hadn’t acted on the dream for fifteen years, largely because no one in my family could remember the name of the cemetery. I never would have found it either, except that around this time my brother made contact with a group of Ramers in New Jersey who were putting together a big family tree. Their ancestors and ours had come from the same village in Europe: Stanislav, or Stanislauer, which had once been part of Austria-Hungary but now was in Ukraine. My grandparents had belonged to a fraternal society called the First Stanislauer Young Men’s Benevolent Association, which owned the section of the cemetery where my father had purchased his two plots. (I still have my grandfather’s small silver kiddush cup with the association’s initials on it.) Rich asked these New Jersey Ramers what they knew about this group, and they sent him the name of its head in New York City. I wrote to the man, asking if he knew anything about the cemetery plots. Weeks later, I got a letter back from him telling me that the group had folded and all its assets were being liquidated. The best he could offer was the name of the woman in charge of the liquidation.
Given how much a plot in Los Angeles had cost, I was hoping to make a lot of money selling the two grave sites in New York. But when I called the woman whose name I’d been given, she informed me that, for starters, there was only one plot registered to my father. (He must have sold the other one after he and his second wife split up. I wish he’d told me that in the dream.) In addition, the woman said, by law I couldn’t sell the plot until I’d offered it to the cemetery, and she knew for a fact that the cemetery would buy it back — for the fixed price of fifty dollars. Given the twenty-one-dollar fee it would cost me to first transfer the plot to my name, it didn’t seem worth the effort. So I told the woman to forget the whole thing. For some reason, however, she’d taken an interest in me and my story, and, sounding a lot like my Aunt Rachie, she said to me, “Listen, sweetheart, you might as well go ahead and keep the plot. It’s only twenty-one dollars. Besides, you never can tell when you’re going to need a grave.” I sent in the forms.
When my last book came out, and the first copy arrived in the mail, I held it in my hands like a baby. Knowing my book was going out into the world, I felt great relief. “Now I can die,” I said to myself, almost out loud. But I didn’t really mean it.
I want to die. Just not any time soon. Some people would like to live forever, but not me. The thought of looking at the same face in the mirror day after day for eternity strikes me as like having to read the same book over and over, or like taking endless piano lessons but learning only one song. I believe that our souls live on, but in different incarnations. As a very small child, age three or four, I had memories unrelated to our life in a little three-room apartment in Queens. I recalled a big house with servants and another house in the country, and traveling between the two by train and horse-drawn carriage — before this other family went into hiding. I used to torment my mother with questions about those people and why they were taken away like cattle on dark, windowless trains.
So I think I’ll be back, and even look forward to it. But I’m in no hurry to leave. Each morning I get up, go into my office, and talk to a photograph of my great-great-great-great-grandfather, who had the same Hebrew name I have — Shabbetai. According to family legend, he was born in the eighteenth century and died in the twentieth. The photograph, mounted on cardboard, was taken in Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine), supposedly in commemoration of my ancestor’s 113th birthday, when his village gave him a second bar mitzvah. Each morning I come in, bow to him slightly, and say, “Ancestor, if there are any of your longevity genes in my body, please turn them on; I write very slowly, and I have a lot of things to say.”
For years after my father died, I carried in my wallet the little brown card from the cremation society we’d joined. On it was a number to call in the event of my death, so that the society could come and cart me away to the fire. During that time, however, I had a dream in which I was wandering in a cemetery and came upon my own gravestone. It was surprisingly large — about the size of the headboard to a queen-size bed — but quite plain, and I remember being disappointed by it.
My father and I once had a business idea for a new kind of tombstone. It was not his first moneymaking scheme to involve death. He’d also designed a line of greeting cards for the dying to send to friends and loved ones. On the outside would be a pretty picture and the words “Just wanted to tell you . . .”; and on the inside, something like “. . . how important you have been to my life.” Then there was the humorous, cynical one: on the outside a cartoon picture of a man in a coffin with the line “Now that I’m gone, I just wanted to let you know . . .”; and inside, in large letters, “. . . I never liked you.” Dad whipped up a bunch of prototypes, but nothing came of it.
The tombstone scheme, however, got a little further. I sparked the plan when I dreamed that I was walking through a cemetery and all the gravestones were sparkling. As I told Dad about it, I could see the wheels turning. “Lucite tombstones!” he said. Imagine it: walking through a cemetery on a radiant afternoon and passing a tall pink Lucite obelisk that captures the light, then an aqua angel, then a shimmering gold monument. We grabbed the phone book, found a few Lucite manufacturers, and got some estimates. Downstairs in our building lived a family who owned a large mortuary-and-monument company. At the outset, they really liked the idea — the first new concept in burials in centuries. But then they talked to the Lucite people and came back to us with the sad news: Lucite, much to our collective surprise, weighs more than granite. To keep the stones from toppling, a much bigger and deeper foundation would be required, and that would raise the price of burials — significantly. End of that idea.
In my dream, my tombstone was not Lucite. It did not sparkle. It read:
March 24, 1951–September 15, 2063
I am not known for precognitive dreams, but if that one was accurate, I will die an old man — not as old as my ancestor, who supposedly lived to be 137, but old enough to have finished all the stories I want to tell.
I’ve dreamed about my own death three times over the years. Two of the dreams were identical: I was a very old man, propped up in bed, with several young people taking care of me. The room was all white: white bedspread, white dresser, white walls, and white curtains billowing around an open window looking out on an apple orchard. There was a bowl of fruit on my left, and a cheesecake on my right. My caretakers were talking, and I was drifting in and out of sleep. Then, all at once, I slipped out of my body and found myself standing inside the wall behind the bed, watching my caretakers, waiting for them to discover that I had died.
In the third dream, everything was the same except the room was all yellow.
The room with the apple orchard outside is unlike any place I have ever lived. But five years ago my partner and I went to Germany, and one evening, in a little village halfway between Hamburg and Berlin, we walked past an apple orchard that reminded me of the one in my dream.
As a Jew, I found it strange to visit Germany; the first day there, I’d wanted to ask every person we passed on the street, “Were you a Nazi? Was your father? Your grandfather?” (Ironically, as I have dark skin and don’t look particularly Jewish, the only hostility I experienced came from people who thought I was Turkish.) But after a few days, I felt quite at ease, and our trip seemed a kind of homecoming, as familiar as my childhood memories of big houses and horses. I thought, This Jew is back! So maybe Germany will be the place where I die. Just not any time soon.
Two days ago, on an achingly beautiful afternoon, a fat white envelope arrived in my mailbox. When I saw the return address, I knew immediately what was inside. On the walk back to our apartment, I ripped open the envelope, pulled out a folder, and read through the contents: the deed to a numbered grave site in New York City. “You never can tell when you’re going to need a grave,” the woman on the phone had said. And there in my hands was the deed to a grave, with my name on it.
I’ve been to that cemetery only once. There were no apple trees there. I remembered the shock of seeing my own last name carved into my grandfather and grandmother’s headstone. But as I read the deed, with the sun warming my back, I felt a surprising sense of calm. I knew then that, if something should happen to me, even if I should die homeless and alone, someone could stick me in a plastic bag and ship me back east, where there’s a place I can lay my weary head, for good.
So now I’ve taken the little brown card out of my wallet. And if you should find me, the destination, thank you, is Beth David Cemetery, Elmont, New York.