"It's terrible to lose a friend when you don't have many."
From The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society film
I lost my first friend in preschool. She and her sibling were playing with matches in their home when the unimaginable happened.
The next friend I remember losing died of childhood leukemia in 1964, a time when childhood leukemia was so very deadly. And so it went. Death was now a companion I never felt very far away from.
I began to consider what happened to the dead. At first I had, what I perceive now as the fairy tale of my childhood, the idea of a place called heaven with angels playing harps. Where was it? No one knew, pointing above the Earth. The concept worked for awhile.
By the time I was old enough to know there was no heaven above me, I was old enough to receive a call from a member of my synagogue in Curacao. With her Philadelphia jump-to-the-lead, she responded to my "Hello" with a question. "Drimmer can you help me with Chevra Kadisha? It's the Jewish burial society, we wash the dead women in the Jewish community. The other person doing this with me is traveling a lot, so I need some help."
I gasped silently.
"I'll understand if you don't want to," she added seriously.
My brain ran the possibilities. Here was my closest friend on the island, asking for help to do a job no one wanted to do. It was a mitzvah, or good deed to do this as I'd been taught in my conversion classes. It also was a challenge to see if my view of death was valid, that humans are like an empty container after death. The person is no longer there. And it was the call of a friend, to help.
Could I do this? Should I?
"Okay, I'll try it once," I responded." Adding as my elementary school aged child walked past me on her way to bed, "But no kids. I won't do a kid."
A few weeks later the first call came. "The Angel of Death has passed over...." said my friend. She'd pick me up tomorrow morning.
What do you wear to wash a dead body? I don't remember, though I do remember since the bodies were kept in the morgue that my friend told me to bring a sweater. The morgue seemed clean, well maintained and after the 90 degree weather outside, invitingly cold. We did what needed to be done--I'll leave it at that--and left. Sitting in the passenger seat of her car she pulled out a flask and offered it to me.
"What's this?" I asked. It was 10:30 AM. Early even by my English friends Elevenses (at 11 AM) dry sherry break.
"In case you need it."
I didn't. It was then that it hit me, death was just an absence of life. The Angel of Death calls continued with intervals until we moved away from the island.
When Mary Roach's book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers was published, of course we both read the book and discussed it by phone. I considered upgrading my resume at some point to add this volunteer job to it, but demurred. No one would understand my surprise at having done this. The irony that two converts to Judaism had done what others would not, silently amused me.
But it never dawned to me that one day a stranger's call would report that my darling friend/adopted sister Rivkah had died. Did I know her next of kin, her brother's, contact information?
I did. But I still hadn't discerned where we go when we die. But my love of science gave me an idea. If the human body is made up of elements including stardust, why couldn't those elements be recycled? Seeing a bee buzzing me, I'd think of my dear mother-in-law, Bea. Missing my friend Rivkah I'd look to the world around me and imagine her up there, with the stars as the stardust within her rose to heights she'd never known.
So evenings I look for my lost loved ones, those who have gone to the stars. And beyond.