Read Cures for Heartbreak Online

Authors: Margo Rabb

Cures for Heartbreak

DEDICATION

To the memory of my parents, Renée and Steve Rabb

EPIGRAPH

You don't get over it because “it” is the person you loved.

—Jeanette Winterson

Written on the Body
   

HOW TO SURVIVE A FUNERAL

Disbelieving, we endured the wreath on the door, and the undertaker coming and going, the influx of food, the overpowering odor of white flowers, and all the rest of it . . . my father was all but undone by my mother's death. . . . I overheard one family friend after another assuring him that there was no cure but time, and though he said, “Yes, I know,” I could tell he didn't believe them . . . what the family friends said is true. For some people. For others the hands of the clock can go round till kingdom come and not cure anything.

—William Maxwell
                

So Long, See You Tomorrow

THE HOST

T
he funeral director's name was Manny Musico.

“Is that like a stage name?” my sister, Alex, asked.

“No,” he said proudly. “It's real.” The gel in his black curls glistened; his teeth sparkled in the artificial light. He was good-looking in a soap opera way and seemed young for his profession.

I leaned over to my sister and whispered, “What a morbid job.”

Manny also had supersonic hearing. “A lot of people think so, but it's not morbid at all!” His voice boomed like a Broadway star's; he adjusted his lapels and beamed. I wouldn't have been entirely shocked if spotlights had flicked on, coffins opened up, dancing corpses emerged, and Manny led us all in the opening number of
Funeral!,
the musical.

“Getting down to business,” Manny said, “can I please have the death certificate?”

My father handed it to him and recounted the details about our mother—a sudden death, twelve days after the diagnosis; no, no one expected it; he was sorry too. Forms were filled out. Then Manny invited us to view the coffins.

“She went into the hospital with a stomachache,” my dad continued as Manny led us downstairs and along a wood-paneled corridor to the coffin vault.

Manny said, “We've gotten some new models in.”

The coffins: luxury models lined with silk, the plain pine box preferred by the Orthodox. My eyes bulged at the prices. A thousand dollars. Two thousand. Four thousand. The caskets had names—Abraham, Eleazar, Moses, Shalom.

“How about the Eleazar?” my father asked. The Eleazar cost $1,699.

“It looks okay,” I said. This could not be happening. Oak finish. Satin-lined. “Are we going to get the Star of David on top?”

“I think it costs extra. But what the hell. I think Omi and Opa would want it.” Omi and Opa were my mother's parents.

“We don't need the fucking star,” my sister growled.

Manny decided to leave us alone with the coffins. “I'll give you some time to decide.”

My father examined the finish of the Abraham and said for the fifth time in two days, “We're in a play in which the funeral is the last act,” in his usual deadpan tone.

“That's new,” Alex snapped. “Did you get that out of a book or something?”

“He can repeat it if he wants to,” I said.

She glared at me. “Mia thinks we are in a play—rated triple X. Did you see her this morning?” she asked our father.
“She was trying on a slutty dress to wear to the funeral.”

“It wasn't a slutty dress.” It was a velvet halter dress I'd recently worn to a sweet sixteen. I touched the shiny handle of the $4,000 mahogany Shalom. “It's my only black dress. It's not like I wanted to wear pasties and a G-string.”

“I wouldn't be surprised if you did.”

“Shut up.”

“You shut up.”


You
shut up.”


Girls,
” our father said. “Please. Girls. After this, we'll go shopping.”

This was a shock, since he found shopping as enjoyable as setting himself on fire.

Manny poked his head in. “Everything okay?”

“Fine,” my father said. “We'll take the Eleazar, with the Star of David.” He answered more questions, signed some paperwork, and as we got ready to leave, he told Manny we were off to Bloomingdale's.

“Have fun,” Manny called after us.

THE SHOPPING TRIP

My father pulled up to a hydrant a block from Bloomingdale's. “I'll wait here, save on parking,” he said, and unfurled his beloved
New York Times
. He handed my sister his credit card like it was a rare gem.

To my mother and me, Bloomingdale's was a spiritual homeland. I worshipped those dresses on the mannequins in the windows, the bright pocketbooks swinging on silver racks, and the gleaming sky-high stilettos. Every time we shopped there, I'd inhale the heady perfumes and sweet chemical scent of brand-new clothes as my mother and I scanned the store for deities (she'd once sighted Marilyn Monroe at the Chanel counter, and I'd seen Molly Ringwald in Shoes on 2). Then we'd ogle the merchandise.

We'd try not to buy too much (so my father wouldn't kill us), but we'd soon find ourselves happily cascading up the escalator with a big brown bag of on-sale skirts, barrettes, panty hose, underwear, and of course Estée Lauder products that were accompanied by free gifts. My mother hoarded these free bonuses—lacquered boxes, makeup kits, tote bags, pocket mirrors.

My sister had never been part of our shopping trips. Now I watched her galumph down the aisles in her hiking boots, jeans, and Mets jersey, digging through the racks and making faces at the clothes. Her hair frizzed around her head like a dandelion.

“I'll be in Dresses,” I said. I walked over to that section and there I saw it on the sale rack. Cap-sleeved chiffon with an embroidered overlay; I'd tried on this dress two months before with my mother. We hadn't bought it—it was $149—but I'd fallen for this dress. We'd oohed and aahed. We'd held our breath, fingering the embroidery.

I stared at the price tag: $119 on sale. Not much of an improvement.

I eyed the skinny girls with pink backpacks browsing the racks and thought,
My mother would want me to have this dress
. Maybe she'd left the dress here, in fact, for me to wear. Maybe it was a sign.

I walked over to my sister, who was holding black pants and a matching shirt. “Guess I'll get this,” she sighed, as if buying them would cause her physical pain. She stared at the dress draped over my arm. “Is that a scarf?”

“It's a dress.”

“It's see-through.”

“It's not.”

“It's snot?”

I rolled my eyes.

“How much?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Not much.”

She lifted the price tag. “
One hundred and nineteen?
What is that, drachmas? Shekels?”

“I'm getting it,” I said.

Her voice rose. “You're not paying a hundred and nineteen dollars for a scarf!”

The customers on line gaped at us. “It's for Mommy's
funeral,
” I said. “I think a nice dress is worth it for Mommy's
funeral
.” As soon as the words were out I wished I hadn't said them. My entire life had become a CBS Sunday Night Movie, and it was only getting worse.

Her eyes flashed. “There's no way we're buying that dress!”

I threw it on the counter. “Fine. Forget it.” My throat dried up. I marched off to the escalator.

I rode it down to Hosiery and wandered around the panty hose. I could run away. Where would I go? Upstate? The wilderness? I imagined riding Metro-North and getting off at the last stop, wherever that was, and starting a new life. Ten minutes later I headed out the main door in the vague direction of Grand Central Station.

Alex was waiting on the sidewalk. I ignored her and hurried up the street.

“Here's your stupid dress,” she said from behind me, waving the shopping bag at me. I walked away from her; she caught up. I walked faster; she did too. I started running, and she chased after me; I arrived at the car out of breath, ahead of her.

“I got here first,” I said inanely, as if I needed to prove I'd won the pre-funeral foot race, an ancient ceremonial Jewish tradition.

IS GOD A COMEDIAN FROM THE BORSCHT BELT?

My mother had told us the diagnosis herself, the first night she was in the hospital. We were all there, my father, Alex,
and me, at the foot of my mother's bed, sitting there awkwardly, trying to pretend this was a natural, normal family situation, the three of us hanging around her hospital bed.

“Well.” She smiled. “Melanoma.”

She shrugged. And smiled again, as if it was amusing, as if she really wanted to say,
Ha! Isn't this funny? Cancer. I thought I had a stomachache
.

We all sort of smiled then, the four of us with these sick, manic, dumb, painfully goofy smiles, because we didn't know what else to do. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting gone awry—
Gee, Mom's got Cancer!
—and our frozen, psychotic grins.

Then the four of us went to the solarium, and Alex and I talked about school, grades, Alex's senior-year research paper on isotopes, my new nail polish. A normal conversation, things would be normal. The cancer had metastasized to my mother's liver. “You never know what can happen,” a nurse told us later. “Remain hopeful.”

I didn't know it that night, but that was the last normal conversation I'd have with my mother. Perhaps this was why I replayed the diagnosis scene so often in my head in the days leading up to the funeral, trying to understand it, to revise it, to make myself say something important,
anything
.

I'd waited to cry until I'd gotten in bed that night. I cried till I ran out of tears, and then I lay there and could feel my insides churning. I hadn't known that it would be such
a tangible, physical pain, yet so much worse than anything that was only physical. My insides churned and churned as if machines were methodically grinding my inner organs to a pulp. I used to think the worst pain I'd ever felt was one summer when I'd slipped on wet leaves in the alley behind our house and broke my arm. Now I wanted to laugh at my own stupidity. I'd thought
that
had hurt?

The day before my mother died they moved her into a room with another woman who was dying. Mrs. Flemsky was much older; her husband stood vigil by her bed and her children came to visit, but they were decades older than Alex and me, married and with a heap of their own children. When no one was around, Mrs. Flemsky liked to chant Yiddish in a vaguely musical tone. “Oy gevalt oy gevalt oygevaltoygevalt. Oy oy oy oyoyoyoyoyoyoy” in a constant refrain. Alex had pinched me in the side and led me to the solarium.

“I had to get out of there,” she said. “It's like Intro to Yiddish. Yiddish 101.”

“Like a cappella klezmer music,” I said.

“Oyoyoy,” my sister sang.

We laughed, but it wasn't a regular kind of laugh; it almost felt like throwing up. We'd been laughing like this frequently in the hospital. We'd laughed when the old woman who shared our mother's room in the ICU a week ago moaned, “Who took my bladder? Where did my bladder go?” and at the smiling, toothless man who paraded down the hall with
his gown half open and his butt hanging out. Then there was the nearly blind lady who roamed the solarium, trailing her IV behind her like a pet on a leash. “Hymie? Hymie, is that you?” she once asked me.

We'd even laughed after we overheard our father's cardiologist telling one of our father's friends that because of his heart disease, he had a 50 percent chance of dying within the next year, from the stress of losing a spouse. “We better sign up at the orphanage now, ha ha ha!” Alex had said.

THE RABBI

When the rabbi arrived we realized God was definitely a comedian from the Borscht Belt.

Since we weren't religious we didn't have our own rabbi; Manny ordered one for us. The day of the funeral, Rabbi Rosenbaum arrived wearing gold rings and Ray-Bans, his shirt unbuttoned a third of the way down to reveal a hairy triangle of rabbinical chest.

“Figures,” Alex whispered. “We got Rabbi Elvis.”

He looked through the forms on his desk. “Okay. Okay. Whatta we got here.” He squinted at the paper. “Greta. Greta Rivkah Pearlman. Date of death January seventeenth, 1991. Am I saying her name correctly? No uncommon pronunciations?”

We shook our heads.

He reviewed all our names and our mother's history, date of birth, et cetera, and entered them on his prepared form. “Adjective?” I expected him to ask next, as if he was filling out a Mad Lib.

Before the funeral began, Manny said, “You can take a few moments alone with her if you like.” None of us wanted to look at the casket. Finally, my father said he'd do it while my sister and I waited in the hall.

“She looks okay,” my father said. “It looks like her. They did a nice job.”

This could not be happening.

So many people arrived that we had to switch chapels to a larger one—there was my mother's whole department from work; Fanny Gluckman, my mother's best friend, who'd moved away four years ago; Mrs. Kopecki, the Lillys and Lombardis, and other neighbors from our block. Rabbi Rosenbaum seemed pleased that he'd have a larger audience. After everyone was seated he ushered us down the aisle and to the front pew.

The service itself passed quickly, the Hebrew prayers I didn't understand, the standing up, the sitting down; I wasn't sure what it had to do with my mother. My father, sister, and I were all too stunned to give speeches, but Opa, my German grandfather, who ordinarily barely said a word, uttered a few sentences in Hebrew, which hardly anybody understood.


Yitgadal v'yitkadash,
” the rabbi chanted. I wanted to join
in the mourner's prayer, but I didn't know it. For almost two weeks now I'd recorded everything that happened in the pink journal my mom had given me for my fifteenth birthday, as if writing it down was the only way to make it real, to figure out how I felt and what to do. The night of the diagnosis, I'd scribbled:
If she dies, I'll die
.

I stared at the hem of my $119 dress and thought about the one night I'd left the hospital to go home and instead of getting on the 4 train at 33rd Street, I walked all the way to the Barnes & Noble on 54th. I kept walking and when I got there I scanned the shelves of the grief section, the Death & Dying shelves, for a book that would comfort me, that would say exactly the right thing. I'm not sure what I'd been looking for, exactly. Maybe something like
What to Do When Your Mother Dies from Melanoma, Which They Thought Was a Stomachache at First. How to Cope When You're Left Alone with Your Father and Sister, Who Drive You Nuts. How to Survive a Funeral, Especially One Hosted by a Disconcertingly Happy Funeral Director and an Upwardly Mobile Rabbi Who Drives a BMW.
I didn't find a book I wanted to buy. All that had made me feel better was the walk.

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