How many levels of favors

“You’d think having your dead sister come visit you for the holidays would be enough without expecting answers to all your questions.”

The Israelitied crossing the Red Sea 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Israelitied crossing the Red Sea 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
“Enough!” she shouted. “Shut up already!” Asher stared, slack-jawed and speechless, at his eldest sister, who had never before raised her voice to him and who had been dead for 12 years.
The house was preternaturally clean; he’d cleaned it himself, since Passover was starting the next evening. It was four in the morning, he’d just finished his half-hearted sweep of the premises for leaven, and although he knew it was absurd, the first thing he wanted to tell Sonia was not to get footprints on the rug.
“What are you doing here?” he asked stupidly instead.
She seemed to notice him for the first time, her one good eye focusing on his face. The other one was purple and swollen and sealed shut, the result of the impact of her face against the windshield when she had driven her white Toyota Prius off the Delaware Memorial Bridge at the age of 38. It matched the lacerations on her cheeks and arms, the welts on her clavicle, the matted, blackish spot in her hair.
“Ashi,” she said. “Stay out of this.”
“Out of what?” He realized hazily that he had interrupted something by passing through his own living room, and like a good Jewish boy, he felt suddenly guilty, uncertain of his right to be standing there.
“Opa was just opining on the odds of either one of us getting married,” she explained with a tight smile, probably at her own pun. “I was just telling him to go to hell and to take along the vengeful God he keeps invoking.”
“Opa’s there?” Asher was aware that his end of the conversation was sounding increasingly dumb. “What does he want? What do you want?” He shook his head. “Are you even really here?”
“Well, I’m really dead. Does that help?” She looked around the living room. “Geez.What is it, Passover? I’ve never seen any space inhabited by our family so clean.”
“Uh...yeah, it’s...a lot of hard work.”
A bachelor at 46, he had become, in recent years, if not obsessive, at least strongly conscientious about keeping his surroundings free of clutter. It did not run in the family.
“Please tell me you didn’t hire a cleaning lady.”
“What? No, I did this myself.”
Sonia had, while alive, been known to point out (repeatedly) the irony of relying on hired labor to prepare for a holiday that celebrated redemption from slavery.
“Please tell me you didn’t come back from the dead just to have that conversation again.”
“Back? I’m not back. I didn’t even come here to talk to you,” she said, obviously confused.
“I don’t even know what you’re doing here.”
“I live here,” he heard himself say, recognizing even as he said it how futile this exchange was and how much he should try talking about something more important.
“Listen, can I – can I ask you things, at least? Since you’re here. If you don’t have anything pressing.”
She frowned. “I don’t...actually remember. It’s not clear to me.... But okay, go ahead” – her smile came back – “ask. We’ll see how long it takes someone to do something about it.”
“Why did you do it?” he blurted. “Why did you die?”
It surprised him how badly he wanted to know. He’d thought he was done with the trauma – that thing that had danced outside his consciousness like a boxer for weeks after he’d gotten the phone call, gone to the funeral, sat shiva, making him restless with dread and defense mechanisms before it came in from the side and caught him full under the ribs. He’d gone through the crying and the anger and the probing sessions with his therapist. He’d numbed it with the mantra that he was never going to have an answer, that he didn’t really care if there even was one, because it would never bring her back or make him blame her less for leaving them.
Now she laughed in his face.
“Of course that’s what you want to know. No ‘What are tomorrow’s winning lotto numbers?’ for us, we’re all about the past, aren’t we.”
But her eyes – at least the one he could see – were troubled.
“It wasn’t money. I should know, I helped sort out your effects.”
Another pang of guilt shot through him. It had been the substantial sum she’d left him that had bought this house in Ra’anana. Maybe, he considered, that was why she had come here.
“No,” she agreed. “No, it wasn’t money.”
She seemed to be fighting to say something, and the image came unbidden into his head of the Prius filled to the ceiling with the Delaware River, his sister barely conscious, moved suddenly by wounded regret to change her mind, pushing for the window, face pressed against the glass and pores numb, mouth open, bursting with a sole-minded desire, to break the surface of the water. And another one, a dry snatch of grim conversation overheard at the shiva: “I guess she really didn’t want to pay the toll.”
Asher blinked and sat down on the couch he’d vacuumed down to the last crevice only hours before. He ran a hand through hair that was thinning on top.
“Was it...” He was both eager and afraid to know the answer. “Was it one of us?”
Sonia’s eye widened, cloudy brown, hurt. “Ashi–” “I always felt I should have...called you more,” he kept on. “You shouldn’t have had to be alone. They shouldn’t have... you shouldn’t have had to listen to them –”
“Ashi. Nobody pushed me over the edge. Nobody – especially not you – nobody in the family made me hurt that much.”
“Opa –” “Not even Opa.” She was firm. “None of this was his fault, or yours. Not even Mom.”
On Asher’s 35th birthday, his mother had suffered a stroke that he believed deep down to have been the result of grief, not over her daughter’s recent (though still unproven) suicide, but over Sonia’s failure to have married and reproduced before carrying it out. The two women had not gotten along in nearly two decades.
Devorah, the sister wedged between Sonia and Asher, had had four children by the time she was 30, and Asher’s younger sister, Nadine, had been pregnant with her second when her mother died a year after the stroke first hit.
Asher and Nadine had been their mother’s principal caretakers during that year – Sonia would have been 40, he had brooded on occasion, and probably still unmarried – and he had built up a sheen of resentment at her decision not to get better, one that had not gone away.
His therapist had suggested more than once that this disappearance of women in his life was maybe why he wasn’t married yet.
“Is mom there?” he now asked dully from the couch.
“Somewhere. She’s not bothering me right now.”
“Does she still? I mean, death doesn’t... soften things?”
Despite having entertained fantasies of his mother and sister sitting on opposite ends of heaven with their noses in the air and pointedly ignoring each other in the divine ladies’ room – or occasionally, yes, scrapping with nails and hair-pulling right in front of the Holy Throne while God Himself tried uselessly to separate them – he had also nursed hopes of tearful embraces, companionable hevrutot under golden palm trees, shared meals of manna and Leviathan beside the righteous.
“Don’t ask me about that, okay, Ashi?” Her tone was not unkind. “I don’t think I’m really supposed to discuss it.”
“But you said Opa –”
“Opa’s a different story.” She hardened. “He just picks fights with everybody. Apparently he wasn’t just senile all my life. You know what, don’t ask me about that, either.”
“Okay.” He was coming to terms with a certain lack of logic among the dead. Maybe the golden-palm-tree stage came later. Or maybe – he didn’t like the thought – his whole dead family was in some form of Gehinnom. “You still haven’t answered my first question.”
“Why did I die? Because I hit the water really hard, and then I couldn’t breathe.”
“You know what I mean. Are you not allowed to say that, either?”
“Bitter. You’d think having your dead sister come visit you for the holidays would be enough without expecting answers to all your questions.”
“Sonia.” His heart burned, because she was right, but he was irritated that she was leading him on. “Can you answer me or not?”
She was silent for a moment, the natural state of the dead.
“I wanted to rest,” she whispered finally. “I wanted the loneliness and the pointlessness and the heaviness and the pain to be over. Have you ever tried waking up every morning, seven days a week, and knowing that no matter what you do, it’ll never be good enough, it’ll never get rid of the lead weights on your chest, it’ll never look brighter, and you will always, always be trapped in a body with a rotting, empty hole somewhere in your heart that you can’t even find? I just wanted peace, Ashi. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I just wanted to rest.”
As he listened, Asher found that for the first time in over five years, he was crying.
“I was on that bridge and I suddenly thought, I could do that. I could stop all this, and it would be over. Dayenu, you know? Apropos. And I knew there was nobody waiting for me on the other side of the bridge. I was just going up to Manhattan to see a show, by myself, not even one I particularly liked. And I thought, what if I just never get there? And somehow that sounded like the most wonderful thing in the world. And I knew if I stopped or kept going I was going to miss that opportunity, and so I just... let go.”
Asher didn’t trust himself to speak through the tangle of threads – horror, fury, numbness, denial, disbelief, anguish, guilt, disgust, indignation, and a profound sadness – that dangled off him, arrayed like drops of red wine along the edge of his plate.
“You could have... we could have helped you. Why didn’t you tell us?”
“You know, it’s a lot easier to look back at it now that I’m dead and go, ‘Yeah, there were much healthier ways to deal with those issues. I really didn’t have to go tumbling off a bridge after all.’ That was another problem with being alive – the complete lack of perspective.”
He grimaced, eyes on the rows of Talmudic tomes and commentaries that lined the bookcases on the opposite wall. It was Sonia who had taught him, if nothing else, that a Torah life was not foolproof. All the minutiae of law in the world could not pin down a soul that had lost its tether. He reflected that perhaps he had come to Israel looking, on some level, for solid Jewish ground.
“Oh,” she said suddenly, and his head snapped back to her. “Ashi, I just remembered – the house. I need these mezuzas replaced. That’s what I came here to do. You could do that. I feel awfully foolish, I could have asked you to do that from the get-go. Speaking of perspective. It’s these Kabbalistic things, they slip around and they’re hard to keep hold of.”
She was visibly flustered, and while her request confirmed his instinct that her presence was somehow tied to the house, the dread was building back up in him.
“You’re going to leave now, aren’t you,” he said.
“Of course I am. I can’t stay here forever.”
“Yeah. I guess I know that.”
 A glance at his watch told him it was well after sunrise. Ghosts were never known to hang around long in the daytime. He would have to go to shul soon anyway. He sighed. “It was good to see you.”
“I’m sorry it wasn’t longer.” She was already fading. He could see the rug through her feet.
“It’s all right,” he said, and a hint of a smile passed his face. “It’s all right. It was enough.”