In order to avoid living like an actual grownup, I have made a compromise with myself about working. I have to do it, because we need the money, but I do not have to have a Real Job because my husband (who is an actual adult) has one that comes with magnificent health insurance for which I am eternally grateful. I have cobbled together a somewhat bizarre set of jobs based on my equally improbably skill set: I do legal consulting for another attorney, I do super secret work for a website, and I am the “backup hospitality provider” for the church down the street. The latter means that I mostly cater funeral receptions (since people stubbornly refuse to die on a schedule) and the real hospitality person is most likely to be unavailable for funerals because they tend to be short-notice affairs. It is a standard joke in my family that I should have a business card that says, beneath my name in copperplate, “Lawyer, Writer, Funeral Caterer.” All that’s missing, really, is “rodeo clown.”
I was asked to do the catering work because I was known to be a “foodie,” and I do love the planning, the shopping for the ripest fruit and the freshest baguettes, and the slicing, peeling, and simmering in the church’s giant kitchen. What I didn’t know I would love so much is the sense of giving something real and comforting to families that are grieving. I remember the funerals of my mother’s family, after which the ladies from the temple would “make a lunch” that was extravagant and redolent of noodle kugel and love. When a child in my son’s class died, years ago, it was the luncheon after the service that held the family in its arms after a grueling period of “keeping it together.” It was a time when the facade could drop, and where they could sink into the comfort of family and friends, with church ladies bustling around with casseroles and lemonade that were the tangible form of sympathy, empathy and faith in eventual healing.
When I have rallied the church ladies to donate cookies and time, and laid the tables with white cloths, and covered them with the best food I can make, it is not just work but real spiritual sustenance to look out across a room in which people are finding some respite from a terrible time. It isn’t a “fix,” the beloved is still gone, but it is a chance to celebrate a life and share memories in a safe, warm place. My hope is that it gives mourners something to take with them, something that may be obscured by the unbearable pain of loss for many months, but which may blossom again in memory after the worst pain has subsided.
Until now, all of the receptions I have catered followed services for elderly people. Obviously, the fact that the loss involved someone in their 80s or 90s does nothing to mitigate the loss; those people were all somebody’s father, somebody’s grandma, somebody’s brother. It does mean, though, that the death followed a long life, a life in which families were raised, there were silver and gold wedding anniversaries, and in most cases, there were peaceful retirements rich with grandchildren, travel and volunteering like raisins studding a scone.
Yesterday I got the call asking me if I could do a reception for the funeral of a young man killed in an accident. I didn’t recognize the family name at first, and then I remembered. Last summer, as I stood at the stainless steel counter of the church kitchen cutting up cantaloupes, working in the relative cool of the evening, a woman came in wearing a nurse’s uniform. She was in charge of the jewelry sale the church puts on every year during a local Folk Festival, and had come in after work to put price tags on the contributed necklaces, bracelets and earrings. She introduced herself to me and we talked. I told her I was “really a writer” but did the catering work on the side because I loved it. She told me her older son was a writer, too. We talked about her sons, who sounded quite delightful, and I told her that I hoped my boy would turn out to be as productive and community-minded as hers had proven to be. This Saturday’s funeral is for her oldest son, the writer of whom she had spoken so proudly.
I dreaded calling her to make arrangements; I knew that it wasn’t about me, and that it was no time to project my own love and fear about my own child onto her real and present loss. I still didn’t want to call. When I finally made myself dial, she came to the phone sounding exhausted, and subdued. “I remember you,” she said, “we talked about our boys.” I asked her questions about what kind of food she’d like, and she spoke of her son in the present tense. “He likes food from Oasis” she told me, and I said that I was sure I could get the local middle eastern restaurant to sell us humus, pita and kabobs. “He likes coffee, but with real cream. He doesn’t like the powdered stuff.” Together, we worked out a motley assortment of food that her son loved (loves) including the middle eastern food, potato samosas, trail mix and carrot cake. She asked if we could have, maybe, a casserole for older folks coming in from out-of-town who might not be comfortable with grape leaves and hashwi. I assured her that we could. It was not a menu I would ever have planned, but it was, for her, a representation of her child. It was the food he liked best, to celebrate his brutally truncated life.
I can’t decide, today, whether I love or hate this job. Coming so close to the death of someone else’s son has pierced me to the core. I think about my own son, and I know that when her own lost boy was 13, she imagined, as I do, the unfolding of a long, rich life that would stretch out long past the end of her own. She never saw this coming. I want to fix it, I want to make it a different world in which this never happened. I want to fix it, and I can’t. All I can do is order the trays of food from Oasis, e-mail the stalwart church ladies asking them for carrot cakes and help with the reception, and make sure that the celebration of this boy’s life will ease a terrible day.
At the end of our conversation, this mother said to me “I’m so glad we talked about our boys. I feel like you know him.” I can’t fix anything, but I can pour my sorrow, and sadness and hope for her sustaining faith into every carrot I peel, and every plate I set carefully on white linen. Sometimes, there isn’t anything else I can do.