My brother, a real estate attorney who lived on New York's Upper East Side, was the last person I would have expected to tell me he thought he would go somewhere after dying, especially someplace as undocumented and wooey-wooey as the afterlife. Jack went only to places covered in The New York Times Travel Section -- London, Paris, Jerusalem. He would have been scared to go to a third world country so I was stunned when he said he believed he would be reconnecting with our parents. He was in the Haven Hospice, having chosen to stop dialysis, knowing he would be ending his life at the age of 79. Stricken with serious heart and kidney problems, he'd been in a hospital bed for months, getting out when the rehab center wanted him to bounce a ball. Though we came from the same gene pool, we were totally different and rarely made the same choices, but I would have done what he had.
Hospice took the fear out of dying, giving it a normalcy. When I asked Jack if he was afraid, his answer was, "No, I'm curious." Each room had a view of the East River that contributed to the facility's serenity. I'd brought with us spaghetti and Diet Coke, the two things Jack had requested. A man who'd dined at fine restaurants was now eating minuscule amounts of soft foods. I fed him with a plastic fork. Beaming, he said, "This spaghetti is delicious. What is it?"
"It's spaghetti to die for." Instead of the wince I'd expected, he smiled. For the first time, he seemed to appreciate my playfulness, nodding when I said, "Let's make these days as good as we can." After taking a sip, he let the soda slosh around on his tongue as if it were a fine Bordeaux. "How much Diet Coke did you get?" he asked.
"Six cans. For you, that's a lifetime supply." Again, he laughed. He'd never married and I was his sole caretaker. "I'm taking up so much of your time," he said. Jack was in the habit of giving, not receiving.
His eyes welled up when I said, "It's my privilege." I was surprised by how comfortable he seemed to be about his life ending. When I questioned it, he said, "I'm thinking about what I want Mama to cook for me. Maybe gefilte fish."
"I have bad news for you," I told him. "I have her grinder." We both laughed. This was the first time I'd been with someone who was accepting that death was imminent. I seized on the opportunity, saying, "If you actually end up someplace and you're with Mama and Daddy, I want you to send me a sign. I've heard stories about clocks stopping. That's it, stop a clock in our apartment. Don't screw up something major that will require me to call the super." He nodded, but I knew him well enough to have concerns about his follow-through.
On a Saturday exactly a month after Jack had died, I was in our building's laundry room. For the first time in the 33 years I've lived in the building, the clock had stopped. It said 9:44. It was actually 4:12. A week later, I was down there and saw that the clock had stopped again, this time at 1:18. The third time I saw the clock had stopped, I asked someone on the staff what was going on.
"I don't know," he said. "I changed the battery. It stopped again and I replaced the clock. That's a different clock."
This is hardly definitive, but I am a bit sorry that I didn't think to put the grinder in Jack's coffin.
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