05/08/2014 04:06 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

Tucking My Sister Into Bed

Peter Himmelman

There are already plates of food piling up on the counter in my Mom's kitchen before the funeral.

Mostly these: bagels, lox, dill pickles, Spanish olives stuffed with pimentos, pickled herring, whitefish, gefilte fish, red onions, cut fruit, rye bread, blintzes, banana bread (some with chocolate chips, some with walnuts) and several kinds of cream cheese.

What strikes me as odd is how these foods, present in every Ashkenazi Jewish house of mourning, are the very same foods -- down to the olives -- that you'll find at a Bris or a baby naming. They are neither foods of joy nor of sorrow but ethnic foods that declare at times of profound change, that we are a people connected to a tradition and a past. We are the people of the unwavering Rock. The Rock of Israel and neither the deepest tragedy nor the most intoxicating happiness can move us from our past or our destiny. I put three pieces of gefilte fish on a paper plate, slather them in blood-red horseradish and wolf them down.

A sign reads: CAUTION! Refrigeration Room. There are chemicals present which are known to the state of Minnesota to cause birth defects.

I sit on a musty couch in the basement of Hodroff & Sons Mortuary just listening to the low growl of the refrigerator's big compressor switching on and off. A month from today, my younger sister Susie would be turning forty-one had she not died three days ago. I'm reading psalms as tradition dictates, within feet of her body as it cools behind a huge metal door. Some friends of mine come to sit with me, and suddenly, I don't feel particularly sad. It's as if I've gone away. The person sitting in for me will laugh and make some wry comments until I return.

After an hour or so (who can take more) my friends leave, and I feel an urgent sense of obligation, a need to clean something or serve food. But no one's here; its just me, Susie's body and that hovering spirit of hers that used to peek out from her thin skin. I feel like I should open the metal door and sit in the cold beside her, maybe hold her hand, speak some soothing words, but I'm afraid, afraid to sit next to the dead. I'm afraid to see and to confirm what needs no confirmation. Instead, I sit on the couch bemoaning both my loss and my lack of bravery.

The next morning at the funeral, I can't cry. I float through the service at a remove, watching as Susie's daughters, bruised and bandaged from the accident, are led into a black Lincoln and driven to the cemetery.

At her open grave the bereaved are enjoined to complete the burial ritual by shoveling dirt on the casket. It's a mitzvah, and it's better than letting the cemetery workers finish the job with a couple clattering scoopfuls from the Caterpillar. It's my turn to take the shovel, and though I haven't slept in days, I feel suddenly strong. I climb to the top of the dirt pile, kick the blade of the shovel with my boot heel and drop the dry soil over the top of the casket. I can hear the barn swallows taking to flight. I can feel the sun, hot on my neck and shoulders. I feel as though I am covering my sister with a warm blanket, tucking her into bed one last time, as though this final act might atone for all the times I failed her. I think about the game she and I would play as young children, Unborn Duckies we called it. And finally, I start to sob. I listen to the thump of each rocky clod as they land on her casket. I think about rhythm, drums, history, God. I am newly-naked, unfettered, primitive.

Suddenly, as I'm shoveling, a hand gently touches my shoulder. It's the Rabbi from congregation Beth Ahavah and loud enough for everyone to hear, he stage-whispers:

"Peter, why don't you give someone else a chance?"

It's a solemn moment and yet, I can't help wanting to raise the shovel high above my head and come down hard with the blunt edge on the Rabbi's neck. Instead, I step away from the grave and give the shovel to another mourner.