Washing the Dead
Frank Singer parks his Datsun in front of Magda Singer’s house, which is both familiar and strange. It is now a house of death. He sits in the car, watching himself sit in the car as if it were a pivotal scene in a movie. He’s scared to go in and relieved that it’s over and heartbroken and empty. His eyes are dry and he wonders if he’s a bad son.
He finally gets out, mechanically locks the car, and climbs the stairs. Berit meets him at the door. “She died in the night, in her bed, in her sleep.”
“Good. She always wanted to die in bed.”
“Then she got what she wanted.”
“But she used to say she wanted to get shot by a jealous husband walking in on her in bed with his wife. I guess she had to settle for just the bed part.”
Berit gives Frank a look somewhere between impatience and pity. She turns to walk into the house, “I will call the Neptune Society to pick up her body when you have finished saying good-bye and washing her.”
“In Norway, it is traditional for the family to wash the body. I know you aren’t religious and you don’t have anyone left in your family so I think you will want to do this washing ritual.”
Berit guides Frank into the bedroom before he can say that there was no chance in hell he is going to wash his dead mother’s body. The curtains are drawn and Frank can see his Magda’s face by the light of a dozen candles. She looks alive, tucked into bed.
Frank feels something wet in his right hand. Berit whispers, “Here is a wet cloth. Start with her face and gently clean her whole body. When you are done with the front, call me and I’ll help you turn her over.”
“I’m not –”
Berit closes the door behind her, leaving Frank alone with his mother and a washcloth.
“Magda, I’m not washing your body. You hear me? We’re Jewish, not Norwegian. We sit in the dark and eat for a week; we don’t wash dead bodies.”
He walks around to the head of bed and stands looking down on her face. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here last night. Berit didn’t call me. I guess she didn’t know.” He pulls back the curtain and stares out of the bedside window at Magda’s yard full of overgrown bamboo and weathered sculptures. “I’m glad I didn’t watch you die. I’m sorry. I’ve never seen anyone die. I don’t think I want to. We didn’t see Daddy die.”
Frank looks at Magda’s face – she’s sad. “Sorry to bring up Daddy.” He reaches to touch her forehead and the washcloth flops over the pillow. He pulls his hand back, looks at the water stain and his dead mother’s face and cries. Hard.
Holding his hand over his mouth so Berit doesn’t hear, Frank Singer kneels down beside the bed. Gulping for air between sobs, he gently washing his mother’s face. He wants to open his heart to her, the way this scene should play out, open his heart to tell her how good it felt when his clown friends complained that their parents would never come to their shows, and he could brag that his mother was his biggest fan; to tell her how proud he was when the irate middle school counselor called to get her “parental support” in banning Frank from an anti-war demonstration and Magda told him, “If you want support, call your own mother. Frank can go to any damn demonstration he wants, any time, with my blessing.” And he wants to tell her how she gave him a depression baby’s sense of money, a lefty sociologist feminist sense of justice and an artist’s taste for rigor. He doesn’t say anything.
Wiping her placid face, Frank remembers the time Magda walked into his high school principal’s office dressed in her “lady outfit,” wig, suit and all, for a meeting about Frank’s suspension for insubordination. She had borrowed a huge gray metal reel-to-reel tape recorder and put it right in the middle on Mrs. Mimoni’s desk. Holding up the cord, Magda chirped, “Do you have a plug?” in her sweetest voice. As the principal hemmed and hawed about not needing to tape the meeting, Magda plugged it in, pushed “record” and the squeaky reels started turning. Twenty minutes later Frank walked out a free man. He learned a lot that day about acting, about costumes and props and chutzpah. Did he ever thank her?
Did he ever say any of these things when she was still alive? He doesn’t think so. Why didn't he? He loved his mother but he held her at arm’s length, right up until the end. He’d had to, he thinks, to keep from getting swallowed up in her pain and complaining and endless lists of things she needed him to do for her. He had to…
The washcloth bunches and his fingers accidentally run down Magda’s cheek. He recoils from the feel of her skin.
“Berit! I washed her! She’s all done! Please call the Neptune Society people before she starts to rot in her bed!”
Berit walks right in, no soft knock or quiet steps, and sees the sheets still neatly tucked around the body. “You washed her face. That is good. We can turn her after you have washed her breasts and belly and thighs and…”
“I washed her, Berit. I washed her like a good Norwegian boy and now it’s time for you to call the fucking body people!”
“You are fast, Frank. Already at Stage Three, ‘anger and bargaining.’ She has only been dead a few hours.” Berit starts to pull the sheets off of Magda’s body. “Since you say that you have washed her front, help me turn her over so you can wash her back and, especially, her feet.”
Frank walks past Berit, away from the bed, and stands in the doorway looking at the paintings in the living room. “We’re Jewish, Berit, the People of the Book. Not the People of the Body. We sit shiva and talk and eat and, I guess, say some prayers. We don’t even do open casket. We get rid of dead bodies as soon as we can, and we only ritually wash when everyone’s alive, at Passover. Now please, please call someone to get this body out of here now. Please.”
Berit stands beside him in the doorway. “I am sorry. I am acting like a cranky old Norwegian granny. I have worked for your mother for almost 10 years. She isn’t an easy person, you know that, but she taught me to be an artist, to think like an artist. She has treated me like a daughter. You and I are the only family she has and we will do a ritual, a Jewish ritual. We will sit shiva, you and me, every day for one week, like it says in the book.”
Frank turns to face Berit, “You and me? I have never sat shiva before, I’ve only heard about it. We’re a pretty secular in my family…”
“That is fine. I know. I have many Jewish friends. My wife is Jewish. We will start tomorrow. One hour.” Frank is still digesting the fact that he now has to add an hour plus travel time to his schedule as Berit hustles him to the other side of the bed. “Help me turn your mother.”
She gets Frank to lift Magda’s left arm and leg and then expertly pushes the body underneath as Frank lets go. They both stare at Magda’s rapidly stiffening back, bottom, legs and her hideously swollen, clawed feet.
“Here is the wet cloth. I will start at the top; you start at the bottom.”
©2020 Jeff Raz | ISBN 978-0-9979048-3-3