I’m older than my father when he turned bright gold and left his body with its used-up liver in the Faulkner Hospital, Jamaica Plain. I don’t believe in the afterlife, don’t know where he is now his flesh has finished rotting from his long bones in the Jewish Cemetery—he could be the only convert under those rows and rows of headstones. Once, washing dishes in a narrow kitchen I heard him whistling behind me. My nape froze. Nothing like this has happened since. But this morning we were on a plane to Virginia together. I was 17, pregnant and scared. Abortion was waiting, my aunt’s guest bed soaked with blood, my mother screaming—and he was saying Kids get into trouble— I’m getting it now: this was forgiveness. I think if he’d lived he’d have changed and grown but what would he have made of my flood of words after he’d said in a low voice as the plane descended to Richmond in clean daylight and the stewardess walked between the rows in her neat skirt and tucked-in blouse Don’t ever tell this to anyone.
I’m wondering about you, chevra kadisha,
the “holy society,” who will prepare my body,
once I’m no longer in it, for the earth.
Will you know me already, or see me for the first time
as you wash and shroud me, as my father was washed
and dressed in simple white tachrichim, for those
about to stand before God. Perhaps by then I’ll know
if I believe in God. I like the democratic
nature of the shroud, an equalizing garment. You
may see a body that surprises you. You may not have seen
a man’s body like this one before you, which I hope is very old,
wrinkled, and (since I’m wishing) fit, muscled
as much as an old man can be. You’ll see scars.
Ragged dog bit forearm, elbow my father picked gravel
from over the sink, then flushed with foaming iodine,
and the long double horizons on my chest, which trunked my body
like a tree. If I am unexpected, let me not seem
grotesque to you, as I have to many people, perhaps
even my own parents, and others whose highest
kindness was to say nothing. Please let me return to dust
in peace, as the others did, and recite those beautiful psalms,
remembering, as you go about your holy ritual,
how frightening it is to be naked before another,
at the mercy of a stranger’s eyes, without even any breath.