I was a shovel


Life is a confusing thing. You can know where you want to go, or what you want to do, or who matters most to you. Some days I know these things. Some days I don’t know anything. What keeps me going is being useful. Making and doing is at least one clear purpose and I have the power to control my own creative output.

I am not the fanciest person. I am not the smartest person. I am a product of my experiences and education. I learn as I go, I pick up new habits, skills, and mannerisms, some taught, some copied, and some completely by accident. That’s basically life, you do your best, “your best” grows and develops as you do, and you hope to have enough of the pieces to do well for yourself.

I like to think of myself as a pencil. Ubiquitous and unassuming, one of a dozen or a million, but with endless possibilities. I can write, I can draw, I can communicate. Sometimes I am dull and sometimes I am too sharp for my own good. I might break from time to time but I can always be restored to function until the day I hit the eraser. It’s metaphors and romanticism that get me through my life. Everything has a silver lining, everything happens for a reason, life is what it is even when it’s hard. There is beauty in everything. But yesterday I had a new lesson: my first funeral.

All of life is preparation for death. Sickness is around us, aging is a constant process, and there are atrocities around the world and around the neighborhood. We know it’s coming for everyone, ourselves included. We know about life. How it’s supposed to work and how it will surprise you. How knowing is not-knowing. But that doesn’t make it easier. The same good advice you give one day sounds different repeated. It’s true but it doesn’t feel true. It’s right but no it isn’t you don’t know me shut up shut up please please please.

I have always known how unusual it is for a 24-year-old to have all their grandparents. I have always been lucky. This experience wasn’t even a surprise. There was a diagnosis, there was some time, there were visits, though they got shorter. Then it happened. So I came home and I did what I do. I tried to be useful. I looked at the world for positive signs. I baked cookies, I did the coffee run, I cooked breakfast. I shared online in my usual ways and tried to feel better. I smoked a cigarette. I drank 4 cups of water. I walked in tight circles. I did all my usual things and some less than usual things. It didn’t feel like enough.

Jewish people don’t do an open casket and burial is a next-day affair. Everything happens very quickly. Yesterday we stood around the grave and watched a simple pine box lowered into the ground. Everyone who felt able took a shovel to add a symbolic amount of earth to this final resting place. But it didn’t feel like enough. I stood there watching people I did not know bury my grandmother and I couldn’t handle it.

I inched back towards the grave and I grabbed a shovel. I dug and scooped and broke up the mound of earth. I felt my shoulders tight in my slim suit. I thought I was going to tear it. I didn’t care. I stabbed my way through dark red earth in the light rain. I felt like I was in a movie. I felt like maybe I was shoveling too aggressively. Was I embarrassing family members? Was I embarrassing myself? I stepped outside of myself in that moment and was a little scared. I felt like a purely physical being. I felt everything at once. I was not a pencil. I was a shovel.

The day stretched endlessly until that moment and then it was done. I stopped crying. We went home. We ate hard-boiled eggs and smoked salmon bagels. I avoided the family members I usually avoid, brought my mother some more water, ate until I felt sick, and then I crashed. I slept for 11 hours.

It’s hard not to feel selfish moving forward. We are a huge family, and we are all grieving in our own way. I can sympathize, but I know I can’t grieve for anyone but myself. All I can do is move forward. Though today is a new day and she isn’t just here as always, I am grateful. Grateful to not have realized how much she meant too late, and that she knew how I felt. Grateful for 24 years of stories and jokes and songs, postcards and trinkets and photos, confetti and stickers and handwriting. 24 years of the ephemera of love itself, communicated in a way that I have always understood, even when I didn’t.

Yesterday I was a shovel but today I am a pencil again. I have been sharpened a bit, stronger but not to a breaking point. I am not fully-realized, I haven’t figured all of life out, and I am not done being sad. But with a final lesson from my grandmother I am better prepared to move forward, better prepared to make and do, and better prepared to forget all of this good advice the next time.

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