Bonnie Friedman
Photo: David Bartolomi
I used to yearn for a wake-up call. I thought often about an acquaintance who took a skydiving class; when her parachute didn't open, she fell more than a mile, crashing into a field. Miraculously, she lived. And as soon as her bones healed, she changed her entire life: divorced her husband, moved with her children to a house down the road, and let herself pursue what she really wanted. Of course, I didn't want the mile-long fall (or the divorce), but I did want this woman's visceral understanding that life is short and mustn't be wasted.

Even after I was struck by a car and sent flying four feet through the air, though, I wasn't shocked into transformation. I picked myself up, limped home, and continued to ignore a certain unhappiness in my marriage. I put off asking my parents for the stories of their childhoods so I could record them. I doggedly did my work and didn't confront problems.

A few years later, when my sister, who had been ill for decades with multiple sclerosis, passed away, I felt surprisingly little: I'd been saying goodbye to her for a long, long time.

But something happened at the funeral home. "Come here," the rabbi said, drawing my family into a side room. My glance fell on a simple pine box. Naturally, there are coffins in funeral homes, I thought—then realized it must be Anita's. It was so small, considering the large woman she'd become. So bare. That's all life ends up as, it seemed to say. My heart flew out of me—oh, Anita! I suddenly missed the girl she'd been, the energetic hiker who sang Girl Scout songs and sipped Tab, who folded newspapers into admirals' hats for us to play at being adventurers. I even missed the wheelchair-bound woman who loved chocolate cake although someone had to feed it to her.
At the cemetery, in accordance with Jewish tradition, my father and brothers threw spades full of dirt onto the coffin—I demurred—and then the workmen filled the grave. It struck me as somehow barbaric and mind-boggling to stand there while they actually buried Anita.

In the car going home, I sat beside my mother. "Life is a dream," she said. "My mother used to tell me that."

A mourning candle marked with a Jewish star flickered on my stove. As the days passed, I wondered if it was possible to return to the way I'd lived: drifting. I recalled how once, when Anita was already housebound, I'd asked what she was up to. She'd just ordered a box of pens with the inscription This is the day which the Lord has made. Rejoice and be glad in it.

At the end of seven days, Orthodox Jews blow the candle out. I inhaled and blew—it felt like blowing out Anita's own soul, like releasing her to her new world, and being expelled back to the quotidian. I took a slow walk around my Brooklyn block, and saw for the first time that even the street of throbbing, filthy diesel trucks held something sacred.

Ordinary life subsumed me after that, but only up to a point. Soon I sat my husband down and told him about the hollow places in our marriage—and our relationship gained energy; the life force flowed back in. I became more nurturing of my writing students, and made it a higher priority to spend time with my parents.

What a relief to hear a wake-up call at last! I only wish it hadn't taken the loss of my sister to rouse me. How much better to discover life's evanescence without the parachute failure or some other calamity. Why wait for a near-death experience when life itself is a near-death experience? I wish someone had told me: You're allowed to hear the call even if the crisis happened to someone else. Life is always a risk, never a possession. Anita, who contemplated ultimate things, could have told me that. Baby, as she might say, when it's over, it's over. This is it, my pet pachooch! Better live in a way that inspires rejoicing.


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