As I peered into the open casket, I saw the body of my long-time friend and “church fixture” as one of the deacon remarked, Natalia Kargalsky. There she was lying quietly in a cotton grey dress with little birds in flight. Her hands united over a wooden cross, icons of the Mother of God of Iveron around her head like a halo. She had the look of the dead—the sleep that is not sleep. A lifeless body holds so much mystery; it is almost as intriguing as an embryo in its early stages.
On a podium next to her casket lay an arrangement of knick knacks or relics from her life—a carnet de identidad from the years her parents emigrated to Argentina, black-and-white photos of her and her parents with the mountains of Bohemia in the distance, a passport from Russia. There was a collage of pictures of her from her youth. I gazed long and hard at the profile shot—of that younger Natalia, the Natalia I had not had the pleasure of knowing, with a full head of curly hair and a smart radiance; she is just about to speak or else caught in the act of speaking in that shot. Before us lay the stray fragments of our Natalia, the grandmotherly figure we visited in the nursing home and rehabilitation center on Sundays after church. The one who loved cats and St. John of San Francisco, whose crooked fingers curled upwards but were manicured pink. Here was the Natalia I had known and the one I had not. The little old lady in a wheelchair who would bark at us, “It’s OK. Go go. Goodbye” shooing us out when she decided we had overstayed our welcome, who had become “kooky” at the end according to the deacon who had become her health proxy. Here was the church fixture, the little short-haired spinster and retired librarian from the New York Public Library, I thought I knew all about. Yet from the relics of her living I discovered her mother had abandoned her in Argentina, that she had kept the two thick braids of light brown hair wrapped the Ukrainian way around her head her entire life and was taking them with her into the grave. I found out she had not married because of the guilt trip here mother piled on her not to leave her alone in her old age. Indeed, I came to discover Natalia’s life during her death.
Natalia’s panikhida was held at Peter Terema’s Funeral Home in the East Village. It is one of the ironies of ironies that a most conservative old-school matron would be remembered in one of the hippest New York City neighborhoods. On the block of the funeral home the young hipsters peer into boutiques of handcrafted silver jewelry, hold arms outstretched under the tattoo inker’s needle, wait in line for a scoop of rainbow flavored cones at Gay Ice Cream parlor, hang out on the sidewalks smoking and flirting—the block throbs with the sweet birds of youth. A few doors down sticking out like a dark thumb in a flat façade after a few steep steps is St Mary’s Orthdox Church, a mosaic imitation of the Virgin holding the Christ Child over its main entrance and the leaden outlines of a saintly figure with his back to the street in the dark stained-glass window to the right. The Church once a bastion for immigrants from the Ukraine and Russia now stands like an anachronism with gay couples walking hand-in-hand and purple crested creative types zipping on ten-speed bikes. Out of living vibrant East 7th Street next to the bustle of the cutting edge side by side to the stubborn fact that all that lives is born to die.
It is the gift of the dead that they bring the living together. Our parish had gone through a schism of sorts, nothing new in Christian circles. We had started out as a closely-knit church, but we had broken up into three different factions branching out into three separate churches. Yet at her wake, we became united again much like a dysfunctional family under one circus tent. At the wake were chatting away members I had not seen for years, asking about kids and health and extended family members. Those who had separated on not such the greatest of terms were now making polite conversation as if nothing had happened. I was surprised and a bit taken aback; the mood was rather giddy, not somber or silent. It was a bit like being in one of the bars on the block except with no drinks, just a dead body lying in a casket. We hugged and kissed and smiled at one another just like old times. “Natalia would have wanted it that way,” a parish member said. Another irony indeed. That a single, crochety old lady who never married, and had spent the last ten years of her life languishing in a long-term care facility could bring so many different types—an antique collector from Panama of Chinese descent, a graphic designer from the MidWest, a UN director of Russian-Ukranian- Sierra Leonean descent, a Puerto Rican theology student, an Irish-American senior home administrator, a Greek educator, and even a fiery divorcee from Coney Island who considered the deceased a very good friend. Just like the best of bars in the East Village.
I had come to Natalia’s wake reluctantly. I had dreaded the emotional malaise of having to see death stark and naked before me. It would have reminded me too painfully of my father’s funeral two years ago. I had also come guiltily. You see, I had been meaning to visit her in the nursing home where she was placed on hospice ever since I got the news in the form of a text from the other parishioners that she would be leaving us shortly. I tried to go one day after another, but something always came up. Monday we had my college class to teach; Tuesday we had meetings until late; Wednesday night class; Thursday I came so tired I sputtered out convincing myself that I MUST go on Friday. And Friday morning, I left the house taking with me the oil from the vigil lamp of St. John who I had visited and stuffing it in my coat pocket with the clear intention to visit her after work. But by Friday afternoon, my mother was haggling me to rush with her to the Office of Human Resources to find out why “Obama” dropped her Medicaid. By the time I got back it was six o’clock and by then I had run out of excuses and energy. I don’t remember what with taking care of the baby and the house that had gone to Hades. I should have kept my intention and my strength to visit her on that Friday, because on that Friday she passed away. It was too late by Saturday morning to go and visit her when I was off work. She was gone. I never had the chance to say goodbye. And with all the hecticness of the working day, even on the day of the wake, after parent-teacher conferences I did not even have the chance to find a flower shop to pick up the flowers I would have wanted to place on her coffin. I came even to her wake empty handed.
But the dear, the sweet mother that she was, she wound up giving me a gift instead. She gave me to realize that this business and busyness we take to be so important really gets in the way of what is really important. That people must always come first. No ifs ands or buts. That you must conserve your energy for what is important and not waste it during the course of the day like Martha grumbling that she had to do all the dirty work. That we have to simplify our life so we can sneak in a visit to little old ladies in nursing homes. Natalia gave me to realize that a funeral does not have to be this somber thing, that it can be a celebration of life and the awakening of it as a deep mystery. When I walked back to my car after the wake and gazed on the buzzing pavement of the East Village, I came away with a feeling of vigor, with joy to know I was alive and the appreciation of life in all its mundane complexities.
By far Natalia’s greatest gift was that she gave me to realize that her body stretched out, “she looks good” the deacon even remarked, as if she was still alive, this body cold and stiff its hands crumpled and fingers curled, it was Natalia but it was not Natalia. It was like the husk of the corn or the shell of a peanut. That was her but she was not there. I think this is why we were so at ease in her cadaver’s presence. Because she gave us to know that what we came to behold was just the envelope. The spirit had left and we knew it. And while we were there celebrating and remembering her life, her real life had begun. And though there is no proof we could point to with a magnifying glass, we knew. We felt that she was OK and so we were at peace and in a good mood. She had wanted to die, I learned, from a parishioner. She was tired and wanted to be near God. Here again is the irony—that life and birth should be different sides of the same coin. I know how it feels like when after the 42nd week of pregnancy, no matter how scary and uncertain the birth process can be, you and the baby get to the point where you both want birth. You want to be born. Facing death, if you are lucky, should be the same way. You get to the point where you are tired of living and death no matter how scary and uncertain, you want to go through with it. Birth and death become portals to a new life. And that gives you courage and peace.
These are the gifts that the dead confer upon the living. Natalia’s wake became an awakening. We went home drunk with life.
We will miss you. You in all your mystery. Your love of cats and the Church. Your crotchetiness and your crocheted blankets. We miss you and wait to see you again. We love you very much. Remember us. Pray for us as we pray for you.
In loving memory,