There's something magical about family numbers: how many people in the family, the first born, the last, whose birthday is when, how many chairs we need at holidays, the memories we link to how old our children were at the time, how to double or triple a recipe to accommodate everyone. These numbers are embedded in our thoughts, marked on our calendars and woven into our rituals. When someone in the family dies, it throws all the numbers off.
My brother Michael was only thirty three when he died of a heart attack in 1986. For some reason, in my grief, I kept making observations about numbers. Suddenly I was the oldest child instead of the middle. Suddenly I had one brother instead of two. Suddenly my parents had only two children instead of three. The date of his death, the day of the week, the hour of the day, instantly became as personal and familiar to me as his name. And the date of his birth, that number I circled every year as part of "breaking in" my new calendar, became one of a pair of numbers that were like bookends around Mike's short life: his birth day, his death day.
He died of a heart attack. It was sudden, and yet, we shouldn't have been surprised because we had all warned him endlessly about his eating and smoking habits. But those were only words. And his response to our admonishments was, "I don't care if I die young." When he did die young my anger was as powerful as my grief. I couldn't separate them.
Michael knew our father's family had a history of bad hearts. In fact, when dad had a triple by-pass, Michael spent the hours during the surgery in the hospital cafeteria eating junk food and smoking. Ignorance didn't kill Michael. If it had, maybe I wouldn't have been so angry. To me it seemed that Michael had virtually killed himself. And, like the survivor of any suicide, I kept asking, "Why?"
Anger at my suddenly deceased brother was a new and different kind of pain for me. I had been angry at him often while he was alive. He wasn't a good family member, he was often inconsiderate, and he was capable of dishonesty. But after his death I felt ridiculous for feeling angry. And I also knew that my anger was preventing me from experiencing the mourning I needed to. I needed simply to grieve.
I wasn't really aware of what I was doing as I made a mental inventory of what we had shared. Since we weren't that close as adults, it was difficult. But there were two things that emerged out of my anger and sorrow. Two things that I knew Mike and I had shared that were very special to me. There was his humor that broke through my anger whether I wanted it to or not. I hated to be manipulated and yet I loved the laughter and instant intimacy it brought. Mike and I shared a love of the absurd . We found things funny that no one else did, and, we could never use words to explain why. He was also capable of terrific physical comedy due to his weight and rubbery features. He would break into a funny accent for no reason at the strangest time. His sheer eagerness for laughter was childlike and irresistible.
The second thing I realized, was that he was the person who encouraged me the most when I was learning to bake bread. Of course, his so-called "support" was entirely selfish. He just loved to eat.
I remembered all those hours in our kitchen in Brooklyn as I kneaded (and he refused to help) and waited and hoped for the best. When I forgot to add the yeast, and the "bread" was a huge dense cracker, he ate it. When I made "whole wheat" bread but absent-mindedly used white flour, he ate it. I never had to throw away a loaf. I was seventeen, Michael was nineteen. I can still remember our old address, our old phone number, and the twenty-three steps we had to climb to get to our second floor apartment.
The one bread I loved to make was challah. Just handling the silky dough was a pleasure. I didn’t have time back then to perfect it, but once I got married I baked challahs every year for Hanukkah. I gave these as gifts to my family. Everyone loved them but only Michael was obsessive about them. When it came to challah I could do no wrong.
I loved baking for the holidays and giving away my breads. But it was Michael's relentless pursuit of my challah that added a touch of fun and even absurdity to the whole thing. I would bake two batches, each one producing two large loaves. One loaf went to my father and his wife, another to my mother and grandmother, who lived together. I gave my younger brother and his wife another loaf, and Michael & his wife got the last one.
Five months after Michael died it was Hanukkah. What would I do about the holiday? The bread baking? The numbers were off. If I baked one batch it wouldn't be enough. If I baked two, what would I do with Michael's challah? I considered going to his graveside and leaving it, but I knew that was ridiculous. I just couldn't face that extra loaf, and so I adjusted the recipe to make only three loaves.
Three. It was an awkward number. It didn't feel right and yet it was all I could manage during a time of profound grief. I don't know exactly when or how I figured out what to do with Michael's challah, but I do know it was part of the healing process. I never actually sat and worked towards a solution. It wasn't like solving a mathematical formula. But as the next Hanukkah drew near, I knew instinctively what to do.
Shortly before Mike died, I had started a "tradition" of having a Hanukkah party and inviting enough people to populate a small town. We ate latkes and blintzes and drank wine and sang. We played with the dredels and gave the children chocolate "gelt," and lit the menorah.
At my Hanukah party after Michael’s death, each family got a small slip of paper with a number on the front. The other half of their "raffle" was put in a hat. Towards the end of the party, we announced the winner of "Michael's Challah."
When I designed the raffle, I knew I needed to write a few words about the meaning behind it. It was only then that I understood all the reasons why this intuitive gesture was so important to me: it let people know what a funny and fun-loving person Michael was, it served as a reminder of the times we shared in that kitchen in Brooklyn. It made me laugh knowing that if Mike were alive he would have had the whole thing rigged! Written on the raffles was a wish that whoever won it would think of my brother and enjoy the bread as much as he would have.
At every Hanukkah party since then, we have our Memorial Raffle in honor of Michael. And, in a strange and wonderful way, it makes the numbers right again.
Read DIRGE - written at the time of Michaels' death.