R.I.P. Michael Kalish
27 December 2016 / 27 Kislev 5777
We buried Michael Kalish yesterday.
My brother died on Christmas Day in a hospital on Long Island. I have a very few pictures of him. He's wearing a Santa hat in two of them.
Michael was 57 . He spent half his life in group homes for autistic adults. I saw him a week before he passed and for much of that last visit he asked me over and over again, “Take me to McDonald's?”
That was his big thrill. For close to 30 years now, I've been taking my bike once a month on the Long Island Rail Road and pedaling to his group home where he always greeted me with a warm smile, announcing, “Jonathan is here.” Which was always followed by, “Take me to McDonald's?” Then we'd get in one of the group home vans and a staffer would drive us to McDonald's. I'd order him the two cheeseburger meal-- hold the cheese-- and we'd go sit in our usual spot. In recent years, after Michael had lost all his teeth, I had to cut up his burgers like little pizzas and he'd eat them with his french fries and diet Coke. I'd open the foil top covering the little plastic container of half & half and pour it in his coffee along with a packet of artificial sweetener. Often, he'd pick up the empty half and half container and pull the foil top off completely. I assumed he did that because it needed to be done.
After McDonald's we went to a deli or supermarket for treats. I always held his hand as we walked across Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown, where he spent his final years. At the Stop 'n Shop there he got a KitKat bar, which he referred to as a KittyKat bar, and a pastry. He was partial to Yodels and RingDings. When he lived in a group home in Uniondale, we went to a deli to get a package of two RingDings. But at the Stop 'n Shop in Levittown they only sold RingDings by the box and in the van ride back to the group home after lunch, Michael begged for more RingDings. I did cave in on some occasions. Back at the house Michael asked me if I wanted to see his room. We'd sit on the floor for a few minutes. There was a stuffed animal on his dresser, a pussycat named Spikes. We'd sit for a short while and Michael would point at the fire alarm on the ceiling, which he loved to set off. Then he'd inevitably ask, “Ready to go home, Jonathan?” I'd walk my bike out of his room and he'd hold the front door to the house open for me and out I'd go to pedal back to the train.
Michael died during the Jewish holiday of Chanukah and under traditional Jewish law, we don't eulogize the deceased during Chanukah. The rabbi officiating at the funeral, wearing rubber rain boots to navigate the muddy terrain, said that Michael never hurt anyone. That observation stays with me still.
I brought a KittyKat bar to the funeral, hoping to place it in the coffin with my brother but the rabbi said it couldn't be done. It sits on a counter in our loft by a framed picture of Michael wearing a Santa hat, next to a candle that will burn for a week.
The rabbi told me that it was a mitzvah to bury my brother so soon after he passed. He died a little after 7 p.m. on December 25th. This time of year that's considered the beginning of the day in Judaism. Michael was buried before sundown on December 26th, which is that same day in Judaism.
There was a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish men, at Michael's funeral. The minyan is required under traditional Jewish law to recite kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. I wasn't expecting a minyan at the cemetery but a damn good saxophone player I know went to work and several Yeshiva students showed up in the chilly Staten Island afternoon.
Besides my wife Pam and my brother Chuck, a nurse from Michael's group home and her wife were there to help bury Michael Kalish. As we were waiting for the funeral to begin, nurse Meghan told us that she played some BeeGees songs for Michael the last time she visited him in the hospital. Michael loved the Bee Gees. Unbeknownst to the group, their hit song How Deep Is Your Love had a different title, as far as Michael Kalish was concerned. He called it Breaking Michelle.
Jews actually pick up a shovel and fill the grave when they bury their loved ones, which is what we did when we buried Michael Kalish.
One of the things that the Jewish tradition holds is that when you die, you are re-united with your loved ones in the world to come. This is the great comfort I take in the passing of my brother. He is now with his mother, who he lost at the age of six. And with his father, who he frequently asked about. “Who's Eddie?” he'd blurt out at McDonald's.
I have one question for you, Michael Kalish: Ready to go home?
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