Mary Carter, author of A Non-Swimmer Considers Her Mikvah: On Becoming Jewish After Fifty, wrote about the shock of learning about a death from an unexpected part of her personal history. This essay from the book provides a thoughtful look at feelings of guilt and grief.
(Note: Woven throughout these Coyote Diana essays, and appearing in italics, are lines from the Al Chet, which is the confession of sins recited ten times in the course of Yom Kippur services, and Unetanah Tokef, which is the central prayer of the Rosh Hashanah service.)
30 August 2013
I was about to leave to go to Torah Study when the phone rang. Caller ID read Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office. Gary answered the phone. I stood by with my bag on my shoulder.
After a few minutes hearing Gary responding with, yes, and yes, and then okay, he mouthed a name that we had not heard in thirty years. Then he hung up the phone.
Diana—Gary’s first wife—had died on August 28, 2013 and the Coroner’s Office was tracking down her next of kin. She died homeless, an alcoholic, on the streets of L.A. It was probably murder. The coroner said that there were no other next of kin. Gary, as Diana’s ex-husband, was a kind of next of kin. In these first moments of learning of this sad event, we are almost without words. I ask what will become of her. Gary shrugs. We just stand there looking at each other.
Then I said,
―Let’s give her a final resting place here in New Mexico. Call the coroner back and tell them we will provide a final resting place for her.
Gary calls the case worker back to start the process. The L.A. Superior Court requires a filing for an ex parte request to receive the remains. A judge must review the papers and sign off on the cremation and shipment of the ashes to another state.
We had not seen Diana for more than thirty years. Back then, she had had a pretty good job, living okay and, with luck, happily ever after.
We are shocked and much shaken by the news. It’s worse than sad. I feel a sick clench of the belly, as if to avert a blow, except the blow had already struck.
The angels are dismayed.
The next day we contacted one of Diana’s friends, Helen, who Gary had known from when he and Diana had been married. We had not spoken to Helen in almost forty years. She told us that Diana had been homeless for the past twenty years. In and out of rehab countless times. Hospitalized. Arrested. Jailed. Addicted to vodka. She stole money from friends. She stole a watch. She stole a car. She stole from an employer. She put the touch on everyone she knew and alienated all of her old friends over the years. We did not know any of this.
Who shall live and who shall die?
Then I realized that I had a role in this.
I began to remember a lot of things from my very brief acquaintance with Diana. And slowly I began to realize that I am, or was, culpable in her sad life and in her abrupt death. I began to feel guilty that I had been too forceful in saying to Gary that he could not give her any more money—that was back in the early-seventies after Gary and I had married. Diana had called often back then, asking him for thousands of dollars and he used to cough it up pretty regularly. The last time she asked him for money she wanted 5,000 dollars. Gary and I were both employed at big advertising agencies back then, we had double incomes, no kids. And I had said to Gary,
—Are you married to me or married to her?
I wanted Diana out.
. . . for the sin which we have committed before You by hard-heartedness…
And out she went. Again I remember saying to Gary:
—Are you married to her or married to me?
I am reminded of Sarah and Hagar. In my flailing despair and confusion I emailed the news of Diana’s murder to a friend of mine, a rabbi, and he took gentle issue with my likening it to Sarah and Hagar and responded with this:
―Rather, it is that she, herself, didn’t listen to the voice of the angel who said, Diana, what ails you? Open your eyes and see the well of water right beside you! Unfortunately, she didn’t. Instead of providing herself with the salvation that was right there for her all along, she went the opposite direction. Tovah
Miriam, read Gen. 21:19. It’s all there. Only Diana didn’t fill the water bottle. It wasn’t yours to save her. It was hers to save her.
When I heard his words, I was still not so sure.
I study Torah now in my retirement to discover how its ancient stories relate to my life, here and now. And the life story of Diana and my part in it reminds me of the story of Sarah and Hagar, and while I take the rabbi’s point, my heart is not so sure. I still feel a hard, fearful thumping in my chest. Am I . . . was I . . . so innocent in Diana’s story?
In the story of Sarah and Hagar there is an abuse of power. My stand against giving Diana more money was a power play by me over her. According to her lifelong best friend, Diana had wandered the streets of Santa Monica, combative, shouting, and addicted. I had a part in this. This I know. This I know now, now that I can look back through the tunnel of my life to a moment in time when I was cocky and hard-hearted. I, a young bright woman on her way up, sentenced Diana with harsh words – she, a young lost woman on her way down.
Who shall have rest and who shall wander?
If I had not been so set against Gary giving her any more money maybe none of this would have happened. I am culpable in some degree—and directly. Is that true? Or was I just one of the straws that broke the camel’s back, though perhaps, not the last straw for Diana?
Now I really have something think about for making amends on Yom Kippur 5774.
It was not really about the money—never only about money. Money we had and potential. It was my own fear that surfaced in every request she had made. I had felt insecure in my new marriage to Gary. For years I never really felt I was there in our life together and so I remained on the qui vivre, ready in some background place of my heart to leave and to again fend for myself, clever girl that I had been, cocky, capable, easily employable, always with a job, and, at bottom, untrusting.
And so when Diana called asking for money she was not simply the ex-wife, she was a chilling portent of things that I feared in my own life. I was selfish and hard-hearted. After Gary and I married there was not a breath of compassion in me, back then, aged thirty or so.
Now, here it is nearing Rosh Hashanah 5774 and my friends and confidants try to comfort me, to make excuses for my behavior, as if it were some form of noble protection for my own marriage. I am not so sure I can rationalize my words from back then,
―Are you married to her or married to me?
I cannot rationalize. Words have consequences and, though late, my words echo back through thirty years of time and the words show up translated into the digitized message on caller ID: Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished?
Diana died beaten in the street with nothing but her fingerprints.
We told the coroner that we will see to her remains and provide her with a final resting place. It is unlikely that any of her next of kin are still alive.
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented?
Too little. Too late.
My little excuses and rationalizations and even the rationalizations of my friends and of a rabbi, it all feels inadequate. Words have consequences.
# # #
Gary and Mary provided a permanent final resting place for Diana in a cemetery in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Nine people and a rabbi paid quiet attention to her life in a small service of committal for her cremated remains.
A Non-Swimmer Considers Her Mikvah by Mary Carter is available at Amazon.com and other websites.