Rochester, New York – August 18, 1969
Normally Abby would have let her brother sleep well into the morning, but there wasn’t time for that today. Aaron and Ben had spent the night at the family home as well, but they had both been in and out while Jacob slept. They would have been much less sympathetic, but somebody still had to wake Jake up.
She knocked on his door just after nine. “Time to get up, Chief,” she said loud enough to make sure he would hear. She had waited at the breakfast table for quite a while in case he woke up on his own, but it was time.
Jake eventually emerged, looking like he could really use a lot more sleep.
“Good morning, sis,” he said.
“Mom called from the hospital,” Abby replied. “She said that the doctor wants to talk to the family at eleven, so we should go pretty soon.”
“Okay,” he said solemnly. “Well, I’m ready to go.”
“Not so fast, Jake. Obviously mom and dad will be happy that you are here at all, and I know they would prefer if you would shave and get a haircut, but I’m not going to ask you to do that. We really don’t have time for that, and I know this is just where you’re at right now, but for God’s sake, take a shower. Do it for me if for nobody else.”
“Melissa and I never shower. We think it’s way more important to be clean in here,” he said, pounding his chest, “than it is to be clean out here.”
“Maybe today you can be both,” Abby suggested. “I’ll have breakfast ready when you get out.”
The sensation of the first streams of cold water flowing over his body were a shock to Jake’s system, not only because he hadn’t felt it for a long time, but also because it shook him out of some of the withdrawal symptoms that he was already starting to feel.
“Don’t you ever want your old life back?” Jake asked when he sat down to breakfast. “You know, sleeping under the stars, wearing whatever you want, and not having to pretend to be somebody else just to make people happy?”
“The reason I came back is because even on the road I was pretending to be someone that I wasn’t. Sure here I’m pretending to be a good Jewish daughter, but at least when I go to bed at night I have a soft bed, and I wake up fully knowing where I am, and nobody looks at me like I’m, … Anyway, what I’m saying is that if I have to choose which artificial world I’m going to live in, I’ll pick the one where the food is better.”
“I can dig that,” he said. “I just wish you had told me you were unhappy.”
The scene at the hospital was more chaotic than Jake was prepared for. He expected to see his mother and his brothers at his father’s bedside, but there were aunts and uncles in the room, as well as their rabbi and people from the family pharmacy. Abby and Jake pushed their way through the crowd, with Jake getting more than a few disapproving glances for his appearance.
“We’re here, Daddy,” Abby said, lifting her father’s hand to greet him.
Jake was prepared to see his dad in a hospital bed, but what he saw surprised him. Mordechai Overmann had never been a strong man, Jake was surprised at how weak he looked. His skin was pale and his often stern looking face simply looked tired.
“Hi Pops,” Jake said with a strained smile.
Morty looked up and saw a straggly bearded man standing there, but that was his son’s voice and those were his son’s eyes.
“Come here,” he said, gesturing with his hands.
The old man was still strong enough to put his arms around Jake, though he couldn’t hold him as tight as he once did.
“Hello my son,” he said.
“I’m sorry, dad,” Jake said through tears. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I’m sorry, …”
“No,” Morty stated, loud enough for everyone to hear. “There is no shame here. My family is together, and I am a proud man. Janice! Where is our camera? Let’s get a family picture.”
The Overmann matriarch had until now been watching proudly as her prodigal son returned to her husband’s side. It was the first time in a long time that she had wept tears of joy, instead of sorrow.
“You don’t want your picture taken like this,” she said, “What with the needles and the tubes and the machines? No, in a few days you’ll have some strength back, and some colour back, and we’ll all pose nicely for a family picture.”
Jake didn’t know the difference, but anybody who had been there longer knew that this optimism was misplaced.
“I might never look this good again,” he insisted. “Kids! Come gather ’round your father.”
All four children crowded around the hospital bed while their mother fetched the camera.
“Is it true there were a million people there?” Aaron asked as he stood behind his younger brother.
“Maybe,” Jake said whimsically.
“Then it’s no small miracle that Abby was able to find you in that crowd,” Janice said as she dabbed her tear-soaked face with a tissue before posing for the picture.
The reality that this was almost certainly their last picture together as a family was lost on nobody. Some tried to smile when the nurse who had taken the camera counted to three, but mostly they tried not to cry. The only one showing any joy when the shutter snapped was Morty.
“Thank you,” he said, expressing his appreciation both to the volunteer photographer, and his family. “Now before the doctor comes in, I want to talk to my boys alone.”
Everyone filed out dutifully, with only Abby resenting having been excluded. The three sons, Aaron, Jacob and Benjamin, moved to the foot of the bed.
“Listen boys, you’re going to hear the news in a little while, but it’s not going to be good.”
“Don’t talk like that Pop,” Jacob said.
“No, listen to me. Your mother and I have talked to the lawyers, and it’s all been drawn up. I want the three of you to take over the pharmacy. Not now, but when you’re ready. I know you probably think it doesn’t look like much, but it’s a profitable store, and your mother and I have worked hard and set aside a lot of money to grow the store. If you decide now or after some schooling that this isn’t for you, then go with my blessing, but the store is yours. And we had big plans for that place. We wanted to open a clinic in the same building and maybe start selling our own bring medication. We have people there who can run it until you’re ready, but if you want it, it’s yours.”
“Thank you dad,” Aaron said.
“Now, you swear to me that you will take of your mother. She put everything she had into raising you kids, and it breaks her heart whenever she has to be away from you.” He was looking directly at Jake when he said that. “So swear to me that you will look after her and that she will not die alone.”
“We swear,” they all said at more or less the same time.
“And help your sister find a good husband.”
When the doctor came in a little while later, the news was as grim as Morty feared it would be. His heart had sustained a lot of damage, and the tests just weren’t showing the improvement that they’d hoped it would. They could keep him on the machines for a while, but Morty refused to be kept alive that way, and incur all those extra costs for the family.
He died that night as he slept, and in accordance with his wishes, the family agreed to sit shiva for seven days after the funeral.
While the others had more attention at Hebrew school, Jake needed to be reminded what shiva was.
It was the second day when a familiar van pulled up, parking along the road because the driveway was full with the vehicles of other well-wishers. Abby was the first to notice it and she went to tell Jake.
“I think Melissa just pulled up,” she said, after pulling him away from another conversation.
“You know, Moon Child?”
“She’s here? Right on.” But before heading out the door, Jake went over to tell his mother, “I’m just going to step outside for a bit.”
“The rules are that you need to stay indoors,” she said.
“No mom,” Abby said, knowing the disdain Melissa held for all things religious, “I think it would be better if he had this conversation outside.”
Despite putting up some resistance initially, Jake agreed to cut his hair and shave before the funeral. He only did it to please his grieving mother, because while part of him fed off of the negative attention, he recognized that his father’s funeral and the week-long shiva wasn’t the best atmosphere. The conformist hair style also meant that he didn’t have to put up with the questions and the judgement as often. It also meant that relatives who hadn’t seen him for a long time had a better chance of recognizing him. It made a lot of things easier, except for his reunion with his girlfriend.
Melissa hardly recognized the clean-shaven man running toward her when she got out of the van. She figured it out in time to let him hug her, but she pushed away when he reached in to kiss her.
“What happened to your hair?” she asked.
“It’ll grow back,” he said. “I only did it for the funeral.”
“Oh no,” she said, changing her tone from accusation to sympathy. “That means he did die. I’m so sorry.”
“He’s one with the universe now.”
“So when is the funeral happening?” Melissa asked.
“That happened yesterday already.”
“Okay, well then are you ready to go?”
“No,” Jake said, gesturing toward the house. “We’re sitting shiva. I want you to come in and meet everyone.”
“What the hell is that?” Melissa asked, reverting back to accusation.
“Shiva is beautiful,” Jake said with the enthusiasm of someone who had discovered something for the first time. “It’s a Jewish thing where the immediate family of the person who died stays in the same house for a week while friends and family come visit.”
“But you’re not Jewish anymore, and your new family is waiting for you on the road. Have you sold out that quickly?”
“Nothing has changed, Moon Child,” he said. “Listen to me. I am still a child of the universe, I just have to take care of a few things here first. My dad wanted me to go back to school, and he set money aside so that I could do that. He also wants my brothers and me and take over the store. It’s a lot to think about, and I want you to stay and help me decide.”
“Don’t you see? That’s how the man works! He dangles a little carrot in front of you until you take it, then he offers a bigger carrot, and pretty soon your just another heartless corporate drone spewing out the same soul-sucking agenda as everyone else.”
“Nothing has to change,” Jake insisted. “I’m starting to think that this might be a better way to carry out the plan. Just come inside. I want you to meet my mom.”
“I don’t think I can, baby. I’m going to go back to the rest of the group. You need to figure some things out.”
Melissa kissed Jake and climbed back into the van. He just stood there as she drove away.
It would be another month before she came back, but by then he was already registered at the University and she was dating somebody else. Jake took the news well, but still needed someone to talk to about it. Abby, who was living at home and helping their mom manage the pharmacy, was the only one who felt sorry for him that things ended with Melissa the way that they did. But Jake hardly had time to worry about an old girlfriend, what with classes and the family business to oversee. Soon the only remnant of his past life was the van he insisted Melissa give back to him, and despite the insistence of his mother and brothers, he refused to have it repainted.