Long-time readers of Unlikely Stories might remember me writing about my daughter, Michaela. (Michaela was assigned male at birth, so you might remember me writing about my son.) On October 24, 2023, Michaela died unexpectedly in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
Michaela’s mother, whom we’ll call Leslie, is not Jewish, but Michaela’s patrilineal Jewish heritage was very important to our child—she practiced more than I, in fact. So Leslie began the process of arranging a Jewish funeral, which I appreciated. We selected a Jewish charity for LGBTQ equality, Keshet. Although Michaela was not a member of a congregation at the time of her death, we were able to find a rabbi to perform services—the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland has an on-call community chaplain for this purpose. We wrote a lengthy obituary highlighting Michaela’s Jewish identity.
A little more than a week before the funeral, Leslie called and said she had our rabbi on the other line. She said the conversation was difficult for her, and asked if I could be involved. She hooked us into a three-way call, and I learned that Leslie had become upset when the rabbi described the process of shoveling dirt over Michaela’s coffin, as practitioners of Judaism generally do. Leslie didn’t think she could do that, and the rabbi and I assured her that no one would try to force her to.
A couple of days later, I spoke to the rabbi again, and found he would not have yarmulkes. Since I live in New Orleans, I thought it would be easier for Leslie to get some than I, though in retrospect, I don’t know why I thought that. So I texted Leslie:
Rabbi C. will not have yarmulkes. Do you want to pick some up?
Who would need to wear them?
All the men. Michaela’s gaming friend, I guess.
Ok don’t know if everyone will be comfy with that but I’ll ask
Hats are an acceptable alternative
Ok. The funeral director will bring 10 yarmulkes. He’s picking them up tonight.
At least two prefer their own hats at this time. One is a simple grey beanie.
Are beanie type hats ok??
Now agitated, I replied:
That’s great to hear about the funeral director. A yarmulke is a simple head covering. Heads are supposed to be covered before G-d. I will not police your friends’ heads, but I’ve never encountered questions like this before.
It’s not a synagogue or Jewish cemetery, so wasn’t expected. They have their own beliefs which don’t match Judaism, so it’s awkward. Sorry it’s not the response you hoped for, but they’re happy wear their own hats.
We then went on to discuss readings at the funeral.
I was given a date for the funeral, precisely one week out. The short lead time meant that, for financial reasons, my wife, Rosalyn, and I had to fly Spirit Airlines. We’d leave New Orleans very early in the morning, but we’d get to Portland in the early afternoon, the day before the funeral. It seemed good enough.
Unfortunately, our plane left New Orleans more than an hour late. It landed in Las Vegas, Spirit’s western hub, and we thought we’d have just enough time to run to the Portland gate. But to the awareness of few, American airports have begun closing their gates much earlier than as of last summer, when we last flew. So we rushed to a closed gate, and were informed we would have to wait nine hours until the next flight from Vegas to Portland. We were also informed that it was our fault we missed our connection, and as a result, no meal tickets would be provided.
The Las Vegas airport is crowded with gambling machines. It’s hard to imagine a worse place to relax. Trying to make light of the situation, I wrote on Facebook:
Our flight out of New Orleans ran late, and we missed our connection. Now we’re stuck in the Vegas airport. I do not recommend grieving in the Las Vegas airport.
Few found this funny. I added in a comment: “I’m calling my memoir ‘A Grief Ensnarkened.’” No one laughed at that one, either.
Someone in the comment stream suggested that we go to one of the exclusive airport lounges, and plead our case, in the hopes of escaping the gambling machines. Rosalyn and I wandered around a bit, but it seemed that the only lounges in Vegas were places crowded with gambling machines in which one could smoke. Smoking seemed tempting, but we instead opted for a bar.
It was 10am, and the bar was lightly crowded with drunken partygoers. We ordered drinks, and reluctantly chatted with the various extroverts who approached us. Every once in a while, someone would ask where we were headed, and I’d say, “to a funeral.” That ended the conversations.
After a few hours, we decided to leave the increasingly busy bar. It was time to get food, and we really couldn’t afford to get shitfaced on airport drinks, anyway. We ate junk food and went to our gate, where we spotted our bartender, who was now working at a different, open-air airport bar.
Rosalyn and I chatted with each other, watched the gamblers, and killed time on our phones. I had deliberately left my laptop at home, which I never, ever do.
Eventually, the next flight to Portland left, and we arrived at the Portland airport, where we found that Spirit had lost our checked bag.
With some difficulty, and after some piteous tut-tutting you flew Spirit, did you? from airport staff, we found a Spirit customer service kiosk. The staff assured us that not only did they not know where our luggage was, they would be gone by the time the next plane came in. They said that if the bag was not on the carousel, it was not in the airport. We asked for a number we could call, and they prevaricated as long as possible, then gave us both the national number and the Portland number. They spoke of a late-night employee that we could call, who might be able to check for our luggage on the next flight.
The conversation was ugly. At one point, Rosalyn stormed away. At that point, I tried the foulest card in my deck, and said that I wanted to be able to wear a suit for my daughter’s funeral. “I understand,” said the employee. “I very much doubt it,” I snapped.
We hailed a taxi, feeling thoroughly defeated, and met my mother, Elaine, and my brother, Joseph, at the hotel I’d arranged for the four of us. We called Spirit Airlines approximately every half hour, hoping to catch the late-night employee. We drank.
Eventually we reached the late-night employee, who assured us that he had our bag, and that the day shift could send it to our hotel in the morning. Rosalyn wisely wanted to get a cab directly to the airport at that moment, to make sure the bag was in hand. I objected. It was late, we were intoxicated, and we didn’t need to be buying any more round-trip fares to the airport from the suburbs. I persuaded her, and we went to bed.
In the morning, we called Spirit, found an employee, and asked that they send our bag to the hotel. They agreed. A few minutes later, they called back, saying that we had missed our flight out of Vegas, which was our fault and our problem, and thus they would not send our luggage to our hotel. The funeral was scheduled for 11am.
Rosalyn and Joseph got a cab to the airport, and I returned to Facebook:
Our luggage didn’t make it with us to Portland until late last night. Now Spirit says they won’t deliver it to the hotel because someone put in their computer that we missed our Vegas flight. We shall go to the funeral naked in body as in spirit.
No one laughed.
There was one Spirit employee remaining at the airport when Rosalyn and Joseph arrived, and he gave her the bag, warning her against assuming the presence of Spirit staff at the airport—Spirit only keeps employees around immediately before and after flights. As far as we can figure, our bag made it onto the very first flight to Portland, the one we missed, but no one was willing to actually go into the office and check for it until the late-night employee.
I do remember: customer service is a terrible job. One wants rid of the customers as soon as possible. I dig that. There are two ways to get rid of customers: solve their problem as best you can, or tell them any lie you can think of to get them to go away.
While Rosalyn and Joseph were in Portland adventuring, I walked to the closest corner store to pick up some sanitary pads. There is a type of woman who will always flirt with a man purchasing menstrual products, and the employee at the corner store was such a woman. I’ll typically flirt with just about anyone who isn’t motivated by the presence of sanitary napkins, but I’d never been less inclined to flirt at any point in my life, and extricated myself as quickly as possible.
I broke down before the funeral, but we nonetheless made it, largely due to the exceptional competency of the folks at Bill’s Towncar Service. Our driver got us there, stood respectfully nearby, assisted the cemetery employee, and generally proved to be a real mensch. He also wore a yarmulke. Hiring Bill’s was by far the best decision I made during this story. Of course, that’s not saying much, but they actually are great.
At the funeral, one of Michaela’s gamer friends was already there. He knew Joseph, but not Leslie, so he walked up and joined us. Leslie was already there, surrounded by a woman Michaela had dated years ago, and four other people I didn’t recognize. They were two women and two men, and sure enough, the men were in hats. The two groups of people approached each other cautiously, with introductions and very awkward hugs. Leslie gave me Michaela’s Bible study guide, respectfully wrapped, which I placed in the car. We met the rabbi, and made our way to the gravesite.
I was out of it. One of Leslie’s woman friends was fluttering all about, assisting others, and I asked her if she was with the funeral home, despite having been introduced earlier. I remember repeating, “no, no, no,” but I don’t know if I mumbled or shouted it. The strangeness of the situation really didn’t register with me until hours later.
The rabbi, aware that Leslie was not Jewish, preformed a brief service, with an explanation of relevant Jewish traditions. He then informed us we were to stand for the kaddish. My family, myself, and the gamer did so, and the rabbi handed out copies of the kaddish in Aramaic and English transliteration, rightly thinking that none of us were prepared to recite it.
Now, the kaddish is damn near impossible for English tongues unaccustomed to Aramaic, but the five of us were prepared to do our best. Leslie and her five friends remained seated. The rabbi asked us to stand again, and they did not do so. They received the copies of the kaddish, but did not look at them, and made no attempt to recite, staring stonily ahead. I was in front of them, and not really looking, but even in my state, I noticed that.
Next, it was time for us to shovel grave onto Michaela’s coffin. Everyone in our group did so. Leslie’s group stayed far away.
As far as I can tell, discussing it with my family later, Leslie decided on a Jewish funeral, arranged a Jewish funeral, then changed her mind and decided she couldn’t really tolerate one after all.
The gamer left, and the four of us took the towncar back to the hotel. We had a quick drink, then walked to Elmer’s Restaurant, which was tasty and had decent drinks. Our server was competent, attentive, and very pretty. I’m not sure how I would’ve felt if she had flirted with me.
The four of us returned to the hotel, and Joseph, Rosalyn and I talked about Michaela while my mother napped. Eventually, she got back up, and we all grieved and drank until we couldn’t communicate any more. The next morning, Joseph and Elaine woke up early and took their flight home. Rosalyn and I got up and walked to a Tex-Mex place so I could get a margarita for brunch; the food and drink were disappointing.
We returned to the airport early, and waited for the Spirit customer service representatives to arrive. We encountered one who was much more sympathetic, and checked our bag for free, which was presumably the best she could do for us without turning it into a thing. We flew to Vegas, sat in that hellhole for a couple of hours, then made it safely home.
I described the journey on the phone to one of my few friends who knew me when I was married to Leslie. “Leslie is irrelevant,” she said. “She has nothing to do with what you’re feeling or your grieving process.”
“That’s true,” I said, “and someday, I’ll probably be able to make a funny story out of the whole thing.”
“I don’t know about that,” my friend replied.
Jonathan Penton founded UnlikelyStories.org in 1998. His own poetry books are Last Chap (Vergin' Press, 2004), Blood and Salsa and Painting Rust (Unlikely Books, 2006), Prosthetic Gods (New Sins Press, 2008), Standards of Sadiddy (Lit Fest Press, 2016), and the electronic chapbook Backstories (Argotist E-books, 2017). He lives in New Orleans, where he is working on a book of ekphrasis and a book of haibun with Cassandra Atherton. Jonathan recommends Keshet.