Laughing at Death

A Writer and Her Dying Brother Forge a Bond Through Humor

Siblings: The author and her brother, Jack, in 2003.
Courtesy of the Author
Siblings: The author and her brother, Jack, in 2003.

By Sybil Sage

Published December 10, 2013, issue of December 13, 2013.
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“You were there for my birth and I’m here for your death,” I told him. His eyes welled up when I said, “It’s my privilege.”

He responded with a Yiddish expression I didn’t understand. Still teaching, he translated that I would get no reward for these efforts. “You’re dead wrong,” I countered. “The look on your face is the best thing you’ve ever given me.” I reached for my iPhone and played a song from our childhood home, the tearjerker, “My Yiddishe Mama.” “How are you not crying?” I asked.

“I’m thinking about what I want Mama to cook for me. Maybe gefilte fish.”

“I have bad news for you,” I told him. “I have her grinder.” That got the biggest laugh.

His hope of rejoining our parents shocked me and inspired me to say, “If you actually end up someplace and you’re with Mama and Daddy, I want you to send me a sign. I’ve heard stories about clocks stopping. Yeah, stop a clock in our apartment, nothing big that will require the super to come up.” He nodded, the way he had when we both knew he would ignore my suggestion that he join a health club or switch to low-fat cream cheese. But maybe the new Jack would be more cooperative.

Before the funeral started, as I stood in the cemetery’s office, I felt the crystal necklace I’d put on that morning slither off my neck and saw it fall to the floor. A few days later, I took it out of my purse to examine it with the friend who’d given it to me several birthdays ago. The clasp was intact, but the string looked as if it had been yanked apart. She grinned. “The sign from Jack?”

“Maybe you’re right. He never did what I told him to.”

On July 6, exactly a month after Jack had died, I was in our building’s laundry room. For the first time in the 33 years I’ve lived in the building, the hands on the wall clock weren’t moving. It said 9:44. It was actually 4:12.

Sybil Sage is a TV writer whose credits include the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Northern Exposure; she has also written for many magazines and the New York Times.


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