It’s been a long time since I wrote just because. Just because I wanted to write and not because I needed to write for work or the local paper or or or…
I like writing like this because it is the most raw and beautiful form of expression. Completely uninhibited. Even if I know you are reading this.
Doesn’t it feel liberating to be…yourself?
I’m a little overwhelmed with emotion right now. My kids are off to camp for the first time in two years. I’m back to my office after 16 months. And colliding with this joy and hope…Yes, that’s it! That’s why I’m so off.
My joy is colliding with my sadness.
Today is my sister’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of her passing. She’s been gone for 28 years. By now she should have been married, had children, been a successful accountant, everything she wanted. She died when she was 18. And even after all of this time, as resilient and hopeful as I try to be (try being the key word here), clearly, I’m still not over it. Are we ever?
We say “may her memory be a blessing.” We share those memories – even though it’s hard to remember them. (I was only 13 when it happened). We name our children after our loved ones. We give to charities in their memory. My sister played the flute in high school, so I donate to an organization that gives instruments to children in low-income families. Ooops, allow me to go do that right now…
Wow. I just went to their website. And there she was. A beautiful young girl (get this!): playing the flute. It’s like she’s playing it for me. It’s like I can hear her again, squeaky and off-key at first and then, oh so melodic and graceful.
What I would give for just one more note.
I grew up in an area with few Jewish families. When my father, z”l, was observing a yahrzeit for his father, z”l, he would have to “round-up” a minyan, a quorum of people, to recite the necessary prayers. He insisted on serving them breakfast or a meal. At first, he would make the eggs, platter the lox from the synagogue kitchen and then, as it became harder to stand on his feet, he would eventually invite everyone to meet at a local diner. Oh, to have one more diner meal with my dad! It was always a competition to see whose meal in the family was the cheapest. But never when it came to guests on his tab.
This morning I gathered with people on my deck: friends, friends like family, community members. And they joined me so I could say some prayers in memory of my sister. What I love so much about my tradition is that when we gather to do this, we don’t sit and weep, although that would certainly be okay. We gather together to pray. To connect. To support. To go to another place.
As a spiritual leader, I’ve been guiding my community through this pandemic. Instead of praying towards Jerusalem as we would while praying in-person, I prayed towards my screen. Finding some way of connecting, rejoicing, and dancing from the privacy of our own homes seemed to test my creativity, stamina, and spiritual truth.
But screens cannot replace touch. An embrace. Just plain being in someone’s physical presence. What I would give, sometimes, to just hug someone through the screen.
This morning, on my deck, in the 84-degree heat others buoyed me up. Because when joy meets sadness, we embrace the beauty and glory of the moment, our God-given ability to connect with others, to lend a tender and supportive space and place for a moment of sanctity.
But before people came to support me, I was alone with my kids. In the midst of getting them ready for day camp, I had them join me as I lit a candle in memory of my sister, their aunt. I brought out Michelle’s high school graduation picture, one of the last ones we had of her before she passed. It’s been in the same frame for years. It’s gone to college with me, moved with me all over the country and world, and today it sat right in front of my daughters as they ate warm bagels (one everything, one blueberry) from the smeary granite countertop.
My 5-year old, who has never even met my sister, looked at the picture and said in the sweetest voice: “I miss Aunt Michelle.”
My heart melted.
Oh, to miss someone we haven’t even met in this lifetime.
Before I knew it, the kids were back home, as they enthusiastically shared the details of their day at camp. They wanted to know how my day was. And, perhaps more importantly, whether I had any leftovers from the breakfast I served at morning minyan on my deck.
“Of course I have leftovers. We’ve got bagels and lox and deviled eggs, cookies and cheese danish and so much more.”
Their eyes lit up. They looked at each other. I knew they had a plan.
“Let’s have a party!” They said together.
And so we did. Off they went to set the table, select the dishes, put the food out, and arrange cloth napkins in perfectly long circular rings. Before I could blink, one put fake flowers with a faux butterfly into a translucent vase to add to the festivities, trying to sneak in some cream cheese with her thumb.
For a moment, I remembered when I was gathering platters this morning to use on my deck. I said “no” to the cupcake one, to the one with balloons – those platters should not be used at such a solemn occasion.
But here they were, throwing a party on the afternoon of my sister’s yahrzeit. And they didn’t even know that tomorrow would be her actual birthday.
When sadness meets joy, we welcome, we marvel, we lift up that joy as if it’s the only thing we’ve got.
Even leftovers can be turned into a party.