Theme and Variation on Goodbye

 

Written in 2007, this piece returns to me every year with graduation. Re-reading it has become another part of the ritual. Enjoy!

I didn’t realize graduation was coming until I discovered I would miss the last Hillel Shabbat celebration of the school year. Shabbat is the Hebrew word for Sabbath, the day of rest that starts at sundown every Friday, and ends Saturday night. I count the passing weeks and years with the coming and going of this holiday. The best part is that even when it ends, I look forward to it, since it arrives every week. These rituals are part of my mental calendar, like graduation, the first day of school, the steady cycles of winter, spring, and summer break. The last Shabbat of the school year is one of my favorite celebrations. We look back at the week, and the year behind us, we bid farewell to our graduates, and we welcome the new staff of Hillel interns. We do not meet again until fall. My very last “Final Shabbat” will be next year, after I finish my masters program. Still, I was upset when I found out the conference I’m attending in Virginia coincides with this year’s celebration.

I’m trying to cobble together a story based on the graduations and goodbyes I’ve known, the see-you-tomorrow goodbyes, and the forever goodbyes. I never want anything to end, but eventually, everything does. If I’ve learned anything in college, it’s that no school year is like the one before it. Our lives are marked by change, the comings and goings of seasons and friends. Ever since my friend died, not long after he graduated in 2005, goodbyes have felt like little deaths. At graduation, he promised he’d visit in the fall. Goodbyes can be betrayals, when sudden absence replaces a promised return.

At Shabbat services, we need a minyan – a group of at least 10 people – to ritually call each other to prayer. We can call ourselves to prayer without 10 people, but we need a congregation to call to each other. This emphasis on the congregation means every Friday night feels different, yet the same: we sing the same songs, but they differ, depending on who is singing. After five years of greetings and goodbyes, Hillel holidays, and weekly services, the room is heavy with missing voices. I might be surrounded by people I love, but a silence accompanies every song. Memories wander inside, sometimes unsolicited, when we open the door to welcome Shabbat.

For a long time, I was obsessed with photographing doorways and windows. It started when I had only a few weeks left at Valley Forge National Historical Park, where I worked as a tour guide and historical re-enactor during summer 2005. I took pictures of the view though the door at Washington’s Headquarters, and through the window of the fee booth. There was nothing particularly beautiful outside. I’d just grown accustomed to it, and somewhere along the line I decided that this is what “home” is all about – it’s the part of you that opens into morning light, the door that closes when it’s time to say goodbye.

We are always leaving, arriving, and leaving again. Shabbat comes every week, and each school year has its end. But somehow, when it’s The Last Time, the most mundane activities become sacred: “The Last Midnight Safeway Shopping Spree,” “The Last Dumpster Dive,” “The Last Bluebook Exam.” We cannot look forward without looking back. The Last leans on the time before the last, the final hinges on the first. We create histories, even where none exist.

By mid-June, I will have witnessed five years of college commencements, and this would have been my fifth “Final Shabbat.” Still, no matter how I’ve tried to knit my farewells, to force my Valley Forge and graduation goodbyes to speak to each other, it never quite works. My loved ones leaving this year will take their place alongside my other memories. The memories will find me at Hillel, or at a favorite coffee shop. They will tap me on the shoulder when I least expect it, but these goodbyes, like the previous ones, defy the notion that it will all be ok. Some people have been whirlwind friends – in and out of my life before I knew what changed me. Others will be in my life, in some way, for a long time.

I accept the stories people tell each other – that all endings are beginnings, that it’s better to “live in the moment” than to live looking backward. But the real impossibility of goodbye is that although the door has closed, there is no immediate emotional closure. I still feel pangs of absence in the presence of memory. When the silences announce themselves, it’s difficult to accept that the “beauty of the moment” cancels the sudden loss. Yet, I can’t deny that I’m grateful for voices that enriched my life when I heard them, week after week. Saying goodbye, then, is another ritual. Instead of coming every Friday night, school ends every year, and everything changes. Despite the discomfort, the end reminds me that I’m still living through it, and that another beginning will come.

 

Real Estate

I wrote this seven years ago, but I’m sharing it on my blog today to honor the memory of my wonderful grandmother, Adrienne, who died this morning at the age of eighty-four. May her memory be for blessing.

It was my grandfather’s 77th birthday, and we were out to dinner at one of those restaurants where I’m always paranoid I’ll spill something. The forks were chilled. The lights were dim, and a candle in a glass dish flickered warmly on the table. We wore our most uncomfortable clothing, mostly because it makes our grandmother happy. “Don’t you look nice,” she crowed when we walked in. “It gives me so much pleasure, would it kill you to dress up like this more often?” Everyone wished my grandfather a happy birthday, and no one pointed out that this was his first birthday without his own father, who had died at the age of 105 in February.

The conversation was relatively normal, especially for my family. My brothers and I talked about school and work, and my mom talked about her students. We didn’t even argue about politics! After the server brought appetizers, my grandfather smiled, and brought up the new real estate they had purchased in Simi Valley that day. I didn’t know he was interested in buying a place, but, he liltingly explained, it was inexpensive, on the side of a grassy hill, with a great view of the mountains. They told their bridge friends all about it, so their friends could get in while the bargains were still hot.  When my grandmother described the matching headstones and coffins they’d chosen, I realized the “real estate” was a plot at a Jewish cemetery.

At this point, all other conversation died. Bits of food fell out of my brother’s mouth. I tried not to spit out my coffee. But no one could say anything before my grandmother continued.

“There’s plenty of space in the plot if any of you want to join us, when the time comes, but of course you don’t have to,” she chuckled. “We just wanted you to have the option. And there’s a pretty little bench under a tree nearby if you want to visit – not that you’d want to, because we’d be dead, but just in case.” My grandfather told us several of their bridge friends had, indeed, followed suit, purchasing their own real estate in the same cemetery. I didn’t know if I should laugh or not, as I saw coffins circling their ancient card table, in an endless game of imaginary bridge. As my grandparents giggled about their fantastic bargains at the cemetery, I decided my sense of humor is genetic.

Entrees arrived, and our laughter faded. My grandfather explained that choosing the coffins and headstone for his parents had been a miserable experience. Despite their health, they bought the real estate out of consideration for us.  “You shouldn’t make those decisions if you don’t have to,” my grandmother said. “We have a place all picked out already, no need to worry.” They took care of themselves their entire lives, and they’re used to taking care of us. Why should they approach death any differently?

My uncle, Steve, always ready to lighten the mood, announced that he wants to be cremated. We should take an urn with his ashes, and the ashes of each of his beloved cocker spaniels to Disneyland. My brothers and I promised to toss all of the ashes in the air, coming down the big hill at Splash Mountain. “Bring the photo to family gatherings. Max, Duncan, and I will always be there in spirit!”

Coincidentally, Joseph and I recently found a place to live for the fall. My grandparents found a more permanent residence. While Joseph and I will start our lives together in our new home, my grandparents’ real estate is the last home they will ever share. Despite these differences, we’re both preparing to transition. There’s no way of knowing what comes next, in life, or in death, and in the face of immense, unpredictable change, we seek stability, however illusory, in our respective real estate.

Why do we want places to represent stability or permanence? A headstone is just a rock. My grandmother was right – why visit? They won’t be there! But the headstone is not for her. Physical markers like headstones and houses are for the living. Both are coat racks for our recollections. We only access the past in cemeteries, but a home can also house future memories. “Real Estate” is more permanent than an anniversary, a memory, or even a photograph, but it also reminds us of the inherent impermanence and instability of life.

The strange collision between past and present makes me laugh, and feel uncomfortable. Whether it’s the grassy courtyard we’ll share with other apartment tenants, or the side of a grassy hill with a bench nearby, these are spaces where we can gather and remember. The house and headstone are also places where I can process that collision, where beginning and end are inseparable. Life necessitates death, moving in necessitates moving out. The sadness of death affirms that life was beautiful. Even though our family dinner conversation was macabre, we couldn’t help but have a wonderful time talking about death. Whether it’s a home, a meal, a memory, or a gravestone, sharing them is what’s important. Regardless of the space itself, it helps to have someone to move in with.


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Songs and Suffering

I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Is this it? Am I going to die? What will my mom say at my funeral? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?

I can see them, huddling together over cups of coffee in a campus coffee shop. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Will I pass my chem final? What should I do when I graduate? What if I don’t want to go home? Where is home anyway?

It’s cold, the first real rain California has seen in a long time. Stanford’s campus is relatively quiet. There are only a couple of days left before Thanksgiving, and people are mostly inside, studying for finals, buying their plane tickets for winter break. Meanwhile, at Florida State University, the students are wondering why it happened. A school shooting. It’s always another campus. It never happens here. Until it does.

I remember when it happened at Columbine. I remember how I suddenly felt cold in the middle of April, the kind of cold that makes you think you’ll never be warm again. When it happened at Virginia Tech, I kept refreshing the news websites, unable to look away from the rising body count. I thought about my friend who had died, young and unexpectedly, just two years earlier. The loss had shaken me to the core. When the death of one person can turn your world upside down, what does it mean to lose so many? I talked about it with my rabbi at a beach Shabbat retreat that weekend. The Torah reading for that week discussed the rituals that Jews perform after seeing or touching a dead body. Jews must complete these rituals before they return to their community for prayer. The ancient ones knew. A brush with mortality can shatter us. We need rituals to remember how to be whole again.

School shootings always raise questions. Is it because of guns? Is it because mental illness is stigmatized? Is it both? Maybe school shootings affect me so strongly because I can relate to students, and I’ve made a living out of it. I’ve worked on a university campus for the past seven years, and I was a university student for the six years before that. Students are the reason I get out of bed every day. Their lives are my calling, and their stories are a gift.

Over the past seven years, I have gained their trust. I have heard about their fears and their successes. I cheer them on in their campus musical and theater performances. I support them when they’re stressed about their exams. I coach them through interpersonal challenges. I give them feedback on their application essays and I write their letters of recommendation. I hold them when they cry because a friend has committed suicide or a grandparent has finally succumbed to terminal illness.

This week alone, I have had three conversations about grief, and one about depression. I listened, I validated, and I offered advice when they asked for it. This week I am including a memorial ritual for Transgender Day of Remembrance in my Shabbat service. We will think about this year’s 226 victims of transgender discrimination. We will think about Ferguson, and about the four men who were murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue two days ago, and we will think about the victims of school shootings, and the victims of genocide, about the Kesem campers who lost their parents this week, and about the Stanford alumnus who was found dead in the Bay. We will remember the ones who have no one left to remember them. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that no one should have to grieve alone.

When I read about a school shooting, my first impulse is to reach out. I desperately want to support the students who survived, I want to make sure they have someone to talk to, to process the trauma, to remind them that love exists in a world doesn’t appear to be loving. I imagine what would I say if it was one of my own students in the hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound. I wonder what I would say to the family. I visited a student in the hospital this past Sunday. It was an infection, and he’s mostly all right now. Healing takes time.

When the children and teachers were murdered in Newtown, it was in the week leading up to Chanukah, our Festival of Light. I remember going from one synagogue to another, looking for a place to say the mourner’s prayer. All three synagogues were hosting celebrations for the first night of Chanukah. The laughing and singing children and families felt like a punch in the gut. Wait, I wanted to cry out. How can you sing when so many are suffering? Then I remembered that it wasn’t right for me to think that way. People are suffering everywhere, and always. That doesn’t mean we should decrease our joy. It means we should increase our awareness, we should choose to bring light into the lives of others.

There was another school shooting today, and the rain is still falling. There is work to be done, and there are stories that need to be heard. We cannot suffocate under the weight of these losses when there are days and months marching ahead of us.

We need to remember, and we need to step forward, bravely, one smile at a time. We need to be the miracle, the moment of hope, the brightness bleeding through cracks in the darkness. We need to love in the face of loss, whether or not it touched us personally. We need to laugh sometimes, and cry, and hold onto each other. Because when it comes down to it, we are all we’ve got.