Monday, September 1, 2014

Goodbye to Harold

My Uncle Harold died almost two weeks ago.

It was a loss to our family, but also to the world which was better for having Harold in it.  My uncle was kind and funny and smart.  He loved his family.  He loved good grammar.  He loved to read and play golf and take pictures of people (and pets) he cared about.  I don't know anyone who ever met Harold who didn't like him.

I'm glad my children and I were able to make it down to Florida in time for the funeral.  I'm even gladder we were able to get there six months ago and spend some time with Harold while he was still with us, because visiting the dead is about respect, but visiting the living is about love.

I've encountered differing opinions on whether or not children should attend funerals.  I think as with nearly everything it depends on the circumstances and the people involved.  In our case, I don't want to shield my children from the realities of loss because it's part of learning to appreciate what we have.  When we attended my grandmother's memorial a few years ago the younger kids played together in a separate room, but my oldest (who was nearly 9) chose to sit with me and cry along with the adults.  She remembers it, and knows it was meaningful.

When the news came that my uncle's health was failing rapidly we discussed as a family what we should plan to do.  My father (Harold's younger brother) is not capable of that kind of travel at this time, and my brothers were geographically scattered too far to even have a chance of getting to a funeral on short notice, so we felt we needed to be there to represent our family.  The original thought was that I would fly out with maybe one child, and Ian would stay home with the dog and the remaining kids.  That seemed the most workable thing to do.  Of course in the spirit of, "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, / Gang aft agley," we got the call of Harold's passing when Ian was out of state with the Army, and I scrambled off with all the kids in tow.

My children were interested in paying their respects to Harold and being there to support me.  When we'd had our discussions about which child might originally come along, all of them wanted to, so in the end it worked out that I didn't have to choose.  I was glad all of them were there, because there was a lot for all of them to process and learn.

One of the things I wanted them to see was how religious families operate in such circumstances.  We've had occasion to participate in events in various churches, and we've discussed Catholicism in relation to the volunteering we've done and the families we know who practice it, but they've had less exposure to Judaism in any formal way.  They know my dad was raised Jewish, but other than playing with a dreidel and recognizing that minorahs have something to do with it, not much I've said on the subject has stuck because it's had no practical application.  Most of my children's religious information has probably been gleaned from The Simpson's over the years.  (Which, honestly, is probably broader than what many people expose their kids to.  At least Hindus get a mention from time to time.)

The helpful thing about any tradition, religious or otherwise, is that it can provide a framework for action at a time when we may be too overwhelmed to know what to do.  By tying us to both the past and the future we get some needed direction in the present.  I appreciated the role the rabbi played all through that day, guiding everyone through different rituals which felt like a way to get the bereaved to essentially keep putting one foot in front of the other during an emotionally draining time.  It was also interesting to see where members of the family adhered to to strict interpretations of Jewish tradition, and where there was some flexibility.  I was not always the best guide for any of this for my children, but thankfully my cousins were kind about explaining things and including us as much or as little as we felt comfortable.

I did tell my children the other language people would be speaking during prayers was Hebrew, and that it reads from right to left when we were to follow along in any book.  I told Quinn he would be expected to wear a yarmulke during the service.  I said they could expect lox and bagels and hard boiled eggs at the meal later.  I suggested that when in doubt, hugs are helpful.

We arrived at the funeral home about a half hour before the service was scheduled and were ushered into a smaller side room for family.  If I'd had any doubts as to whether the trip with all its expenses and complications was worth the effort, the look on my Aunt Lila's face when we got there would have dispelled them all.  That we were there mattered.  It demonstrated that to us Harold had mattered, and the people who were left behind mattered.

The rabbi was young, kind, and friendly.  He spoke to the family eloquently about the two conflicting yet complementary emotions we were likely experiencing: Grief and Gratitude.  Grief for our loss, and Gratitude for all we had. 

He distributed black ribbon pins to the widow and children.  This practice was new to me.  The pins were like black buttons with a strip of black ribbon hanging down from them.  Lila was supposed to wear hers on the right, but the three daughters were supposed to wear theirs on the left over their hearts.  Then they were asked to create a tear in the ribbon to represent their pain and loss.  In all the discussions about how long to wear the ribbons and sitting Shiva and reciting the Kaddish, the bulk of the loss seemed weighted toward the children rather than the spouse, which I found interesting.  (Maybe something about how you can "replace" a spouse, but not a parent?)

We stood in a circle and held hands in the small room, some prayers were recited, and then we filtered out to the main room where the closed casket was on display and took our seats in the first two rows.  It was a well attended service, but I think my children were the youngest in the room.  They were attentive.  They wept openly and quietly.

The rabbi spoke first.  He talked about Harold's love of family, and how he put his parents' needs ahead of his own teaching career when his father requiered help in his printing business.  He talked about Harold's love of children, his sense of humor, and the way he managed to address everyone he encountered from waitresses to students as individuals whose names he would recall.  Harold loved books, and apparently used to write the date inside them when he read them, and again if he revisited a book later.  He talked about the life Harold had built, and what we can learn from it.

I read a poem by my dad that he composed the day of Harold's death and emailed to me in time for the funeral.  I managed to read it without crying.

My cousin Amy read a piece she'd written earlier in the year for Harold's 90th birthday.  It was a beautiful description of why she loved her dad so.  It made us smile here and there, but for the most part it just made everyone weep.

The rabbi spoke a little more, then we headed out after the pall bearers to form the funeral procession.  I explained to the kids that the sign on our dashboard and our switched on headlights would let other drivers know we were part of a group on the way to the cemetery that was not to be broken up.  There was a police escort enabling us to run all the lights.  (Which we especially appreciated since the traffic lights in Florida are insanely long.)

The internment was a bit unsettling.  The humidity and heat were intense, and Mona in particular was fighting off a lot of bugs.  All the family were invited to sprinkle a bit of earth imported from Israel onto the casket (the kids declined), and following some brief words, the grounds crew went about the jarringly routine work of moving the casket onto a lift and laying it in place in the wall.  The casket was shoved to the back with a thud, and the last workman went about the business of caulking a cover in place and securing it further with duct tape, before replacing the granite slab over the front of it.  There was nothing to do but watch, and experience the unpleasant reality of leaving the body of someone we cared about in a box in a wall.

I thought the rabbi salvaged the moment nicely by telling us that we should not go thinking Harold was left with the contraption and the caulk and the granite slab.  That what mattered of Harold would be leaving with all of us.

Next we moved on to Lila's apartment building (which we were a bit late to, because we got separated from the group and became lost for a bit).  There was a buffet spread in a private room on the first floor where my kids were cheered a little by the opportunity to enjoy unlimited soda.  At this point if you can say you could have "fun" at a funeral, I had a lovely time getting to talk with cousins I seldom see.  I love the way Jane makes me feel genuinely included, how Brian makes me laugh, how Marjie takes the time to interact with my kids, how Howard makes things go easier.... I met some second cousins for the first time in person, and others I hadn't seen since they were small.  It was good.  And sad.  But good.

When we moved upstairs to Lila's apartment the rabbi explained in greater detail the expectations for sitting Shiva, about different timelines and prayers.  Lila lit a candle that was supposed to burn for about a week.  At sundown there were more prayers, but at that point my kids were worn out.  Exhausted from travel and emotion Mona finally let slip, "All this adult talking is getting boring for me."  I agreed, and said they'd all been very patient, and promised we'd go back to the hotel soon and I'd read them the next chapter from Harry Potter.

There was an interesting family moment during the evening prayers.  One of the grandchildren living on the other side of the globe (and obviously unable to be there for the service) called in the middle of the reading.  There was tension about whether it was appropriate.  Should the prayers take precedence over talking to a loved one from far away?  Some thought yes, some thought no.  You could argue it either way.  The deciding factor for me was that the phone call made Lila smile.  Anything that could bring her a moment of joy in the midst of an otherwise traumatic day trumps all as far as I'm concerned.  (But as an atheist I would choose people over prayers almost every time, so I don't claim to be a proper judge.)  In any case, that made for a good discussion with the children after we left, about how we rank what's important, and when do we make exceptions.

The next day we had to check out of the hotel early but our plane didn't leave until late, so we had the afternoon to spend at Lila's again.  To spare the children from more (boring to them) grown-up talk, I told them they could swim in the outdoor pool there.  It was beautiful, and warm, and it made them so happy to move around and play.  It would have made Harold happy, too, to know they were having fun.  (And Howard was kind enough to watch them for over an hour so I could spend time upstairs and talk with everyone, which I appreciated more than I think he knows.)

Eventually I coaxed the kids out of the pool, their faces all a bit sunburned but none of them seemed to care.  While our suits were in the dryer I got the kids to eat some bagels and cheese (along with cookies and soda), and I had a little more time to tell my cousins of Mold-A-Rama machines and violin making and look at pictures of their pets and hear stories of the jobs they do before it was time to go.

Mona, unfiltered as usual, and still happy from her swim, hugged Lila goodbye and said, "I had a great time."  The amused look on Lila's face as she hugged that girl was so bittersweet.  She patted Mona as she held her close repeating, "You had a great time?"  Not the most appropriate response to a funeral, but true in its own way, and it's hard not to smile at Mona.

There are two major reasons I was glad to have had all my kids along to say goodbye to Uncle Harold (beyond my own selfish need for them to comfort me and keep my spirits up).  The first is that when listening to the story of Harold's life, on what made it worthwhile and where his priorities lay, there were lessons there best heard by those young enough to still make their own life-altering decisions.  Family was at the center of Harold's choices, and his love of knowledge was evident right up until the end, and both those traits served him well over time.  Made him a man people will miss.  My children mourned the loss, but were also inspired by his story, and that's valuable.

The second is that children lend an air of hope and joy.  That combination of grief and gratitude over the loss of a loved one extends to everything around us because nothing lasts.  Children are the embodiment of what we have and what's to come and what matters.  Youth is beautiful, and forces us to look ahead, not back.  I could sense some of that at the funeral, that people liked having children around.  That through them, Harold's memory can continue on further than the rest of us can take it.

I keep reflecting on the conversation I had with my uncle on our visit back in February.  We had the chance to discuss important things that will stay with me my whole life.  And when I look at the photos I took with him on his balcony overlooking palm trees and water and sunshine, I think about how he told me since moving there from New Jersey so many years ago he woke up every day wondering what he did right to deserve to live in paradise.  It may not be in my personal belief system that there is an afterlife, but it means a great deal to me to know Harold felt he had paradise in his grasp while he was alive.  Because he did deserve it.

He will be missed.  And remembered.


  1. I am so sorry for your loss :(

  2. Beautiful, Kory.

    I was touched by Mona's words--"I had a great time". That is so often the case with funerals. You spend part of the time so grief-stricken you wonder if you will ever find any joy in the world, and part of the time laughing and enjoying yourself with family and friends you rarely see. I never feel guilt in those moments of unbridled joy because I know (given my personal beliefs) our loved ones are still with us, sad they missed the party. :o)

    I'm so sorry for your and your family's loss and hope everyone continues to find comfort in whatever way they need--be it family, prayers and traditions, or just being.

    1. Thanks, Rach. I think back to my grandma's funeral in particular, and how nice it was to sing and laugh, and enjoy the company of people we didn't know if we'd ever spend time with again. Bittersweet is the right word in my mind.

      Enjoying today just being.

  3. I'm so sorry for your loss. Such a beautiful reflection. You made me cry. :-) I personally enjoy funerals, when they are a celebration of a long, good life like your uncle's, so I understand Mona's comment. I think it's great that you included your children. Lorelei was just three when my grandmother died, and she remembers the funeral. We let the kids decide whether they wanted to approach the casket for a last look or not; she did, and William did not, and that was fine.

    1. Thank you. It does seem odd to "enjoy" a funeral, but for certain parts of it, it can be the right word.

  4. I'm sorry for your family's loss as well, and agree with what you said about processing grief being a valuable experience for children.

    But I identify most with Mona's "great time." As a child I recall attending a funeral for one of my mom's sisters who lived out of state. And I... enjoyed it. While I felt for all those who were truly grieving the loss of my aunt, I hadn't known her well and really liked seeing my cousins. I know exactly what she meant!


    1. Thank you, Lisa. And you're right, good cousin time is good no matter where you get it.

  5. So sorry for your loss. At any age, losing someone you love is hard. I'm a firm believer in letting kids experience death in an age appropriate but realistic way. I'm glad your kids were able to go and see that people live long good lives, die at a nice old age, and are missed and loved by those left behind. You get megga props for getting down there will all of the logistics.

    Mona's "great time" absolutely cracked me up and showed how kids can keep it real.