We stood at the graveside on top of a layer of snow and ice. It was a balmy 32 degrees on an overcast day in Chicago. Despite the fact that I was officiating at the burial of my dear friend and past comrade at arms in the Jewish community of Sacramento, I could not help but feel that I was going beyond the professional role as officiant this morning in eulogizing Phyllis Cohen.
Phyllis was born in 1947 and because she grew up in Chicago we buried her next to her parents and her brother. All of us who attended the service experienced the surreal sense of loss and being lost at the same time. It was as if a wind whirling around us like the cold winter breezes. I say this because none of us would have expected that she would be diagnosed with a brain tumor and that in a matter of weeks that she would be in the hospital, transferred to the Jewish nursing home in Omaha, Nebraska and then pass away within days. She was too young to die.
My friends of Sacramento who read this blog will remember Phyllis as the beautiful woman whose passion for the Jewish community in Sacramento led her to become the executive director of the Federation. She has left a legacy in Sacramento. We partnered, for example, to initiate the successful and still running youth program Yachad. Phyllis was a doer and she brought all her charm, organizational talent and professional organizational skills to get the job done. She was creative and loved the challenge of organizing the ultimate event no matter what organization she represented. She was a professional in every aspect of her work. I hope that the people in leadership of the Sacramento Jewish community will respect her memory and remember her for all the good she did to improve and enrich Jewish life.
There is something different for me in this situation. It is not only the shock of losing a long time friend. It is not just the sadness of knowing that her husband of 25 years, Michael, is a bereaved man when he should have had her for many more years. It is not even the feeling that I want to express to God which is; “Why?” Maybe it is about facing one’s own mortality. Could it be realization that I will wait in vain for her phone call which will never happen again? There is this empty feeling inside that asks me questions I cannot answer. Maybe she is hiding from me? Could this all be reversed?
We cannot be the philosopher in these moments. Death is pragmatic and real. Death stares at us in the face as if to say ‘Look at me and deal with it!’ And my initial response feels like, “I hear you angel of Death but I don’t want to listen. Why do I have to listen to you?”
And despite these existential questions our healing balm began when we all went out to dinner tonight. Husband, daughter, dear friends and we talked, laughed and told stories about Phyllis. It helped. It always does. I can see beyond the horizon the hope of healing for us all. I can feel that the relentless winter will not suppress the warmth of Phyllis’ memory from comforting us. It is not now but I have faith that healing will come as sure as I believe in the coming of spring. There is always hope even when the questions that remain unresolved still hover over us. And that is why I turn to Psalm 121 in these moments. “I lift up my eyes to the heavens. From where does my help come? It comes from the Eternal One, Maker of Heaven and Earth.”
Saying the mourners’ kaddish was painful but a privilege. Placing the earth over her casket made it final. Eating the meal of condolence opened up a new chapter in our lives. I already miss my dear friend. Yet I have made new friends as well in her family. Her amazing daughter who is the rock of the family planned everything. Phyllis’ oldest friend, the synagogue executive director, whose dedication and spirit to the Jewish people rises to the level of above and beyond every day and their daughter the Jewish educator and her dad all embraced me into their circle of mutual support and love for Phyllis. I am grateful to them all.
Phyllis was tall and slender like a model. I liken her to a beautiful swan. When she walked into the room, you knew it. Her gentle and calm way along with her wit and laughter will remain. I can still hear her now.
Death is not a theory. It is personal and it hits us in the face whether we like it or not. It bruises us. Can we heal? That answer is as elusive as the question itself. Rest peacefully good friend and be with your family. We, your family in the land of the living, will sing your praises and usher in the warm winds soon.
*I asked the family if I could discuss these emotions and they gave me their approval.