Today was one of those days I’ll remember the rest of my life. Sad, profound and reinforcing of what’s really truly important all at once. This morning, we said goodbye to someone very special.
When you get married, your family instantly expands and brings all sorts of new people into your life. When I did, I inherited some wonderful characters who have taught me a lot about, well, character. Over the past 12 years, they’ve shown me a whole new perspective on what it means to be strong, resilient, dedicated to your family, and filled with love.
One of the biggest “perks” to this expansion of my family tree was finally having grandparents. By the time I was five, I’d lost three of my four. I really only ever knew my mom’s mom, Nana, who died just a few years ago after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. So when Shirley and Israel (known affectionately as Izzy) took me into their arms and hearts and called me family from the very first time I met them, I got to experience what a blessing it truly is to have a set of grandparents.
They were married for an unbelievable 64 years… until this weekend, when Izzy, 87, was whisked away to a new life, from which I’m quite certain he’ll be looking out and over us for the rest of ours.
“May you live to be 120” is a blessing Jews often wish upon one another. Legend has it that some of the most significant leaders, including Moses, lived to 120. According to the Old Testament, he was the ripe old age of 80 when God gave him the assignment of his life – to take the Children of Israel out of Egypt, away from persecution – a voyage that resulted in 40 years of wandering the desert to find a new home. As a result, the belief is that:
“One should never tire of life. Instead, one must look forward to each additional year with anticipation, excitement, and determination to make the most of every opportunity at every stage of life.”
Sage advice for any of us, at any age. This specific quote came from Chabad.org, but the wonderfully wise and compassionate Rabbi Greenberg who presided over Izzy’s funeral explained the concept so richly that I was compelled to research it after the memorial on my own. Looking around at the love in the room his words became so profound. “Every second of life, from the moment of conception until the completion of one’s years in this world is a gift from God.”
It really makes you think about how you are living your life and what you are doing of real significance. It doesn’t matter where you focus your energy, just as long as your soul shines brightly and impacts the lives of others.
The Rabbi then talked about the soul of a human being and compared Izzy to ancient sacred scrolls (a torah) adorned with gold both inside and out of its precious casing. Without the gold that radiated from the inside, he explained, the outside would never shine as brightly as Izzy did. Like Israel and Shirley had talked about many times before, the Rabbi urged us think about the importance of building character and soul, and how that’s the secret to ensuring we live rich lives surrounded by love.
To see a family come together with such love and strength is a beautiful thing to behold. Today, I had the privilege of witnessing a tribe huddled protectively around their grieving matriarch. Her grown children were strong and brave as I’d ever seen them. Her grandkids huddled together just inches behind. Friends and family filled every square foot of space around them. Despite the pain and the tears, all I kept thinking is, this is how I want to live my life. Surrounded like this with family, friends and love. What could possibly be more important?
After a poignant military sendoff where an officer on a bugle played Tapps while other officers ceremoniously folded and presented an American flag to his wife, we said our final goodbyes to this World War II military veteran, so fittingly, on Veteran’s Day.
As dictated by our faith, one by one, we took hold of a shovel and covered his casket with earth. For the first time today, I understood why. We, his family, were laying him to rest. It was painful, but beautiful all at once. Just before, some beloved personal items were reunited with Izzy in a lighthearted few moments that left everyone smiling and laughing. First, his old television remote control, the one he’d spent countless hours clutching as he kept close watch over his stocks on CNBC. Next, a copy of Barons, his favorite newspaper joined him. A deck of cards, for, as one of his daughters mused “you can go find a game of gin, and someone as bad at it as you to play with.” Next, his favorite watch, then family photos. In a strange way, it reminded me of sitting around a campfire, curled up with loved ones, staring mesmerized at the wondrous site of flames dancing from a pit.
It’s interesting that fire comes to mind, but not just because this man’s heart burned bright and brilliantly, filling every life around him with love and warmth. (In fact, all day long, I’ve felt a tingling throughout my right leg and arm that were always, within seconds, firmly wedged up against Izzy’s every time I caught him sitting on a couch quietly taking in all the action around him). I loved being an appendage of his, for those brief and precious moments. I always felt so safe and loved curled up next to him, with Shirley always close by.
Fire also came to mind because that was how Izzy lost both of his parents, in a house fire, when he was just 7 years old. While he lost so much so early, it was clear at the funeral that despite how we might suffer as children, or throughout our lives, that we all have the opportunity to build rich and rewarding lives around what matters most to us.
We all should be so lucky to die in our sleep, at an old age, surrounded by adoring family and friends, and leaving behind a legacy of love, hard work, and dedication that is sure to be remembered for generations.
The experience ended as poignantly as it started, with a little family reunion of my own. Can you imagine my surprise when pulling into the cemetery, in our long processional of cars following Izzy resting in blonde oak and carried by a black steel carriage, my mother announced that this was where my own grandparents were!
There’s always been a suspicion in my family that my grandfather Ben is my own guardian angel, watching over me. I’m apparently the spitting image of him personality-wise, with all my business, travel, adventures and constant relationship building and nurturing. My mother has always spoken adoringly of him and my father and uncle have always told me how proud of me he’d be if he could see me today. After saying goodbye to my husband’s grandfather, my surrogate all these years, I finally got to be reunited with mine. Ben Kushell, who didn’t even know his own birthday because they didn’t keep good records where was born, had taken my fathers birthday for his tombstone which read, simply, but rightly so, “He was a great guy”. Two plots over, I even got to visit my great grandmother Anna for the first time.
Rabbi Greenberg, in his profound wisdom shared a quote I will never forget. “You are not really gone until you are no longer remembered.” Anna, Ben, and now Israel, I promise that as long as I am alive, you will always be remembered with love and gratitude for all that you gave those of us who have the lives we do today because of you. And grandpa Ben, please take good care of Izzy for us.