Monday: My cousin Roz died. I got the news via text message while attending my grandson Josh’s ninth birthday. When the party ended and I prepared to leave, I gave the news to the rest of the family, Josh included. He knows well what a first cousin is because he has seven of them all of whom he adores. Hence, he could understand my sadness. He asked Rozie’s age. I told him she was eleven years older than I am which made us 67 and 78. I assured him that those ages might sound old but they really are not. He is a sweet and polite boy. He didn’t argue with me but he was clearly skeptical.
Tuesday: I feel very fortunate that I live in Cincinnati which is in driving distance of my hometown, St. Louis. It was therefore easy to travel the 373 miles to attend Rozie’s funeral. I felt discombobulated as I drove. While Roz had struggled with mental illness her entire adult life, she was otherwise healthy. How could she have died? I felt guilty too. It had been a long time since I last visited her.
As I drove across the state line into Missouri a sign said, “Welcome to St. Louis.” At almost the same moment, my oldies radio station started to play “We Are Family.” Suffice it to say this was an emotional “welcome home” for me.
Wednesday: At the funeral, Roz’s nephew, Jimmy, performed the ceremony, sharing many personal and loving remarks. Roz’s niece, Maggie, spoke too. These cousins had been among the super-stars of Roz’s caregiving team through the years. They could have told sad stories of bad days but they chose to remember the good times instead. Maggie’s words were particularly eye-opening for me. She simply told of the things she and Roz loved doing together: shopping at Kohl’s, listening to favorite music, knitting, and watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Just mentioning these mundane activities made them glow with importance – they are the stuff of memories.
I felt sad that time ran out before I figured out a way to do more with Roz. Now I know. I, too, could have listened to Neil Diamond or Barbra Streisand with her. It could have been just that easy to figure out our togetherness.
In spite of my failure with Roz, I cherish family. I inherited this sentiment from my dad whose one black cloud in life was the fact that beyond his parents and siblings, he had almost no family. Everyone else died in the Holocaust. This fact gives each of us born in the next generations a special significance. We’re it. We’re the family. Thus after the funeral I was delighted to have lunch with these loved ones at Cousin Jimmy’s house.
The greatest thing about lunch was sharing tales of Roz and other relatives who are now gone. In retrospect, it doesn’t really matter which stories we told, only that in telling the stories our loved ones lived on. It delights me that there was an actual takeaway from the tales. Literally. We promised and then followed through on sending each other family recipes. Stuffed cabbage rolls! Mandel bread! “Moon” cookies!
The most difficult thing about the meal was realizing my exact place within the group. My paternal grandparents, my folks, and all my aunts and uncles on Dad’s side of the family are gone. There were nine first cousins born into that group. With Roz, three of them now are deceased. Of the remaining, I am fourth oldest. Age sixty-seven suddenly felt quite ancient. Perhaps I protested too much on Monday when chatting with grandson Josh.
After leaving Jimmy’s house, I headed back to the cemetery where we had buried Roz. My parents are buried there too and I needed shoulders to cry on. I was saddened by Roz’s death. I was disappointed in myself for not having been more involved with her in her lifetime. I was frightened by my own mortality. When I was able to calm myself, I made a promise to Mom and Dad that I would do a better job of staying in touch with the St. Louis family, with other relatives nationwide, and even with my kids and grandkids in Cincinnati. Maggie’s lesson tells me this is doable. Grand gestures are not always necessary, small acts can suffice. I see a lot of emails and text messages in my future.
Rozie’s gravesite is up at the front of the cemetery, so I passed it as I walked back to my car. Big clumps of earth filled her grave. The ground was in as much upheaval as I was. I know that in time the earth will settle back down and my emotions will too. I hope and pray that as this happens I will keep my promise to my parents. This thought will certainly help: I am a family elder now and I have a responsibility to the clan. We need to stay close, because we’re it. We’re the family.
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