Sunday, September 16, 2012

honoring a life

Tonight I lit a yahrzeit candle in memory of my Grandma Bernice, who died ten years ago tomorrow. It's Jewish tradition to light the candle at sundown the evening before the yahrzeit (anniversary of the death). I'm not the most devout Jew ever (to say the least), but I always have seen the symbolism of this tradition as being a reminder that even if a person is gone in body, their spirit lives on - there is a light still burning for the person. The light to me has represented the immortal spirit of our loved ones, but what do I know? And regardless of what it means, I've been comforted every anniversary date for the last ten years when I see the candle burning for my Grandma.

On this date, I always take some time to reflect on my Grandma Bernice and the amazing person she was. The first inarticulate brain activity was along the lines of: how has it been ten years?! When Grandma Bernice passed away I was 18 years old, three weeks into my freshman year of college, and in bed fighting a bad case of mono - which I had gotten, turns out, kissing a rather cute boy all summer long. So it really is "the kissing disease." I did not go to her memorial service - a decision I will forever regret - and because of that in many ways I've spent the last decade carrying the loss with me. Yet, I've found ways to let go for the most part and find peace. I've also almost forgiven myself for not being a part of her memorial, but it is one life decision I wish so badly I could redo. Since I can't, I will focus on what I can do...

Tonight also happens to be the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah is about making amends for the past year and committing to improving your life in the coming year. Knowing I am remembering a decade without Grandma B, while also thinking of the year ahead, feels just about right.

What I've most often struggled with in the decade without her feels incredibly selfish: I'm sad I didn't get to know her when I was an adult, and that she didn't get to know me as I entered a transformative time of my life.

On the other hand, I think losing her as I entered my independent life changed me in ways that have made me who I am. So it's hard to think about who I would be if I didn't suffer this loss right as I was embarking on my life outside of the literal and figurative safety of my childhood home. It's one of those crazy moments of: did this make me who I am, or would I still have made the decisions I made if this significant life event hadn't happened then?

Regardless of the answer to that question -since there is no real way of knowing - I am seeing how she has been a part of my last ten years in so many big ways. Since she's been gone I've taken a leave of absence from school to live alone in California and work on a nature sanctuary; returned to college wiser and braver and willing to study the things I cared about instead of the things I felt pressured to care about; traveled to Japan, Paris, Hawaii, Vancouver, England, and loads of states; fallen in love for the first time; hitch-hiked on the Big Island of Hawaii wearing a rainbow-colored sundress; survived other losses and heartbreak; participated in back-breaking farming until I too believed in my strength; bought a house on my own at 25-years-of-age; quit a job when it was no longer life-affirming; written a story that was mentioned on public radio; spoken up for what I believe when it wasn't the easy thing to do; been kind and loving and curious as often as possible.

In so many of these adventures I see traces of Grandma Bernice. I see her determination and strength. I see her zest for life and her curiosity. I see her loyalty to living a life of adventure. I see her honesty with herself and those around her. Mostly though, I see her love for the world and the people in it. 

I see myself through her, and her through me.

So how do we honor a life? I think we honor it by living our life: living it well, living it with intention, and care. We live it, in the words of one of my favorite UU hymns, by saying "Yes" to life.

(here's that song)
Just as Long as I Have Breath

Just as long as I have breath, I must answer, “Yes,” to life;
though with pain I made my way, still with hope I meet each day.
If they ask what I did well, tell them I said, “Yes,” to life.

Just as long as vision lasts, I must answer, “Yes,” to truth;
in my dream and in my dark, always: that elusive spark.
If they ask what I did well, tell them I said, “Yes,” to truth.

Just as long as my heart beats, I must answer, “Yes,” to love;
disappointment pierced me through, still I kept on loving you.
If they ask what I did best, tell them I said, “Yes,” to love.

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