My family lost somebody we loved last week, a dear friend who felt like the best kind of family. He had been sick this summer, but his passing came more quickly than any of us expected. Indeed, we very much counted on seeing him at Thanksgiving and at my sister-in-law’s wedding later this fall.
I met Uncle H. at a shabbat dinner not long after I started dating my husband. A devoted, curious, active Jew, he nonetheless welcomed me – the lapsed Catholic girlfriend of his good friend’s son – as warmly as could be. He asked me about my classes and was excited by my post-graduation plans to teach elementary school in New York City, his own hometown.
I saw him a few weeks later on the shuttle train between Grand Central and the 1 train. ”Excuse me, Miss. Are you a friend of J.?” he asked me. I looked up from my book to see his kind eyes smiling at me from behind his silver-rimmed glasses. When I assured him I was, he joked, “Oh, good. I didn’t want you to think that I made it a habit of picking up young women on the subway.”
Uncle H. was a lawyer, a runner, a lawyer, a tireless volunteer. He was a joke teller and a writer of song parodies. He was madly in love with his wife of decades (as well he should have been; few women I know are as smart and witty and loyal). He often took her hand while walking down the sidewalk or at the dinner table, when babka and coffee would give way to talk about movies and international politics. Their marriage was a genuine partnership, a match of humor and intellect and deep, abiding love – a model to everyone who met them. He loved his daughters too, dearly, and his sons-in-law and his grandchildren. They brought him joy and filled him with pride; he reveled in their every achievement. He loved his friends and their children, remembering details about my kids’ preferences and quirks and delighting in them as though they were his own.
Since our first son was born in 2007, we haven’t lost any friends or family members; Uncle H. was the first person my kids cared about who died. We weren’t sure how exactly to tell them the news, how they’d react. When we told the boys what had happened – the truth made as gentle as we could – our six year old, sensitive, an old soul, looked at us carefully, slowly processing what we had said. He didn’t cry, just laid his head on his dad’s lap. His younger brother, not understanding the weight, the permanence of what we’d said, asked, “Does that mean he has to get his tonsils out?”
If only, my love. If only.
We buried Uncle H. on Monday. A brief funeral service in Manhattan was filled with prayer, song, and two beautiful eulogies that captured his humor, intelligence, and kindness. We made our way out to the cemetery in Long Island then and laid him to rest in a plot next to the family members who had gone before him. There is much to like about Jewish traditions for dealing with death. Among those I am most moved by is a ritual in which the mourners do the work of covering the coffin with dirt after it is lowered into the ground. On Monday, with raindrops and tears streaking our faces, we took turns and slowly shoveled, in no hurry for this task to be done, in no rush to walk away into a world without Uncle H. in it.
I will miss him dearly, and lament the fact that my children will not get to grow up with him in their lives. They just don’t make many men as fundamentally good as he.
May the memory of this righteous man be for a blessing.