Teaching us how to live, and how to die
It was less than a year from diagnosis to death, yet to those of us who experienced the journey with her, it felt much longer. I think this was because she lived what time she had left to the fullest. In her presence, time slowed as she extracted every bit of joy there was to have.
She never asked: “Why is this happening to me?” She never railed against her fate — she decided to feel blessed for what she had and where she was. So the dynamic she created was like a star, with us as satellites revolving around her. To the extent that it was possible, she controlled her environment — with laughter and the Broadway songs she loved — she kept the dark feelings at bay.
She didn’t go down without a fight. Her battle was constant and intense. She knew from the very beginning that the tumor invading her brain could not be defeated in this life — so she fought it with humor and an indefatigable spirit.
She was my student for more than 15 years, an anchor to our adult Melton Adult Mini School class. She was the student every teacher needs (but may not want). She was smarter than I was (a Barnard and NYU Law School graduate) and delighted in pointing out the inconsistencies in my methodology (“Stop cherry-picking, Rabbi!”) and in our tradition. She was intensely loyal. She didn’t allow many to get that close to her — but once you were there, you were there for life.
And she had the loving support of her family. Everyone was acutely aware of the immediacy of her condition: it was never the elephant in the room. Her husband was a pillar of strength even as he slid into the despair of losing her.
I have officiated at hundreds of funerals in my time — but never one more meaningful and appropriate than hers. Everyone spoke from the heart, and for me, the a cappella rendition of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” evoked who she was more than any individual words could explain.
Her husband showed his humanity in arranging for my arrival from Texas to be there to honor her. I despaired over the possibility of not getting there on time or at all, but he intrinsically knew that not only did she want me there, but that I needed to be — there is a therapeutic dynamic for those of us in the clergy when we are able to honor those we hold most dear.
She lived her life to the fullest. But I believe her greatest accomplishment in life was teaching us all not only how to live, but how to die as well — with transparency, dignity and access.
In my remarks at the funeral, I quoted from the last conversation between Glinda and Elphaba in the musical Wicked —
I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led to those
Who help us most to grow if we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you.
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes the sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good.