I arrived in Tucson on July 3, 1976, with nothing but a backpack, post-college dreams and a lot of sand in my shoes. The three months it took me to hitch-hike from Oberlin, OH to Tucson really took a beating on my hiking boots and the slim savings I had.
My plan was simple: to live with my Aunt Gen for a while until I figured out what I wanted to do ‘with the rest of my life.’ Gen, who was really my dad’s first cousin, was 58, newly widowed and filled with dread about living alone, so it seemed like a perfect plan.
Moving to Tucson forty years ago gave me more than an opportunity to perfect my tan. Over the years, I was able to explore and develop as an adult without many of the burdens and expectations I would have carried had I returned to my hometown in New Jersey. It gave me ample space to truly grow into myself.
Aunt Gen was an essential part of that process: I became the daughter she never had as she offered me her wisdom, wit, spare bedroom and car. We experienced each other openly and honestly, without a lot of the shtick that often accompanies family relationships. It was a bond we both needed and treasured.
Aunt Gen was diagnosed with stage four cancer in January of 1996. They said she had four to six months to live, barely enough time to get her affairs in order, let alone do what she wanted to do before she died. How would she possibly see all her family and friends before she died? How would she arrange her schedule to include morning desert walks, afternoon chemotherapy treatments and evening dinner dates? Who would balance the chemicals in her pool and fix the garage light when she got weaker and couldn’t handle it all?
We didn’t acknowledge what we both knew to be true, that every passing day brought us closer to her end. But what we did acknowledge was that for as long as we had time together, we could use that time to talk – about our relationship, the family, her successes and regrets, what she would miss most when she was gone. What I came to understand during those six months was that the most essential part of her dying was the ability she still had to talk about her life.
I asked her once when we were sitting on her back porch whether she believed in God. It was a windy day in March, and the scarf that covered her fragile hairless scalp blew softly around her face. In that one moment, she looked so young I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t be here to watch my children grow up.
“I don’t really think I believe in God,” she answered, “but sometimes I wish I did. People are my religion, I believe in the goodness of mankind and the creativity and love of the human soul.”
We sat there for a while and then she asked me if I would do her a favor. “Would you say the Mourner’s Kaddish for me after I’m gone?”
Coming from a woman who had never once acknowledged that Jewish ritual was important to her, the question surprised me.
“Of course I will, but why?”
She hesitated for a moment then gently laid her hand on mine. “Because I don’t know for certain whether God exists and I want to be remembered in the way my parents and grandparents were. Besides,” she said giving my hand a squeeze, “women can say it now, right?”
She was referring to the fact that throughout Jewish history only men were counted as part of the required group of ten (the minyan) who needed to be present to say the Kaddish. That view has changed in all but the Orthodox movement so that women are now counted as part of the minyan.
The Kaddish, an Aramaic prayer that is more than 2000 years old, consoles, elevates and renews hope in the mourner that God’s goodness will prevail. It is recited at the burial and for eleven months after the death of a parent at daily, Sabbath and festival services. While never mentioning death, the Kaddish affirms life in the face of death and exalts Divine greatness.
My Aunt Gen “knew” God through her love of and for people. After she had died, I came to understand an essential lesson about life.
Love doesn’t die, only people do. We carry that love within us and continue to be in relationships with those who have died long after they are gone. In asking me to recite the Kaddish for her, my Aunt Gen not only affirmed her life and the traditions that she was born into, but gave me a way to honor and love her as I learned to live without her.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide.