Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Memorializing Friends

When I was in high school I felt that documenting my life was one of the most important things I could do. I took pictures wherever I went and bought plain photo albums, filling about 4 of them with pictures from my teenage years. I decorated the covers with magazine clippings, making montages with all-things grunge, like Doc Martens, quotes from Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and phrases like “inspire”, “friendship is forever”, “no to conformity” and the like. The puff paint has worn away on the covers, but there’s still enough residue to make out the part that says: ”My Life (fill in the year)”. 

My dream back then was to open up the albums at some point in the future, and look back wistfully at a time when we were happy, inspired, principled; when we saw the world as if every avenue was open to us. I imagined going through the pages with my children, sharing stories of my adolescence.
Yet those photo albums have been on the same shelves for years; unopened, not shared. There’s even a thin layer of dust on some of them.
My Life: 1996. Grunge photos are on the back!
I may have fantasized about all possibilities that the future held for us, but I never imagined that what would bring me to open up the albums would be the death of one of those friends.  

Reva passed away suddenly about a month ago, a young woman of about 37, daughter, sister, wife, mother of a beautiful toddler. Her death has shaken me…awoken me from my metaphorical slumber.

We had not kept in touch for years, but I thought of her often. Not surprisingly, she wasn’t a Facebook user (she always did like her privacy), so I didn’t receive many updates about her life. Yet her death brought together a once close-knit group from high school who are now scattered across the world. For a small group that once shared a one-room synagogue and one small hallway that comprised our high school (yes, our school and shul were that small.), the distance that now separates us is tremendous.

Last week, we relied on an online memorial ceremony to gather together, sharing memories of Reva. How ironic to use an online social networking tool to remember a friend who valued her privacy offline. Friends recounted a vibrant young woman who was dedicated, principled, loved to question and share ideas. She didn’t see the value in small-talk; she thrived on making real friendships based on deep, authentic conversations.

This online memorial was actually the second one I participated in this summer. In early August, we commemorated the first yartzeit of Ayala Pamela, another friend of mine and young mother who passed away at the age of 40 from breast cancer five weeks after her diagnosis. Her illness spurred groups around the globe to pray on her behalf, yet within five weeks, she left this world for a loftier one. (For those curious, we used Google Hangouts and Skype.)

These were two simple, deeply soulful women who had strong, authentic friendships. Both of the memorial ceremonies included friends who logged in from their living rooms from around the world. How ironic to use social media - meant to connect people together- for mourning the loss of the deceased, especially for one who chose not to even have any Facebook presence. Yet these online ceremonies were powerful, cathartic, inspiring.

A few weeks ago, an Israeli friend once saw my collection of photo albums and commented that I was ‘too sentimental”. I keep too much stuff from the past, she said.

If only she knew the extent of it, I thought.

I made those albums for posterity; so I’d always be able to remind myself of my youth and the inspiring people who gave me the foundations that built who I am as a person.  For me, there is no such thing as being too sentimental; there is documenting your roots so you can always know from where you came.  The memories of Reva and Ayala will go on specifically because there are sentimental friends out there who wish to document their lives and remember their legacies.

Losing these two friends has reminded me that life is short.  It’s crucial to concentrate on what is fundamentally important. It is easy to get caught up with everyday life and its challenges, its frustrations and annoyances. We sometimes forget about the people who have led the way to our successes and accomplishments. More frequently, we take for granted how quickly it can all be taken from us.

How apropos for Elul.

Admittedly, I am wistful this time of year, for that time when we would see our closest friends every day, in person and not over a computer screen.

I am wistful for the time when we had our mentors accessible to us, guiding us, teaching us, inspiring us.
I am wistful for when life was simple.
I am wistful for a time when the framework and rules were clear; when we questioned as much as we wanted, aspiring for clarity and truth. Little did we know that adulthood would bring so many unanswered questions, mainly where the justice is in taking away two wonderful women who created families of their own, who left a host of loyal friends who gather together across the globe to share memories of how much they meant to them.

My lesson from mourning these two friends is not to wait until another friend passes on to contact them. Pick up the phone, go visit. Spend Shabbat together, and yes bring your spouses and children. They should get to know each other simply because you are all meaningful to each other. If you choose to meet for coffee during the week, you will survive leaving work early, taking a slightly longer lunch break and don’t worry, your spouse will figure out how to make dinner for the kids. While you can, go spend time with the people who inspire you to be exactly who you truly are or aspire to be.…

Sadly, the deaths of two young women, Reva and Ayala Pamela, were the catalysts for such a reflection. I hope to use our time here in this world to stay connected with and impacted by people whom I cherish.