Monday, April 6, 2015

To a Student who died too young

I write this as a form of catharsis. I need to write this. So I want to apologize right off the bat if you don't like it. It isn't meant for you.

That having been said, I'll start with all the expected and right stuff:

I just got back for a funeral of a former student. She was in my 12th grade AP class only 4 years ago (she earned a 96 or so) and now she's gone. I'll tell you about her. You know all those good things you say perfunctorily whenever someone passes? Yeah, that, only sincerely. Brilliant, motivated, caring, sincere, selfless and like that. She had a smile that could, and often did, light up an entire building, and an attitude which buoyed a community. She put her family, friends and strangers ahead of herself as a matter of her personal code. She studied her world because she could not imagine doing otherwise. She shared with others and was fearless in her pursuit of all things new and different. She came back, even after she fell ill, and visited my class. I even put her on the spot more than once and asked her to speak to my class off the cuff. And she did, transfixing the students with her literary insight and her personal anecdotes. As a scientist, she could tell you exactly what was wrong with her and what the medicines were that were being tried to treat her. She even pronounced them right. As a fervent Jew she never lost that spiritual side which drove her to see God's hand even in her darkest days. Like I said, all those things we wish we could say honestly about others, we complain are not evocative enough when it came to her.

So now, I'd like to write a goodbye letter to her, so that she (I hope would be nice to think that the hereafter has wifi and she has my blog bookmarked) knows the impact that she had. But please understand, and here's where the apology kicks in, I will be writing this in a very personal way -- full of the affect which she and I shared, and the sensibility which she would truly appreciate. So if you find it inappropriate, I am sorry, but I assure you, she would think it entertaining.


Dear Rachel,

I was at the funeral. Your funeral. Heckuva time but I won't (I can't, really) get into how emotionally draining it was. Suffice to say it had what you might expect -- crying, speeches, a few laughs, but I thought you should know something else that went on so that you can see that no where is immune from the kind of frustration that we often spoke of. The parking situation was inexcusable.

As I'm sure you know by now, you were not the first person to be buried in that cemetery. And though you really packed them in (it was a very well attended event) I can't imagine that you were the top box office draw that that venue has ever hosted. But they still haven't figured out what to do with cars that come in for the funeral. The line extends out into the intersection, and then, once you come in, there is no one telling you where you should park, no signs directing you anywhere. I drove around, and after circling the facility, I found a little out of the way spot about three miles from the main building where everyone was assembled. I got my hiking gear on, packed rations and made my way towards the throngs. When I arrived, I heard someone from the funeral home announce that everyone should now get back into cars so that we could drive to the area of the cemetery near the grave site. So I turned around, found my sherpa and started back. When I looked at the map, I realized that where I was parked was only a short train ride to the site so I figured I should just keep walking. So I did, and got to the grave well before most anyone else. People kept filing in, having dutifully gotten into their cars, assembled in a line, driven 5 feet only to park again for lack of space. There must be a better way.

Then we waited. People just kept coming. And just when we thought that there was no room for anyone else, the same guy from the funeral home announced that anyone who walked over and left a car parked back by the central building had to go move it because there were other funerals and the volume of cars had effectively shut down the entire cemetery. It was like Woodstock all over again, except with more funerals and less Wavy Gravy. Not none, mind you, just less. There is nothing to get a funeral off to a rollicking start like a threat from a big guy telling you to move your car. So I ignored him. I assumed he wasn't in the kind of shape necessary to make it all the way to my car and ticket me.

As much as the parking situation was complete chaos, the funeral itself was too. Were certain people supposed to stand in a particular place? Who needed to get access to what and where is it proper or improper to step? There are no signs or directions. But it was a nice day and I do believe that I noticed the planes flying overhead dip their wings out of respect.

There were Sea Scouts and Venture Scouts and probably other scouts also. If I ever had a need to tie a knot, this was the time to do it. There were grown men and women in uniform. There were black hats and wigs, and bald heads and baseball hats. There were children and adults, students and teachers. There was an ambulance with reps from your Volunteer Ambulance Corps (good thing, also, as during the funeral someone felt faint and the guys had to run to the rig to get the stretcher and help the person out), there were college friends, high school friends and others. There was, and I say this as a testimony to you, an air of class and dignity. There was a hope that you brought to any situation. There was inspiration and a sense that we can all do better because you showed us that we always must try to do better. So thank you for that.

Your skipper had the bosun ring 8 bells and secure from the watch. All is well on your ship. Sail well, Rachel.

Rabbi R