By Justin Katz | firstname.lastname@example.org
I was standing outside Maimonides Cemetery in Elmont, New York saying a goodbye that was 10 years overdue.
I was walking through the city with some extended family; we were going to see an art exhibit and then go to dinner. Despite being surrounded by loved ones, all I could think about were those who were absent.
For many years, I grieved the loss of my aunt. Her tragic passing from breast cancer was the first time I had experienced a close death in the family.
Mourning for my aunt was different than how most people recognize grief. I didn’t have a full relationship with her. We said hello and goodbye, but very little in between. I knew her name and what she looked like, but that was about it. We spent holidays in the same places, but not together.
Before my aunt had passed, I was too young to realize that family coming first was a lesson that my parents would always stress to my brother and I. It was the time between her passing and my trip that I would begin to understand it.
It was this combination of not having a relationship with my aunt and an engrained desire to connect with all of my family that had caused the grief I had for my aunt.
The only way I could think to resolve this grief was to visit her final resting place.
After multiple subway rides, a bus and a couple blocks of walking, my cousin Zack and I reached the cemetery. To my dismay, we failed to check their hours and we had arrived about five minutes after they closed. I had a flight scheduled the next day so I was determined to not let the setback ruin the trip.
I had already thought about what I wanted to say at the cemetery and one thing in particular stuck out in my mind.
When I was younger, I went to Hebrew school and, if nothing else, I learned one thing that I’ve carried with me since. A teacher once told us “After you say the Shema [a cornerstone prayer for Judaism] that is your time to talk to God.”
Out of all the prayers in Judaism the Shema is the most important. It is said in the morning, during prayer, in the evening, and in the moments before one passes on. Despite never understanding Hebrew, I’ve always understood the Shema.
As I stood by that fence, I covered my eyes with my hand as is customary when saying this particular prayer and said the Shema. Not even a moment after I finished the prayer did I finally break down and begin crying. Almost 10 years of repressed grief surfaced and became 10 minutes of raw, uncensored emotion.
Before I removed my hand from my face, I couldn’t help but hesitate. I felt that the moment I removed my hand, it was truly over.
I finally removed my hand, and without hesitation I grabbed my phone. My voice was still trembling but despite this I needed to talk to someone. I called the only person who I knew would understand the magnitude of the experience.
I try to always respect people’s time by telling them when I’m going to call but today was different. This phone call had to happen at that moment and my heart was racing loudly enough that I didn’t hear my brain telling me to stop.
“Hey Haley, I’m sorry to bother you but I had to talk to you. I’m at Maimonides Cemetery and I just said goodbye to your mom.” My cousin, Haley, and I had been building a familial relationship that we had previously lacked.
What I said to her during that conversation is slightly blurred, but by the time Haley called me back that evening, I had regained my composure. She called me so we could have a full conversation.
Haley and I can’t say precisely why our bond as cousins didn’t grow when we were children. It may have been from other relatives having strained relationships, or maybe
I was just a really shy kid. Regardless, we are building that relationship now.
“Live life to the fullest. If there is something you want to do, then do it, and if there is something you want to say, then say it, because there is only so much time to do so.”
In the days before my aunt’s passing she put her family before herself. From packing bags for summer camp to giving moral support for final exams, she put her own problems aside so she could attend to those around her.
On that cold and rainy day in Elmont, New York, Haley put aside what she was doing to console me after my experience at the cemetery.
Living life to the fullest means helping others cease the moment in their own lives, even when it forces you to ignore your own.
Later that night, during my conversation with Haley I told her that 10 years of grieving was coming to a close, and for the first time in my life I did not call her the daughter of my father’s brother. I called her my cousin.