Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Saying Good-Bye

It took a day, a day and Debbie Friedman, for me to begin grieving for Priscilla.

Those who knew her well, who saw her regularly, knew how ill she was, how the cancer was ravaging her. But living on the other side of the country, I had no idea, so the email informing me of her death was a terrible shock. Stunned, I moved through the day yesterday, struggling to process a new reality that was completely unacceptable. I wrote condolence notes to her four children, all former congregants. I went through the motions.

Then today, I visited my hospice patient, and as part of the session, I played Debbie Friedman's setting to Psalm 23. As I heard her sing, I thought about how we chant or read this psalm at some point during every funeral, and the words helped me feel as though I was there, at the service, undoubtedly at the synagogue she had joined when our little community closed eight years ago. And as I listened to Debbie sing and imagined myself in a pew in Metuchen, New Jersey, listening to another rabbi eulogize this remarkable woman, the tears began to flow, and I had to balance the grieving friend and the professional chaplain. It wasn't easy.

It occurred to me many years ago that eulogizing congregants is how rabbis grieve for them. Occasionally, a family asks another rabbi to officiate, and I find myself among the mourners, and there's something missing in my own grief. Today, the man who had become her rabbi eight years ago had the privilege of paying tribute to her, and I know he did a superb job. And I sit, trying to find the words to explain why knowing she is gone is so painful.

Priscilla and her late husband were my first contacts in Colonia, New Jersey. Her husband Terry z"l was the head of my search committee. I stayed with them while the parsonage was being repainted. I named many of their grandchildren. Their oldest is only a few years older than my oldest, so it was easy to come to think of their children as an extension of my own family.

So, yes, we were close.

Saying good-bye to her husband eleven years ago was one of the toughest funerals I ever conducted. And now Priscilla has gone to join him, and there is a hole in the world.

Priscilla was tough. She was the true matriarch of her family, never shy about telling her kids what she thought about choices they might have made. She had a wonderful sense of humor, and I can still see her laughing as she recounted stories from her children's childhoods. And she was at the center of the local Hadassah chapter. I can't think about Colonia Hadassah without thinking of Priscilla. She was a strong leader with vision and energy, and never dropped the ball when she took on a job.

She'd also been raised in a home where she learned respect and love for the Jewish tradition. I remember one evening when I made a shiva call on a family in our congregation. The house was filled with friends of the family. I found myself being pulled from one knot of people to another, but after a while I needed to leave. As I made my way into the living room, I passed Priscilla's chair and stopped to chat with her. "I'm sorry I haven't gotten over to talk to you before this!" I said. She looked at me and said, "No, Rabbi, you're my rabbi. I was the one who should have come over to talk to you." I was deeply moved at this expression of k'vod harav (honoring a rabbi). And there was no agenda to the remark. She meant what she said. She had firmly held principles and lived what she believed.

As committed as she was to synagogue life - she was president of my congregation and then of the congregation that absorbed our community when our building closed - and to the Jewish life of Middlesex County and of Israel, there was nothing more important than her family. Absolutely nothing. She would rearrange plans if she knew that a daughter or daughter-in-law was expecting a baby when a trip was being planned. She was Grammie to a dozen adored grandchildren, and the only blessing to be shlepped from this profound sadness is that her grandchildren aren't babies. They have grown up in the light of her love and they will have precious memories of her to pass on to their children.

It is a truism that the better you know a person, the harder it is to talk about them. I have buried so many parents of congregants and have eulogized them based on the information the family provides. Those tributes were fairly easy to write. But there were a few funerals in New Jersey that were very difficult to prepare for, because I had grown so close to the deceased. The feeling always lingers that I haven't said enough. I haven't explained enough about what there was about the deceased that has now left this world. The words have piled up and they are, in the end, only a pile of words. This blog feels the same. I have a picture of her in my mind, the sound of her laughter, her willingness to take me to the doctor when my car was in the shop and I was concerned about a spot that didn't look right - she heard the worry in my voice over the phone and was at my house in minutes. I am realizing that after so many years of being out of touch with her except for occasional emails and phone calls, she was still a presence in my life, and now she is gone. And I have written all these words in a vain attempt to paint a picture of a strong, Jewishly committed, loving woman, and who she was is still not here. And that is tragic, because she deserved better.

Good-bye, Priscilla. May your memory be a blessing to all who knew you.

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