Life, Death and Celebrations

My birthday was Thursday. Some people think birthdays are overrated, but not me. I think birthdays should be huge celebrations, probably because for most of my life my birthday got subsumed by the biggest holiday of the year. So several years ago I changed my birth celebration date to July 14, and it’s one of the better decisions I’ve made. Even so, Thursday’s occasion turned out to be more than I expected, a celebration of both life and death.

You see, a friend of mine’s husband died suddenly and unexpectedly last Sunday, and his service was held Thursday afternoon. So I spent the better part of the afternoon mourning a life cut short, but also celebrating an extraordinary man, and realizing that while we mourn, we also acknowledge life.

I did not know Roy Mankovitz well. His wife, Kathleen Barry, is an extraordinary person in her own right, and we have become acquainted through a women’s association. At his graveside service, I learned this man was a rocket scientist (really!), an inventor, an author, a genius. Also, a husband, father and grandfather of the first order. As his children spoke about what he had meant to them and their lives, I found myself feeling as if I had been cheated because I did not get to experience the man they described.

The graveside service, given in the Jewish tradition, drew many friends and family members. As I stood and listened to the cantor chant, and looked out over the cemetery’s green expanse through the trees to the ocean, I was struck by how uplifting it is to be surrounded by people who mourn. As the rabbi said, it is in our memories that those who die still live. In Roy’s case, he will live on for a very long time.

In celebrating Roy’s life, and in mourning his death, we affirm life – and our own lives in particular. As I left the cemetery, I felt such gratitude for this moment of clarification – and deep sadness – on the day I choose to celebrate my own life, my birth day.

Both of my parents have died, and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of them and wish I could touch them, give each a warm hug. I miss my dad, who always made me feel as if I were the only person in the world who mattered, who offered advice when asked and whose unconditional love created a cocoon that helped me get through some very difficult times in my childhood. I miss my mother, whose emotional distance I am still trying to understand. That sorrow is complicated by hurt and regret. But I still miss her every day.

My friend Kathleen is gifted with many friends and a close and loving family, and all will help her move through her grief in the weeks and months to come, in her own time and pace. This giving to each other, this helping when help is needed, is another way we celebrate life. In the end, any observance of death is a celebration of life. It was one of the most powerful and uplifting birthdays I have ever experienced.