28 Elul 5776
by Aleta Bryant
Several times a week, I drive down North Wanda Road in Orange near where it intersects with Katella Avenue. Just northwest of that intersection, on the sidewalk, there has been established since May 2016, a memorial of flickering candles, flowers, photographs and writings dedicated to the memory of a 16-year-old skateboarder, Fernando Rodriguez, who was tragically killed there when he was struck by a drunk driver at 2:45 p.m., on May 6, 2016, while he was crossing the street on his way home from school. The memorial is a vivid tribute to his life, and an even more painful reminder – especially to those of us passing by hurriedly in our cars – of his death. Such roadside memorials are seen with some frequency here in Southern California. When I see one, I, of course, cannot help but think about the person who has died; but my thoughts also go to those who are mourning that person’s passing and who, apparently, loved and cared enough about the deceased to create such a visual and public tribute to them.
Fairhaven Street in Santa Ana is another road I travel with great frequency; almost every day on my way to work. It is, unfortunately, the site of yet another, horrific tragedy that occurred on Halloween night in 2014, when three, 13-year-old girls were struck in a crosswalk and killed by a hit-and-run driver while they were out trick-or-treating. Almost immediately a massive roadside memorial emerged on both sides of Fairhaven to honor the three victims – twins, Lexi and Lexandra Perez Huerta, and their friend, Andrea Gonzalez. The sidewalks and bushes overflowed with candles, flowers, cards, ribbons and bows, photographs, balloons and stuffed animals, spilling out into the surrounding side street and elementary school parking lot. Portions of the road had to be cordoned off for weeks because of the throngs who came to mourn and to pay their respects.
As the months and years have passed since October 31, 2014, I have watched this roadside memorial on Fairhaven diminish in size; but it still remains. On the north side of the street, tied to and surrounding the bottom of a metal utility pole, are fluttering paper bows and flowers and other items of decoration, which change periodically. Across the street, on the corner where heavy bushes used to grow which have since been cut down, there is what appears to be an endless supply of three candles and flowers marking the spot where those sweet, young girls spent the last moments of their tragically short lives. I can’t help but think of them when I drive by. But even more so lately, my thoughts of heartbreak and sorrow have been turning to the person (whom I imagine to be the mother of the twins – whose devastation I cannot even begin fully to comprehend), who, after the passage of almost two years, continues to make sure that not one day has gone by where that tribute to those girls has not stood. I imagine the enormity of her grief, and wonder with awe at the energy and determination she has expended coming to that place with such devotion and frequency, to ensure it remains. I have also wondered with some concern whether her focus (with some shame, I have even thought “obsession”) on this memorial, while perhaps a source of comfort for her, might not also be keeping her from dealing constructively with her grief and carrying on with her life.
My musings about grief and grieving were sparked most recently when I watched the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity, about the genius Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. In the end [SPOILER ALERT!!], Ramanujan dies a tragically, premature death at age 32. As tragic as that was, I was equally saddened by the fate of Ramanujan’s younger, beautiful wife, Srimathi Janaki. Although she lived another 70+ years, until the age of 95 in 1994, she was forbidden by her Hindu religion ever to re-marry.
All of these incidents got me to thinking about the subject of mourning, and remembrance of the dead. I know I focused briefly on this subject in the Echo of Elul I wrote last year, when I mentioned having learned the lesson at a young age that each individual person mourns in their own way, at their own level of intensity and at their own pace; and that one of the worst things we can do is to judge another’s quality of mourning, or measure the intensity of their mourning, against our own or that of anyone else. I preface what I am about to say with a reiteration of that belief. However, these experiences I’ve described have, nevertheless, got me thinking about how much “outward manifestation” of mourning is too much, and when it might be better to “move on.” And why do we often consider the phrase “moving on” to be insensitive in the context of dealing with mourners? Does it mean we have to forget? Does re-marrying sometime within the remaining 70+ years of your life, or letting the candles on the street flicker out and the flowers die, mean you have stopped loving and remembering and mourning the ones who have passed away? The answer to me is an obvious and resolute “no.” But these recent thoughts and experiences have also caused me to think about what Judaism teaches us and instructs us in this regard; about the purposes served by the structured stages of mourning – sitting Shiva; Shloshim; the One-Year Period following a death; the official completion of mourning after the year is complete; the observance of Yahrtzeits; the four Annual Remembrances of Yizkor; and the saying of Kaddish at services and on the appropriate anniversaries and occasions – which seem designed to guide us through the tragic loss and pain we feel, and gradually to ease us back into the world of the living.
As we engage in introspection and self-reflection on the approach to the High Holy Days, and especially to the sacred and moving moments of Yizkor on Yom Kippur, we can take the opportunity to think about the lessons of mourning associated with being a Jew. When I do this, several thoughts come to my mind based upon my understanding of the subject of mourning as a Jew. First, I am grateful that we, as Jews, are commanded and encouraged openly to mourn, feel and remember, and – most importantly – to do so as a family and a community, and not just as individuals. I am likewise grateful that we are commanded and encouraged to mourn and remember not just those we know and love who have perished, but also those whom we have never met, whom we will never know, and who might otherwise remain lost and forgotten but for our inclusive prayers. I am grateful that the Kaddish prayer – a prayer universally known to, recognized by and internalized by Jewish people the world over regardless of their level of belief or commitment to the faith – is one that does not mention death, but focuses on gratitude, faith and life. I am grateful that Judaism encourages – even expects – the living to go on with just that – living; and living full, happy and meaningful lives.
My prayer for you all in this most holy of seasons is, no matter the extent and intensity of your losses, your griefs and your sadness, that the beauty and joy of surviving and living and flourishing in one’s life will be to you a blessing, and will be to those whom you have loved and lost and mourn, the greatest tribute of remembrance.