“Why did this happen?” my cousin asks rhetorically.
I’ve called her to check in because she just left her childhood home where she was supervising a truck that came to pick up bags filled with her mom’s clothes. We are about to mark 30 days since we lost my aunt—suddenly, inexplicably.
What exactly happened on that Friday in February that caused my aunt to call 9-1-1 before losing consciousness, we’ll never know. What we do know is that we were all supposed to gather that evening at my cousin’s house to celebrate my aunt’s birthday. Instead, we all gathered on the ICU floor of our town’s hospital to keep watch over my aunt, waiting, questioning, grappling.
I only got to be there briefly. Just three days earlier, a surgeon had cut me open and removed half of my thyroid. I was lightheaded and not feeling well the day my aunt became unconscious. But the next morning, I found enough strength to have my parents bring me to the hospital where my aunt’s children, close friends, and other relatives were coming together to be with her.
“This is a death vigil,” my father says despondently after leaving my aunt’s room to join me in the waiting area. My aunt was his older sister. Nine years his senior, she was part sibling, part mother to him. She is the one who taught him how to dress, how to sort through his feelings, and how to work hard at his relationships. I can tell that he is shaken to the core by his sister’s sudden demise.
We spend hours on the ICU ward that weekend, drifting in and out of my aunt’s room, eating food brought by friends. My extended family is well versed in the art of being together. When I was growing up, we spent every Friday night at each other’s homes for Shabbat dinner. Usually my mom or my aunt cooked, but my grandmother also joined in hosting when she and my grandfather were not in Florida. Our annual vacations there marked the other yarn that knit together our particular family tapestry.
Most anything went at those loud and boisterous meals of my childhood. We kids were encouraged to speak our minds, and often times these gatherings felt like an emotional vomiting session. It was no holds barred at our Friday night dinners, not your typical family get-together. But it was this freedom to say how we were feeling that continued to bring us all close, even though at times filters would have been helpful to keep the peace. Still, despite some moments of insult and inappropriate candor, our Jewish traditions kept us returning to one another’s tables to end the week and decompress.
At the hospital, during that never ending weekend in February, there is no decompressing. Just waiting. And more waiting. On Sunday, when it becomes clear that my aunt will not be waking up again, the ventilators are turned off. We all think it will be only a few hours before she leaves this earth. But my aunt likes to do things her way, which means being tenacious and bringing people together. Even as she lies at death’s door, there’s a steady stream of visitors to her hospital room, in spite of efforts to keep things quiet.
Then again, my aunt never liked quiet. She always told me how she loved the chaos that came with raising four children of her own. After those children were grown and out of her house, you could find her calling one or the other of them to keep the din going. My aunt’s heart was open and big with a lot of love to give. Sometimes in this world, a person can actually reap what they sow. When my aunt took her final breath that Monday morning, she was surrounded by so many of us who loved her most.
We don’t gather for weekly Shabbat dinners anymore, much to my aunt’s dismay. There’s just too many of us these days at different stages of life to always be together every week. But we still find a way to come together to celebrate birthdays, and even once in a while, just to have a good old-fashioned Shabbat dinner like we did when I was a child.
Two weeks after shiva ends, my older cousin hosts one such dinner. There are 34 of us there, ranging in age from 17 months to 69 years. One of my generation’s contributions to our family dinners is to ask the youngest children at the table to share a piece of news from their week. News can range from the very brief, “Nothing,” to the elaborate, “We had a special ceremony at school, and first we danced and then I had these lines…”
My 3-year-old niece can be shy when it comes to her turn, but this week she doesn’t need any prodding. “My mommy has a baby in her belly,” she announces. Her news takes us all by surprise, and at first we don’t even know if she’s telling the truth. Once her parents confirm that they are indeed expecting their third child, excitement hits us, and we realize that this is exactly as my aunt would have wanted it: her family gathering and continuing our traditions together, her legacy living on, even as we grieve.