I first met Death when I was a 9-year-old boy visiting Israel. I went with my parents and 250 other adults as part of a group tour. We have relatives there; one of my grandfather’s sisters (among many other cousins) and her husband were doctors in Haifa, I believe. My father and I went to go visit them in the hospital they worked at, and that was where I was introduced to Death as my aunt and uncle paraded me through the various hospital wings. This was 1987.
The next year, I learned a little bit more about Death when my father took me to visit my ailing 90-year-old great-grandfather in the hospital. He was frail and weak, but I remembered he still had a sharp wit and a full-head of hair. Things you remember when you’re ten, I guess.
But it wasn’t until February 17, 1989 that I fully comprehended what Death actually meant. But before I get to that, it’s important to understand the events leading up to that cold, wintery Friday.
Two weeks prior, on February 3, my family moved from Long Island to New Jersey. It’s not far, over a bridge or two, beyond Expressways of the Long Island variety and onto Parkways and Turnpikes of the New Jersey kind. But for a 10-yar-old, with a life, with friends, with structure, these were the worst possible roads to travel.
I didn’t like New Jersey…at first. I didn’t understand jughandles. I didn’t understand taking a school bus to school. In Long Island, I walked to school each morning with friends. I couldn’t do that in New Jersey.
It was a confusing time, to say the least, being the new kid at school. You’re treated as an oddity as the kids try to figure you out. And since I did not make the transition easily — I hated my parents for uprooting me — I didn’t have the easiest of times making friends. Over the course of the next two weeks, however, flashes of friendship occurred and, I’m proud to say, that these friends are still my closest friends. But it was still tough-going. Not only are you being tested in the classroom by teachers, but on the playground by the kids. Races, games, sports, whatever. I was an above-average athlete, so that served me well, until it didn’t. I raced two of the fastest kids, got beat and made up some excuse that a nervous 10-year-old makes. And that was that. Each night I came home upset, lashing out at my parents for moving. Then I got invited to a girl’s birthday party.
You know that warm sensation you get when something unexpectedly good happens? Multiply that by a million and that’s how good I felt. I wasn’t friends with this girl, but she had a party and invited me. I was ecstatic. Her party was February 17, her birthday.
When I rang her doorbell, I was nervous, naturally. But it quickly eroded after we kids just became kids; we made sundaes, watched TV, and maybe even a game of spin-the-bottle. Maybe. It was time to go and I felt like I was starting to feel comfortable in these new surroundings.
When it was time to go, my dad picked me up. He knew this party was important to me. He asked how it was and I’m sure I replied with some smartass 10-year-old quip. But when we got out of the car at the house, he said there was something we needed to discuss. His tone was terse and I thought I was in trouble for doing something. Boxes were still over the house; maybe I didn’t unpack properly? He guided me upstairs to where my mom was sitting on the edge of their bed, quietly sobbing looking down to the ugly green carpet of their bedroom. He said for me to sit down next to her.
As he started talking, I looked down at the green carpet, eyes filling up with water. My uncle, my dad’s brother, had died earlier that day at the age of 36. They didn’t know what happened, other than that he was at work — Grumman — and collapsed face-first into his lunch. Through tears and snot bubbles, I asked why didn’t he tell me earlier? How could he let me go to the party while he and my mom were at home with this heavy secret? He told me that he knew how important this birthday party was to me and that he and my mom decided to let me go, have fun, and then have “the talk.” This was when I truly understood Death.
The following few days were intense. From the funeral parlor to the cemetery to sitting Shiva, I was formally introduced to the Jewish death process. For a 10-year-old in a new home, it was, some might say, a defining moment for my life. So much so, that of all the deaths that have occurred since then, this one is the one that always sticks out. When my grandmother and grandfather — my dad’s parents — died, and we had the service at the same funeral parlor and at the same cemetery, I kept having flashbacks to my uncle. Maybe because he was the first, or maybe because he was so young — just a year older than I am now — it was hard to escape those visions of being a sad 10-year-old.
Interestingly, my grandmother, my dad and uncle’s mother, died on February 18, 2008 — 19-years and a day after her son.
24-years later, February 17 still plays in mind with a clarity that I wish other days had. I’m forever grateful to the girl who invited me to her birthday party (she knows this story quite well) and to my parents, who let me be a 10-year-old kid for an entire day before introducing me to Death.