At age thirteen what do we understand about death? We’re told of heaven and hell. Our parents tell us to close our eyes and pray that our long lost family members are in heaven. We do this with a faith that somewhere they’re watching over us. We believe that a life on this planet isn’t all there is; that we will live on and not just disappear, identity vanishing into the cosmic unknown.
I received my first experience of death with my grandfather, and I wouldn’t be confronted by death again until it ate it’s way through my aunt's exuberant life. I don’t think there’s a disease on earth that is as evil, or has as many faces as cancer.
Much about my aunt Carol is fuzzy. My memories are all from when I was a child, but it was her pure joy and spirit that thrives in those lost dark vaults, like a blinding ray of light, burning itself into my memory. Aunt Carol was the youngest of three. My father's sister. She was the glue that kept our family together after Grandpa Lester passed away from complications due to a stroke. While we no longer had our Thanksgivings in Pennsylvania, the home of my grandfather, we would all still get together in either Grand Rapids, Michigan, where my uncle Mike lived, Arlington, Texas, where my family lived, or Arlington, Virginia Where Aunt Carol lived. Everywhere we went she was at the center of it.
I remember when she was about to be married. We all went to Arlington, Virginia and stayed at her home. My brother Wesley and me would sleep in her basement and she’d join us to watch movies and to play video games. I remember going to a beautiful forest or park and playing touch football with her and her soon to be husband.
One day she asked us if there was anything we wanted that our dad absolutely didn’t want us to have. I’d been dying to get these special batman logo printed converses. I would beg and plead with dad, but every answer was always, "No. You’ll tear them up in a week and I’m not shelling out a God-awful amount of money for shoes that aren’t going to last". So, when I told aunt Carol this she promised to get them for me.
We went to the mall a day or two later and as promised, I was wearing the shoes and had an extra pair with the joker printed on. When my dad saw the batman shoes he just about lost it. "Where did you get those? I told you no!" My aunt Carol came to my rescue "Calm down…let him be a kid for Pete's sake. I bought them for him and in the event he does tear them up, I bought an extra pair" My father protested...."You what?" But aunt Carol had already won. Dad had to concede and let it go.
I’d see aunt Carol off and on and then dad told me she was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t quite understand what it was, only that she would fight it with poisonous chemicals. When she came to our house for a Thanksgiving in 1990 she was still her joyous self. She hadn’t lost an ounce of energy. As the year progressed we could detect a slow deterioration. I’d talk to her on the phone and her words would be slower, yet she had the strength to retain her wit and good nature. "Give your dad hell" she’d say and laugh weakly.
The year of 1991 was the year of my Bar Mitzvah. A Bar Mitzvah is a Jewish custom in which a thirteen year old boy becomes a man. You spend the whole year studying to read from the Torah, in Hebrew, and lead your Synagogue's congregation in Friday night and Saturday Shabbat (Sabbath) services. My dad had told me that aunt Carol was now on chemotherapy and that the chance of her coming to attend my Bar Mitzvah was slim, but she expressed her desire to be there for me.
When the time for my Bar Mitzvah finally came I was under intense pressure. Family members from all over the U.S. would be coming down. People I’d never met before in my life. I was very nervous and scared, and didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I remember the day of the Friday night services. In school I became sick and threw up. My nerves had overcome me. Yet, I still wanted to show everyone I could do it. I pushed on the rest of the day, not even telling dad I threw up. After school he picked me up in his red suburban and said "Aunt Carol made it down. She’s very fragile so no horse playing with Wesley around her…I want to warn you of her physical appearance. She’s in a wheel chair and most of her hair has fallen out. Be gentle, Randy. She used all of her strength to come see you so make us all proud."
I went home, took a shower and put on my Friday night service clothes. Because it wasn’t the actual Bar Mitzvah service, I didn’t have to get fully dressed up. To my surprise, when I walked out to the living room aunt Carol was sitting in her wheel chair. At first, I was intimidated by her state, but her eyes lit up and you could see her spirit shine. "C’mere! Look at you! Such a handsome man. You must’ve grown a few inches since the last time I saw you". Her arms and hands out stretched I walked up and gave her a hug as gently as I could. "Come on! Give me a better hug than that! I’m not as delicate as I look."
Before the service we all went out to eat. Uncle Eddy - my great uncle, and my grandfather's last surviving brother - raised his glass, "L’chaim!" (To life) he toasted "L’chaim!" Everyone else repeated and clinked their glasses together. The Friday night service was a success and I had my first kiss with a girl from my Hebrew class, Shoshana. Saturday would be the big day.
That morning I had to get dressed up: suit, tie, the works. We all left for my synagogue which was packed completely. I was all nerves. Before the service started aunt Carol wished me luck and so I began. It ended successfully and after that everyone congratu-lated me and would give a gift or a blessing. Aunt Carol waited for me, holding something in her hands. "Mazel Tov, Randy" and she handed me something square and soft like a pillow. "Thanks" I said and gave her a hug. "It’s handmade. I’ve been using all my time and energy to make it for you". I replied " I know I’ll love it."
After the ceremony was over we all returned home. On the drive back to our house I opened aunt Carol's gift. It was a beautiful tallith prayer shawl bag. Hand sewn with beautiful menorah stitches in the bag. "Take care of that bag, Randy, she used all of her energy to make that" To which I replied "I will dad. I’ll treasure it." And I did. I had put it on a shelf all by itself in my closet.
The year went by and my grades gradually grew worse in school. Dad had put me in tutoring classes in the hope of improving my grades, but to be honest I didn’t care much for school. I was enjoying a new found popularity I didn’t have in elementary school! Girls actually found me cute instead of the nerd I had been.
One February evening I had been at a tutor's house when my dad suddenly showed up. "I’m sorry, but I’ve got to pull Randy out tonight. My sister died." I was stunned, sitting at the table looking at a math book. I dropped the pencil "Dad, aunt Carol died?" I asked. "Randy, go out to the suburban. I need to talk to your teacher." I got up, grabbed my things and went to the car. I closed the door and began to cry. Suddenly, I understood death more than ever. The news of her dying had really upset me. I mean, she was gone. Never more. Dead. I’d spent the whole past year praying and believing, preparing to become a "man" in front of a great and awesome God. A God who just took my aunt away from me. Allowed her to be killed by a disease I didn’t even understand. I think that’s one of the points in my life I really began to question God. My "faith" diminished greatly.
Dad came back out and got into the car. "I’ve got to fly out to Washington D.C. tonight and prepare for the funeral." He said. As we drove back home I sat quietly and then asked "Dad, can I come with you?" He said "No. You need to stay in school. You’re in danger of failing" I continued...."Please dad. Aunt Carol was important to me, too." I pleaded. "No. You’re staying at home. Besides, your mom will need your help with Jimmy and Kevin."
I was mad. Mad and hurt. I think in a way at that point, purposely did even worse in school as a soft of defiance. Aunt Carol's death really affected me and dad acted like I wasn’t even able to understand her death.
I remember snapping at my friend Mindi in one of our classes. She had been teasing me about something and I said "leave me alone, my aunt died." She apologized and felt bad about that for a long time. Even to this day, I get upset at my dad for not allowing me to attend the funeral. I believe he had only good intentions in his decision, but I felt marginalized like, because I was only thirteen, death shouldn’t affect me.
Several years later when I was going down hill, I had a small apartment in Lexington, Kentucky. My mom and dad had sent me most of everything from my room at home, except the tallith bag my aunt made me. "Dad," I said "how come you didn’t send my tallith bag?" He came back with "Because I don’t want anything to happen to it". I was upset by what he said and replied "Dad, I’ve always taken care of it. You know how important it is to me." But still he insisted "No. When your condition improves I’ll consider it, but not now. It’s the last thing she probably ever made" I protested "But it’s mine, dad!" Eleven years later, sitting here on death row, I’m glad - relieved he said "no" back then. Because with the way my life was headed something would’ve happened to it. It would surely have ended up lost, or destroyed.
I take comfort in the thought that wherever my parents are right now, the tallith bag that my aunt Carol made as cancer ate her remaining life away, is sitting some place safe and sound. Hopefully, just like aunt Carol's essence, it will last forever.