My 36-year-old nephew is getting married in November. He is the son of my younger brother. As the oldest sibling, with another brother between us, I am the keeper of the stories, the one who always finds reasons to have celebrations by bringing us together to create memories, plus being the substitute mother to my brothers who we lost as children.
We have always been a close-knit family, coming together for all our simchas and in times of sorrow, even though we live in different cities. So it is with great sadness that I have to refuse the invitation to my nephew’s wedding. After more than half a century, 56 years to be exact, since our parents were killed in a car accident, it has struck me like a lightning bolt that within that horrific night that changed our lives forever, my brothers and I did not have the same experience, other than, that November night being the date our parents died.
I write this to bring insight for any of us who have had experiences that don’t seem to coincide with our siblings, especially when we think we shared the same parents, grew up in the same households and thought our perspectives on experiences were in sync. Often, to our great surprise, dismay and heartache, we realize that as individuals, our after-thoughts can be VERY different with viewpoints on different pages. This is not a question as to whether any incident is viewed with a right or wrong; it’s about how we and our relatives give compassion, empathy and understanding when needed and when our own perception is acknowledged as valid and real and not discounted.
In my years writing thought pieces for Jewish Sacred Aging, I have written about the death of my parents. On Sunday, November 4, 1962, when I was 16, my parents and I were driving AZA friends of mine from our home in East Los Angeles to the LA bus depot for their trip home to San Diego after an LA convention.
During what should have been a 20-minute ride home, less than a few minutes from the bus depot, a drunk driver hit us head-on. I awoke lying in the street with my mother shoulder-to-shoulder with me, feeling like I was dreaming and trying to wake myself up while wondering why my father wasn’t helping us. A stranger held me down as I tried to get up and told me the ambulance would arrive soon.
My parents were killed instantly. I had been in the front seat with them, bench seats and no seat belts in those days. Also, no jaws-of-life to help get my Father.
While being put in the ambulance, I was giving the police names and phone numbers of family, friends and our rabbi, who lived across the street from us, plus, screaming to the police “Don’t go to our house because my younger brothers [13 and 7] are home alone! Please go to the rabbi’s house!”
The ride to and from the bus depot should have put us home before 9:00 but the bus was late and my parents spent time discussing as to whether they should leave the boys alone till the bus arrived. Being the Jewish mother she was, my mom wanted to stay and see the guys safely on-board. Knowing my brothers were home alone, my dad wanted to get home, plus, my dad kept saying, “The boys are 16, 17 and 18, they are standing right where the bus leaves from, they’ll be fine.”
What if that discussion had never taken place?
Well, it did, and the randomness of time killed my parents. Had the bus been on time would my parents still be alive? Had the discussion gone on for five minutes more or less would my parent still be alive? Over the many years I have learned to accept what was and what is. My parents were sweethearts since junior high school, never dated anyone else, and in my youthful mind, they were still together. G-d had his plan for them. We either accept or live a life of anger. It was my Russian born Bubbe who taught us, “You live for the living, you mourn, you cry, you begin to eat and then you try to laugh again.” She moved into our house and raised us.
I spent 17 days in the hospital with no major injuries: A broken pelvis bone, concussion, many black and blue bruises that lasted for many, many months, along with being on crutches and out of school for three months. It could have been much worse.
But over the past 56 plus years, I have realized the bruises have been far more emotional than physical from the memories of that night and the days afterwards: Like being in the emergency room, throwing up while the doctor didn’t want to raise my head because of a possible concussion, having one contact lens stuck in my eye, and, again, because he didn’t want my head to be raised, the doctor had to find a way to get it out; seeing the rabbi coming into the ER crying, then an uncle crying; then taken to the basement of the hospital for tests where the word MORGUE was above a doorway we passed while I was on a gurney and wondering if my parents were in there; having a brain-wave test to check for a concussion (I had three electroencephalograms, EEGs, before I left the hospital, wires were glued to my scalp and it took over six months before all the glue was gone from my head); thinking all my relatives would come to my room on Tuesday after the funeral, and they did, all dressed in black as I envisioned, with not one word coming out of any of the 16 peoples’ mouths who surrounded my hospital bed, they just stared at me, one aunt finally broke down with harrowing sobs and then they all walked out. And as yet, NO ONE had said the words to me, “Mom and Dad are dead,” NO ONE.
My 13-year-old brother remembers the doorbell ringing while asleep, almost midnight, not understanding why Mom and Dad didn’t answer the door. He got up and saw they weren’t home. He went to the door and there were two very large policemen from accident and injury law services telling him there had been an accident. He went running to the rabbi’s house banging on the door and screaming. The rabbi went straight to the hospital, the rebbetzin came and stayed at our house, making phone calls, cuddling my brother while people started to gather. My youngest brother slept through everything. The next day and for the next four days, he was sent off to school as normal. He was told what happened by his brother, but he does not remember. My 13-year-old brother was the only one of the three of us to attend the funeral. For one year, he went to shul twice a week at 7:30am to say Kaddish.
The day before I was finally able to go home, I was lifted out of bed for the first time in 16 days, I almost fainted and my knees buckled. I was taken to physical therapy to learn to walk because my legs forgot to put one foot in front of the other. And I had to learn to maneuver crutches. Once I got home, the void of my parents was something I cannot put into words. And the most compelling emotion was that we all, family and friends, were heartbroken for my Bubbe and Pa. They had lost a son two years before and now their grief was indescribable. They knew my dad since he was 12 years old. No one knew how to act, there were no grief counselors in those day, we avoided crying in front of my grandparents. We protected them.
My bubbe didn’t drive and my grandfather traveled for business so once I was on my two feet, I became the designated driver for my bubbe and my brothers — grocery shopping, Hebrew school, sports practice, piano lessons, haircuts, etc. Plus, I was a junior in high school and active in BBGs. Life went on.
But on the few days leading up to November 4 since 1962, I go into a funk remembering the last few days with my family intact, all the things we did, even the dinners my mom cooked. It is an unconscious place my brain and body take me. I don’t fight it, maybe it’s the window into my best memories; but I also relive the trauma of the accident.
My nephew announces to the family his wedding will be in Mexico on the weekend of November 4, 2019. Like an earthquake, this news rolls across Southern and Northern California hitting family members with a jolt. We are stunned that our very Jewishly educated nephew and cousin, would pick our Yahrzeit date for his wedding. Not just a Yahrzeit date, but a date where two people died a tragic death at 38 years old.
His fiancé, who is Catholic, lost an older sister to a car accident a dozen years ago and wants to celebrate her memory at her wedding on the Mexican holiday, El Día de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, celebrated in Mexico the first weekend in November. (Pixar’s wonderful movie Coco, is the story of El Día de los Muertos and one of the very best animated films). My nephew thinks it would also be a good time to honor our family members who have died during a Day of the Dead party to be held on the day before the wedding where speeches will be made about all our dead relatives.
My brother, father of the groom, has no problem with this plan. He sees it as a way to bring our parents and grandparents to the wedding. My other brother and I, along with the rest of the family, see it as disrespectful, inappropriate and a lack of compassion for what we all experienced on that date.
I have struggled with the date for over six months, going up and back as to whether I can party, dance and have fun on those days, feeling tears at a wedding should be for joy and not for the mourning of dead relatives. It is my nephew’s wedding, who I love and respect for his contribution to Judaism, his education at Stanford and UCLA and his international travels, and I truly want to join in his simcha.
It was almost five months into trying to decide about attending the wedding, while watching a TV crime show one night and I heard someone say, “You have been through a traumatic event that changed your life and it may never leave your soul.” I jumped off the couch and kept repeating, “You have been through a traumatic event…” Somehow, the fact that I went through a trauma has never been said or occurred to me! Shocking!
It was then that the answer as to why I could not see myself at the wedding became clear: For me, it was inappropriate to celebrate on the day my parents were tragically killed and I had to acknowledge to myself that I had experienced a traumatic event, that almost 57 years later, has not left my soul. It was as though a boulder had been lifted off my shoulders.
And the reason the date is okay for the father of the groom is because he acknowledges he only sees the date as, “The day my parents died” because he felt no moment-to-moment trauma, whereas my other brother felt the suffering of answering the door, running to get the rabbi, having to tell his little brother the awful news and being the man-of-the-house at 13 years old. Plus, he did not sleep on Sunday nights for 25 years until he finally went to therapy.
And the fact that my younger brother views the date as he does, he has not emotionally recognized the actual trauma my other brother and I went through and has asked us to put our experiences aside to attend the wedding. Though we both have tried to do that, we are both feeling the date is not appropriate for rejoicing. Right or wrong, that is not the question or the answer. Though, it would have been heartening to hear, “I understand your feelings, emotions and experiences and I accept and acknowledge what you went through.” We have not heard anything close to those words. But, please understand, him not sharing those sentiments have not been a factor in our feelings of attending the wedding, or feelings towards him, as we want him to feel joy and happiness at his son’s wedding. On November 4 weekend, 2019, we will feel the bitter/sweet of the day.
So, as siblings and family, we cannot take for granted we all feel and think the same way, because as individuals we all have to own that which is our personal life-experiences with the interpretations as to how we saw, acted, reacted and lived out what we shared.
Ask a room of 10 Jews their opinions on one subject and you’ll get 18 answers, ideas, thoughts and perceptions.