April 7, 2005
In Death, Still Not Parting
I am 33,000 feet above ground en-route to LaGuardia, accompanying my father to his brother's funeral. I am expecting the coming days to be very difficult for my father, but not in the way you would expect. You see, my father and his recently deceased brother had not spoken in 20 years. My uncle resisted all of my efforts at reconciling them in his final two weeks, before his long battle with cancer ended his life earlier than my father had ever envisioned.
How often do we let feuds linger on believing that we have so much more time left on this earth? Sometimes, as in the case with my father and uncle, small resentments and lifestyle differences continue to simmer beneath the surface until family members stop speaking. And the longer family members go without speaking, the larger the rift becomes.
As we awaited the plane at the Delta terminal, I asked my dad what exactly happened between them. He thought long and hard.
"We had the usual sibling jealousies, we had completely different life perspectives and values and we didn't see eye to eye," he said. "I never liked his wife and told him so. But is that a reason to refuse my visit, a conversation, reconciliation in his final dying days? I never stole from him, I never was inappropriate with his wife."
"I wanted badly to have a last conversation with my brother. To find out what it was all about. I guess now I'll never know," my father said sadly.
My father had recently written his brother a letter, but my uncle had told me he'd prefer to leave things the way they were.
I am bracing for more than chilly weather in New York. I know about the chilly reception awaiting my father. My aunt, with whom I am on good terms, wants me to tell my father about what to expect. I will not: it is too ostracizing and, in my opinion, just plain mean.
But father's other living brother, doesn't think so, so he decided to forewarn my father of what was ahead. Basically, my father is the only immediate family member not allowed in the limousine headed to the funeral or the cemetery. My father has to find his own transportation. At the funeral ceremony, he has to sit apart from his mother, brother and my uncle's descendants and cannot walk in the procession. He is also not welcome in their home for the shiva.
My uncle's surviving family says that these were my uncle's dying wishes, and they were honoring them.
Talk about getting the last word in.
What is the point of dying with these type of instructions? My uncle went on to another world, but not before doling out the final insult to my father. At what expense are we willing to sever family ties, perhaps forever? In the case of my father and his brother, it seems that the animosity my uncle felt toward my father was not even buried with him.
There are many life lessons to be learned from this unfortunate situation:
• Don't insult someone's spouse lest it ultimately cause a tension between you and them;
• Don't wait so long to reconcile differences, even a big blowout between family members;
• Refrain from tossing and alternating insulting gestures like a ping-pong ball;
• Be gracious and forgive everyone before dying.
• The most important less of all, though, is that holding on to resentment and anger really eats a person up, psychologically and physically. Some medical experts even go so far as to say that it can bring on illness and hasten death. We are all familiar with the over-used adage, "life is too short," but life, unfortunately, can be shorter than we expect. Once a person is gone, it's too late to bury the proverbial hatchet.
I've come to realize in the past few days why God commands us to judge people favorably. It's really not for their benefit, but for ours. The Torah instructs us to help our enemy before our friend, so that we won't have an enemy anymore. The Book of Psalms provides a profound message: "Who is the person who is looking to live?" it asks. The answer King David provides: the one who loves days to see good things happen. And his specific instructions for living well: watch what you say and seek peace.
In my uncle's passing, I have learned that it's best to say your piece and then make peace with the past before time has passed too far.
Any other alternative is just a dead end.
Soriya Daniels is a freelance writer based out of Philadelphia.