January 1, 2005
At my bereavement group’s meeting last week, the fact that I hadn’t attended the previous week due to Timmi’s yahrzeit sparked a discussion of memorial services, funerals and other ceremonies related to a loved one’s death. The discussion turned to the question: how do we perpetuate the memory of our departed? One group member, I’ll call him David, whose mother died 21 years ago when he was eleven years old, spoke of his plans to organize a gathering of people who had known his mother before he was born. At this gathering, David will listen to these friends’ and relatives’ memories of his mother and, perhaps, will ask questions about her life that he’ll never have the chance to ask his mother herself.
Another man, “Michael,” told us that before she died, his wife planned her own funeral and memorial service, which included a videotape she'd made in which she spoke to those present, and even sang – to the accompaniment of live musicians whom she'd requested be invited to the funeral. She also asked that trees be planted in her memory at the bird sanctuary in Jerusalem. Michael related that she'd expressed her wish that the anniversaries of her death be marked by a picnic under those trees. That is what Michael intends to do when her first yahrzeit comes around in a few months.
Although I write this blog in Timmi’s memory, and hope that in a small way I’m "bringing her to life” for my readers, and although the parochet** for the High Holidays that we donated to our synagogue now bears her name, these things were not the first that came to my mind when it was my turn to speak. What I said was that I feel that the most fitting and most important memorial to Timmi is what she left behind in the hearts of those that knew her. I was thinking of the many people who’ve told me how deeply Timmi affected them, but most especially of the gatherings that her high school classmates hold in her memory every year around her yahrzeit.
I’ve been present at the last two of these gatherings. Both times, the girls watched a videotape of a performance that Timmi had given in the framework of her drama class, studied one or more texts related to the performance, and discussed the texts in the light of the questions: What did Timmi teach us through her performances? What do we continue to learn from her today?
Last year, the girls screened a video of the monologue Timmi had created from the two stories in the Book of Genesis that tell of Hagar, the matriarch Sarah’s servant who bore Abraham’s first son Ishmael. Unusually, perhaps, for a religious Jewish girl, Timmi told Hagar’s story out of a deep identification with Hagar. She channeled into this monologue all of her own feelings of anger at a cruel fate, frustration at a life that was turning out to be so different from the one she’d envisioned, and pride at being who she was despite (because of?) that difference. The group then discussed the Biblical texts upon which the monologue was based; Timmi’s classmates felt that her performance taught them a great deal about empathy for the Other, and about how tragedy is tragedy no matter whom it befalls.
This year, the group watched the tape of Timmi’s rendition of Katharina in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. She took several separate lines and speeches of Katharina’s and wove them into a seamless monologue. In the first section, Katharina comes in limping, crying, and begging for mercy from her husband, who is trying to starve her into becoming a submissive wife. As we watched this part, I think that all in the room remembered that Timmi's limp was genuine, as she performed this monologue after her leukemia had returned, when she was in a great deal of pain from the cancer’s spread.
The last part of Timmi’s monologue was extremely creative and original and, as with her Hagar performance, she used it to express many of her feelings about her own struggle. In her last speech, Katharina, who has seemingly been duly “tamed,” gives a long speech about the duties a wife owes her husband because it is he who goes out into the world and faces the cruel elements in order to support and shelter her. Timmi, however – without changing a word of this speech, the words of which have made many a modern feminist shudder – managed to turn it into a bitter protest against the fate of women forced to fit into their traditional roles. As she limped off the stage, it was clear that Timmi’s Katharina had not truly given in, and would find a way of getting her own back.
Many of Timmi’s classmates spoke of their memories of Timmi and what they felt she had given them. All felt that she had gone through her ordeal with incredible strength and grace, and even with an ironic sense of humor. One girl told a story that others had told me many times before, about how during a break she came back from the snack stand with a yellow ice pop. When reminded that yellow artificial food coloring could be dangerous, she replied, “So what’ll happen to me? I’ll get cancer?”
(I say “girls,” but I should really say “young women,” as Timmi’s classmates are now 22 years old, and some are married already. I think it’s still too hard for me to truly acknowledge that they have continued to grow into adulthood, and into a future that Timmi will never know.)
Watching these videos, like looking at Timmi’s pictures, is always a mixed experience for me. One the one hand, these images bring forth warm memories and gratitude that I have concrete objects that can help keep her alive in my heart. On the other hand, every time I watch or look, I’m wrenchingly reminded that there will be no more performances, no more pictures, no more poems. Is this the sum total of the human being that was my daughter?
But I’m glad I keep looking, because no, there is no fixed and immutable sum total. Even though Timmi is no longer with us, she's still teachig us. If, as she did, we can learn to channel our own pain into empathy for others; if we can refuse to submit to injustices that our society takes for granted; if we can take our own experience, no matter how hard, and use it to create works that enable others to see the world from a fresh and unusual perspective – that, I believe, will truly be Timmi’s most fitting memorial.
*See my previous post.
**Parochet – the curtain of the ark holding a synagogue’s Torah scrolls.