Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The More of Tamar

In my last blog post on “Rejoicing While Others Mourn,” I reflected on the rejoicing we did as a family at the end of 2012, knowing that at the same time, there was much mourning by families in so many other places in the world. Shortly after I wrote those words, a time to mourn was thrust into our midst with the sudden death of our 20-year-old neighbor as she finished up her semester of studying abroad in
South America.

As I spent much of the week at the Kaplan’s, helping plan a service that we hoped would be a fitting tribute to Tamar’s too-short life, the impossibility of such a task was an ever-present reality. How could a 90-minute service possibly capture the essence of Tamar? Of course, the question itself was an excruciating one—one that should not have to be asked by parents and siblings of a bright-eyed young woman with her whole life ahead of her. Yet there we were, compiling pictures, stories, readings, and music, all in an attempt to capture the rich life she lived.

At the beginning of the memorial service, I stood in front of the more than six hundred who came together to honor, to grieve, and to support, and tried to put into words what I’d witnessed in the chaotic mixture of love and grief that had filled the days since her death:

How do we capture a life? We turn today to photos of events and relationships; to music that invokes a personality; to readings from favorite books; to reflections from those close to the source; to words from an ancient shared heritage. All in an attempt to capture a life. Her life. The life of Tamar Hanna Kaplan.

Even as these shared memories capture aspects of her life, all of us gathered here know that there’s so much more that can’t be captured by words or notes or pictures. It’s the sudden inaccessibility of the more of Tamar that saturates us with grief today.

At the same time, we gather to honor the more of Tamar that death cannot take away. The photos and readings and recitations and reflections all point to the more of Tamar that refuses to die. All of us here today are witnesses to her dear family and friends that death does not have the last word on Tamar. The love shown here this morning is a sign that the love we have for Tamar and the love she had for her family, her friends, for life and for the world is stronger than any pronouncement of death could ever be.

Let us proceed with our honoring of Tamar and in our insistence that who she was and what she meant to the world lives on.

What came through vividly at the service was the fact that the more of Tamar was so clearly on display in all aspects of her life. She embraced living with an exuberant fierceness. Indeed, we heard that after a semester in Ecuador, she told friends she’d have to create a new bucket list, for she’d crossed off everything she’d hoped to do, from climbing a mountain to repelling down a canyon.

It’s a time to mourn the loss of a lovely daughter, sister, niece, roommate, friend. And in this time of mourning, we hope for a time in the future when laughter and rejoicing will come again, a time that will also include not only the more of Tamar, but the more of us all.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Rejoicing while Others Mourn

This holiday season our nation experienced a jarring juxtaposition I’ve become
more attuned to since living with cancer: the occasion when heartbreak collides
with celebration. The mid-December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School
injected shock and grief into a time when tidings of great joy are supposed to rule
the day. How does one rejoice in the midst of others’ anguish?

I admit that more than once during our family celebrations of the past few weeks,
my thoughts gravitated to the stark contrast between my family’s days of laughter
and joy and the families in Newtown crying their way through the holidays, knowing
that their precious little ones would never see another holiday, another new year,
another day of school. There were moments where it felt almost dishonorable to be
rejoicing, knowing so many others—both in Newtown and beyond—were buried in

As devastating an event as the Newtown massacre is, it’s far from the only cause
for grief these days. Violence from Syria to North Minneapolis translates into much
holiday mourning for so many. In addition to the violence we inflict on one another,
there’s also the pain that accompanies dreaded diagnoses of cancer, lymphoma,
heart disease, and more. Our family is cognizant of the children and father down
the street who spent Christmas without their mother and wife after she was taken
away by cancer. We mourn with our extended family as a relative with cancer has
almost certainly celebrated her last Christmas in this life. I admit to struggling with
celebrating our own good fortune in light the immense pain, sadness, and grief that
exists both close by and far away.

Back when I was really sick and really sad about my sickness, my husband—who
initially had been completely undone by my stage IV cancer diagnosis—informed
me that he had made a decision: that he was going to try and relish the time he and
I have left rather than spending this time mourning that we likely don’t have much
time left.

While my rationale self understood this to be a sound strategy, my husband’s new
approach didn’t sit well with the rest of me. The gravity of my diagnosis was just
settling in to my brain. I was sad—really sad. And I didn’t want a happy husband
who looked on the bright side. I wanted a husband who joined me in the pit where
sadness and grief dominate.

Since those early days of my diagnosis, I’ve thought much about the challenge of
knowing how to distinguish, as the author of Ecclesiastes says, between the time to
weep and the time to laugh, between the time to mourn and the time to dance. Is
it possible to embrace our times to laugh and dance in a way that doesn’t dishonor
others’ times to weep and mourn?

Twentieth century writer C.S. Lewis struggled much with the interconnection of
rejoicing and mourning. Lewis lost his young wife, Joy, to cancer early in their
marriage. In the movie, Shadowlands, that chronicles their life together, Joy insists
that they talk about her impending death. “The joy now is part of the pain then,” she
tells Lewis. At her gravesite, Lewis returns to Joy’s insight, telling himself, “The pain
now is part of the joy then.”

This explanation of the link between joy and grief is one I keep close at hand, as I
shed tears for the first graders huddled together in that Newtown classroom, as I
grieve for our neighbors aching at the absence of their mom and wife, as I wonder
how many holiday seasons I will get to celebrate. The gift of life is a precious one,
a gift I attempt to rejoice in and treasure, even amidst the stiff awareness of its
fragility. It is a privilege to wake to the sun, to smile at the new year, to cherish the
stark beauty of winter in Minnesota.

My husband seems to know what C.S. Lewis’ wife knew: that loving what is
finite means that the pain and grief are unavoidable. But when we’re given the
opportunity to rejoice, let’s embrace it, even as we are aware that grief in this life is
never far away. And let us also hope, in the words of Revelation 21, for a time when
there will be no more crying, no more dying—only light, only love.

Here’s to savoring the times to rejoice in this new year.