Monday, December 11, 2017

A day of sadness and celebration

When I wrote about the friend who was killed in a car accident, her name had not yet been released, but since then the local news outlets reported that her name was Zoe Rosenthal, a much loved teacher at The Literacy Project. The Daily Hampshire Gazette had this front page story  giving more details. The story on Masslive, my old employer, said the accident is under investigation.

If you read the comments, which may or may not be trusted, there seems to be a video showing that Zoe waited patiently to cross the street with her dog and a man with allegedly bad eyesight came around a corner so fast that he sent her flying. It's in general a bad idea to read the comments. But I was curious so I did it, and a couple of people seemed to know what they were talking about.

On Saturday, her daughters arranged a celebration of her life. It was snowy and not a great driving day. But I had told a student who lives in Sunderland, who didn't feel comfortable driving all the way to Holyoke, that I would go over the notch to pick her up at Atkins. Reading somewhere that it was a potluck, I brought a bag of clementines. Zoe liked fruit. But when we got to The Waterfront Tavern in Holyoke, we saw that it was going to be a big catered party with lots and lots of food for friends and family. As I walked up to the food, I saw two little boys playing catch with my clementines. I told their father I was glad they were being put to good use.

Desserts from Saturday
Only knowing Zoe from the classroom, I had no idea how many lives she had touched. A group came from New York, including an aunt and a woman who told me she was Zoe's second mother. She gave me a rose from her bouquet. When it was her turn to stand up and speak about Zoe, she said that she had practically raised her from the age of 13. She broke down to such an extent that two people held her while she sobbed. Upbeat music played. Someone said Zoe was dancing in heaven. A slideshow showed her smiling face in various locales, on the beach, playing with her granddaughter, surrounded by friends and family.

You might say that such an event included laughter and tears. But the laughter part was subdued. There still seemed to be a lot of shock over what happened, that Zoe had gotten her dog Chester to help her heal from a previous accident and from the death of her best friend his daughter, killed in a motorcycle accident by a driver high on heroin, and that she had recently bought a house in Holyoke, and probably wouldn't have been at Lyman and Canal Streets if the purchase, which I remember from last year, hadn't come through.

I was a volunteer in her class at in Northampton for two years but switched this year to the Amherst location because the parking problem in the Gothic Street lot had become untenable. It was hard enough my previous years as a volunteer to get over the Coolidge bridge without hassle and then find a spot in the lot. More than once I had to park on the street, clamber over a snowbank, and run out to feed the meter because the allowed time didn't cover the whole time of the class, whereas in the lot it did. I had thought of switching before because the Amherst location, at the Jewish Community of Amherst, had free parking. But I wanted to stay with the same class.

Then last spring the Northampton IT department took the whole back row. And I simply could not park. I would drive around sometimes for 10 minutes until I found a spot, then come into the class both apologetic and apoplectic. So when the spot in Amherst opened up, I felt like I had to take it. I wrote Zoe first just so she would know. I said I hoped I could get together with her and Carole, the other volunteer. We had planned a lunch in the spring but it didn't work out. I said I hoped the three of us could still get together. She didn't get back to me. I was afraid she was annoyed and kept meaning to stop in but hadn't done it yet.

When some 20 of us gathered in Zoe's classroom a couple of days after her death, and when Carole said one of the best things was that she and the volunteers were a team, I started bawling. "I feel useful in Amherst, but I feel like I left the team," I said, or something to that extent. I wished I had had more time with her. We had a lot in common: both divorced with daughters, both having gone to high school in New York, and both with a two-year-old granddaughter.

By the way, Zoe's class is a beginner level and the one I'm in now is the next level up, intended for those who want to pass the HISET test or who for reasons of their own want to do higher level work.

Certainly, rationally I knew that I didn't leave the team. I'm still a volunteer. The other volunteers with whom I shared my concerns said that Zoe wasn't like that, she wouldn't have held it against, me, and of course she understood. 

Yesterday by coincidence I was at the JCA for a talk and reading from her new book by Rabbi Sheila Weinstein. She was the rabbi when I attended services and sent my kids to Sunday school there. When, during the Q and A session, the discussion turned to Purim, I used the opportunity to get up and say some of what was weighing me down.

I don't like speaking in front of a crowd, but I said that I remembered Sheila dressing up as a clown for Purim, bringing my costumed kids and getting them graggers with which to make noise at any mention of the evil Haman. I said that the kids lost some interest when they realized she would be leading a reading of the whole Megillah, the story of Esther, which has come to mean a very long tale.

Tears filling my eyes, I said what had happened and asked (rhetorically) why Judaism doesn't offer up the vision of a deceased person dancing in heaven, and what can you do with your grief in a situation like this, and then I told the part about the parking and the guilt.

She said that (of course) I didn't do anything wrong and that I had reason to be sad and that I would just need to sit with it. The woman sitting next to me gently rubbed my back.

Afterwards, when milling around, I bumped into several people I knew, including one from a baby play group (Ben's) and one who was related to good friends of my parents. A man who came over to give me a hug said that as a fellow native New Yorker, he got the thing about the parking. Getting a good place is an point of pride, if not a religion.

"Once you tried three times without success, that was it," he said about the parking problems that drove me out of Northampton.

That made more sense to me than the voice rattling around in my head did.

1 comment:

Saul Wisnia said...

What a sad but beautiful reflection, Ronni. Regardless of Judaism's stance on the afterlife, I hope that somewhere Zoe is dancing -- and finding parking places easily. I happened to be at a Jewish funeral yesterday, and the rabbi said something very lovely at the cemetery: that the departed was "wrapped up in God's eternal love." It's not the same thing as dancing, but I thought it was a nice image.