Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Shabbat Be’ha-a-lot’cha: Our Journey Forward, delivered at M'kor Shalom on June 16, 2022

       According to Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of a book on the impact of music on the mind titled Musicophilia, music demands more of the brain, in terms of cognitive function, than ordinary language. Thus explains the retention of musical memory despite other memory loss when various parts of the brain are damaged - this occurs apparently because music requires so many different parts of the brain to engage.  Put simply, music activates our mind as well as our hearts. It literally, according to Sacks, leaves a physical mark on the brain -- a tangible imprint on memory. Perhaps this is why Jewish tradition calls on us to not just read Torah, but to chant it, so it is imprinted on our minds and souls

This week’s portion opens: Chant opening verse of Beha’alotcha...

As I shared in my M’kor Mail message, we couldn’t be in better place in our Torah cycle than this week’s Torah portion, Be’ha-alot’cha! Not only does this portion outline the mechanics, the how-to of the journey through the desert to the Promised Land, but the manner in which we are to chant certain pairs of verses when we read this portion aloud is telling of all the myriad of feelings many are experiencing in these last weeks in our building situated here on Evesham Road. Perhaps this chant can serve as an expression of the heart and mind.

Instead of chanting the text as per usual, a special melodic motif is used for various couplets of this week’s portion. Recall the sound of our regular Shabbat chant, repeat opening  verse. Now let's listen to our special melody used for the journeying: chant example ...

Perhaps this melody sounds a bit familiar –

This special melody, unknown in origin, is referred to by scholars by a highly scientific name, wait for it: the “wandering melody.” Yes, that is its official name in the scholarly literature on the subject. It is named thus not because it is the melody in a portion about journeys, but rather because the melody has wandered through history along with us, passed down for generations via oral transmission. 

         Why a special melody for these verses in our Torah portion?  Abraham W. Binder, the transcriber extraordinaire of cantillation says the “wandering melody’s” function is to “add expressiveness and festivity to the text and occasion.” (Biblical Chant, 65). I think it's about far more than celebration. This special melody occurs in several other places:

  • ·      On the festival of Simchat Torah: this special “wandering” motif is used to mark the conclusion of each day of creation (ויהי ערב ויהי בקר יום אחד); musically marking the transition between each day of creation. 
  • ·      We mark the conclusion of the public reading or study of each book of Torah, too, with this “wandering melody”: חזק חזק ונתחזק,
  • ·      On Yom Kippur, this same “wandering melody” provides the musical grounding of the traditional viddui, the confessional, "אשמנוּ, בגדנו, גזלנו, דברנו דפי"
  • ·      Of course, The Shira - Song of the Sea employs this melodic excursion (mi chamocha…)
  • ·      And finally, here the Book of Numbers, in parashat Beha-alot’cha, this melody is used in order to highlight the Israelites’ journeys:: “וְעַל צְבָא מַטֵּה בְּנֵי יִשָֹשְכָר נְתַנְאֵל בֶּן צוּעָר: וְעַל צְבָא מַטֵּה זְבוּלֻן אֱלִיאָב בֶּן חֵלֹן"  as they transition from a wandering, loosely constructed band into a highly organized and cohesive society with a set destination.

         What’s the common denominator of these events and occasions? Why are they connected by a musical motif? And what can we, as we embark on our journey, learn from it?

Each of these moments mark transition, and save for the creation story – which marks the transitions between each day of God’s creation, each moment marks human transition. This wandering melody draws attention to the complexity of and transformative power of transitions whether individual – through a process of teshuvah marked on Yom Kippur or communal - a journey made from one place to another, a geographic and psychological journey. The point of the journey in this week’s Torah portion is to take us to a place of promise. Canaan, has been marketed as The Promised Land, a place of both sustenance and sweetness. But the only way to get there is to come together as community, commit to the future, and as our prayer book demands, to march there together.

It is too easy to view The Exodus from Egypt as the symbol of the ultimate achievement of freedom, a moment frozen in time that we celebrate each year with timbrel and song. The ancient wandering melodic strain is used, however, both in The Shira sung at that moment after crossing the Sea as well as here at the start of our journey towards a new place. This should remind us that redemption isn’t a one-time event; redemption continually requires transitions.  On this Torah is clear, transition, journeying forward is necessary. We can’t stay put. Inertia isn’t the way to a promising future. At the same time, transitions can be tough. Perhaps that’s part of why a festive melody developed to help us through them. Recall – even the Yom Kippur confessional is sung to this same motif used to celebrate freedom from Egyptian bondage. This simple tune, Torah's ”wandering melody” reminds us of the joy inherent in making positive change even when it’s difficult.

Ken y'hi ratzon.


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

In memory and in honor of my dear Baltimore sister, Cindy Silverman

            My apologies in advance in case I offend you: shit-fuck. Go ahead, if you’re not offended, and maybe even if you are, say it with me, “shit -fuck.” These are the only words, Wayne told me, that Cindy could find during her horrible bouts of pain. I think she’d understand our need to say them today. I’d like to imagine that while Alma is scolding me for opening Cindy’s eulogy in this manner, Cindy is chuckling.
            Author and professor, Arnold Beisser shares an anecdote in his book, A Graceful Passage Notes on the Freedom to Live or Die: When he was a child, his father gave him a dime so that he could get an ice cream cone, a double decker ice cream cone. He eagerly walked to the drug store, stepped up to the soda-fountain counter and ordered: once scoop chocolate, one scoop strawberry. He took his unstable treat, paid his dime, and walked out of the store. As he was standing on the sidewalk outside the drugstore, just as he was about to take his first lick of the ice cream, disaster struck. He tilted the cone too far to one side, and the top scoop fell right onto the pavement. His heart sank. What happened next, though, unsettled him more than the ice cream spill. The owner of the store saw what happened and told the server to go out and replace this boy’s ice cream cone. A display of kindness that would’ve been right out of Cindy’s playbook. But, Arnold was puzzled by this small and simple act of justice. He had duly received what he had paid for; it was no one’s fault but his own that his ice cream spilled, and yet, he was rewarded with an entirely new cone. The simple rules of justice dictated that he didn’t deserve a replacement. His unsettledness stemmed from the realization that such “simple rules of justice” often don’t work. If good things could happen without any apparent or logical reason, then, so too, he realized could bad ones. We want to believe in those neat packages of justice we are taught as children. If we do what we are supposed to, then peace, prosperity, and certainly health will follow. If only. 
                The very fact we are gathered today – dressed in our whites and florals in honor of Cindy’s beautiful spirit – to mourn her death and to provide comfort and consolation to Wayne, Chelsea, and Hannah; the very fact that I am standing here eulogizing my dear sister-in-law – my Baltimore sister and friend - is stark and painful evidence that nature operates by its own rules and not necessarily by our human constructs and expectations of justice. Diagnosed with breast cancer 16 years ago, just before Chelsea’s Bat Mitzvah, and then, after having been deemed cancer free, to learn 5 years ago it had metastasized into her bones, Cindy was certainly dealt a terribly unjust hand. There is no changing that reality, and there is no satisfying explanation as to why this would happen to such a wonderful, loving, positive, and just human being. It simply isn’t fair. But there are choices to be made in the face of even the most unfair and painful of circumstances. We can remain angry or unsettled, stewing in a sea of negativity that leaves us frozen in place; or we can model Cindy’s bravery and choose to remember what was good – and there was so much good in Cindy’s life – and allow that goodness to motivate us to live according to her example. 
            May we learn from Cindy’s friendly, outgoing nature and ability to fully accept people where they are; let’s learn from her tendency towards striking up long conversations with compete strangers; may we learn from Cindy’s love of and fierce loyalty to her family; let’s learn from Cindy’s ability to savor the simple joys of living – a glass of wine or a cold beer, steamed crabs with friends, enjoying the water and time spent relaxing on the beach; and perhaps most of all, may we learn from Cindy’s ability to face her diagnosis and prognosis with the incredible courage and fortitude she exhibited. Even in her absence, Cindy can teach us how to live. If we allow her to do so, we keep a piece of her embedded in our hearts, and we enable her legacy to endure. 
            Born on January 1, 1959 to Harry and Helen, Cindy had three siblings: Jack, Donna, and Dodji. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and her mom, who raised her and with whom she was so close, died when she was only 16 years old. Yet, like through her cancer journey, Cindy didn’t allow these early challenges to destroy her generous spirit or her innate goodness. Her resilience and strength of character were evident even then. Indeed, Cindy’s inherent goodness was one of things that Wayne recognized in Cindy from their first moments together. 
            Wayne and Cindy met at work in 1984. The story I always heard from Alma was that Cindy was a godsend because she set Wayne straight and helped him settle onto a stable path. The story I always heard from Cindy was that it was the other way around. As Wayne admitted this week, it was probably a little of both. I think we can all agree, however it worked, it was a perfect partnership. They just connected. Beautifully. Married for over 30 years – since that beautiful day when they decided together to do their own thing and get married while vacationing in Hawaii. Together, Wayne and Cindy created a loving and nurturing home for their daughters Chelsea and Hannah. Cindy’s world was built around her family – Wayne, Chelsea, and Hannah you were her center. Her foundation. On Sunday, in describing how Cindy took care of all of them, Hannah shared, “I always felt, ‘I’m so lucky she’s mine.’” Well, I can’t tell you how many times Cindy would declare the identical sentiment about having Chelsea and Hannah being “hers” and having Wayne by her side. Barb can testify, too. When the three of us would go out for dinner, Cindy always beamed with pride and joy talking about her girls especially. She felt like the lucky one. Even just weeks ago, despite starting hospice, despite her pain, she proclaimed, “I’m so lucky.” I wonder if Cindy recognized that her “luck” in this case was in large part a product of the incredible love she put forth in the world. 
                Hannah, Chelsea, and Wayne all remarked how Cindy took such good care of them. And, she did. She took care of everything, but it wasn’t the tangible tasks that made such a difference. Sure, she made great soup, hosted wonderful gatherings, always welcomed friends – both hers and Wayne’s as well as their daughters’ into a beautifully prepared home, and extended gracious hospitality to everyone (like the time Wayne walked into the kitchen to find Cindy serving a fresh hot breakfast to some stranger named Bobby). What made her family feel so taken care of, though, wasn’t how the eggs were individually prepared, rather it was the way in which she made everyone feel safe and loved. What made Cindy exceptional was her ability to be fully present for you in the moment. Both Chelsea and Hannah remarked how Cindy had the capacity within her to make them feel completely understood and so fully loved. She was fully there – always until the very end. 
                Cindy didn’t come to the decision to begin palliative care and enter hospice lightly. Every choice she made was with Wayne, Chelsea, and Hannah in mind. She knew what was ahead and worked to ease their transition – she even moved Wayne’s clothes into the bigger closet in their room knowing she’d no longer need it and he might not do himself. And, while her suffering was all too evident particularly during her last week, it is clear that you brought her comfort as she prepared for the inevitable. You brought a smile to her face even as she was facing the unknown. You made sure she was surrounded by your loving presence as she made the transition from life to death. 
                A non-biblical, but still really old book most likely written between the 6th and 1st centuries BCE known as The Wisdom of Solomon teaches that honor does not come from old age or length of year, rather understanding and compassion are the gray hair of humanity. A later (Rabbinic) tale elaborates: A man tasked with cleaning the sanctuary after a wedding paused in his work to look at the flowers that lay strewn on the bema. “What a waste!” he thought as he looked at the lifeless flowers around him. “You call this a waste?!” One of the flowers protested. “What is life anyway, yours or mine, but a means of being present. My mission was to create some fragrance and beauty, and as I have fulfilled it, my life has not in any way been a waste; rather, it has been full and fulfilling.” The flower paused and then continued, “Flowers can be compared to people. They live in deeds not in time. My glory may have been brief, but you should have seen all the smiles I brought to people and all that I got to be a part of.”
               Thank you, Cindy, for all the smiles, all the joy and love you have given and will continue to give through the blessing of memory.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

It's not Really about the Ironing, Delivered for Shabbat Zachor, Friday 3/6/2020

As a woman born and raised in the latter half of the 20th century - in the midst of what is now known as the “2nd wave of modern American feminism,” I thought I stood at the shores of freedom.  The opportunities, at least compared to what I knew about the generations who came before me, seemed limitless.   
A number of years ago, while researching this wave of modern American feminism that reached its zenith in the mid-60’s and early 70’s after being sparked by Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women and the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, I conducted a google search in an attempt to find resources that perhaps were missed in the standard academic databases, yet what I found (and far too easily) were numerous websites raising up hateful and hurtful challenges to the great strides that women and men have made in this country over the last half century.  Now at first, I thought to dismiss this material outright as marginal and barely influential at most.  But then a comment made by my daughter as her father and I were preparing to host our annual Passover seder caused me to rethink my initial dismissal. 
In preparation for our seder, I took out the table linens, left them on the dining room table, and then left for a leisurely and long bike ride. My first outdoor ride of the season.  Upon returning, my then 9-year old exclaimed – “come look mommy” as she walked me in to see the beautifully ironed cloths now neatly adorning the tables in our dining room.  As her father was standing just feet away from us, I couldn’t resist commenting how great a deal this was – “Mommy takes out the linens and Daddy irons them.”  To which my 9-year old responded in an all-too serious and knowing tone, “yes – but that’s not right.”  Surprised, I probed further – “what do you mean ‘that is not right?’” to which she replied, “mommies are supposed to do the ironing.”  
Mommies are supposed to do the ironing” -- Such a comment from a child raised in a household where frankly neither parent did much ironing. More significantly, my children regularly saw their father doing household chores. Due to the nature of our work schedules (namely my working weekends and having a weekday off), our children saw their father doing these chores far more often than they actually saw me doing these same chores.  So where did that ‘ironing’ comment come from? It certainly did not come from what was modeled in our home.  And, it wasn’t really at all about the ironing.  It was and is all about stereotypes and images which so many of us thought we had conquered, but which clearly impact us in a way far beyond our consciousness.  So much for standing at the shores of freedom.  
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is one of 4 special Sabbaths that are intended to prepare us for the holiday of Pesach (yes, pesach is just over 4 weeks away!). On Passover, our tradition calls us to draw into our collective consciousness the experience of journeying through the parted waters out of Egypt and into freedom.   As Americans we value our freedom and consider elements of such freedom – such as justice, liberty, and equality - as fundamental rights.   But, I wonder, do we simply play lip service to these values? How often do we challenge ourselves to step through the mucky waters to work for the ongoing expression of these values?     
When it comes to equality between men and women, we have reason to be proud of our Reform heritage.  As early as 1846, in a report to a Rabbinical conference held in Breslau, our leaders of that day proclaimed “it a sacred duty to express most emphatically the complete religious equality” of women.  Again in 1885, the formulators of the Pittsburgh Platform stated that Reform Judaism would never reach its highest goals without giving equal voice to woman and man.  In 1922, the faculty of the Hebrew Union College resolved and the CCAR affirmed that it could not “logically and consistently” deny the privilege of ordination to women. – 1922!  That being said, however, practice did not follow its idealistic impulse.  
It took a progressive Rabbi in Germany (not America), a free thinker and one of the founders of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the international Reform arm, to grant ordination for the first time to a woman.  It was 1935. In 1930, after completing the Rabbinic program at Germany’s liberal Rabbinic seminary (the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums), Regina Jonas was denied the right of ordination.  Despite the fact that academic and Rabbinic giants of her generation (including Leo Baeck, Julius Guttman, & Ismar Elbogen among others) all attested to her competence, she was denied ordination.  Finally, in 1935, one of her teachers, Rabbi Max Dienneman, in an act of defiance of the seminary’s decision, agreed to confer independent ordination upon her which allowed her to finally be able to function formally and officially as a Rabbi. She did so until her death at the hands of the Nazis in 1944.   
With such precedent, why did it take us Americans so long – why was it not until 1968 that a woman was formally welcomed onto the path towards seminary ordination here on American shores?  Examples abound of women who were functioning as Rabbis in America long before they were acknowledged as such – women such as Paula Ackerman and Ray Frank; but once again the ideals of equality and justice that we hold so dear came long before the institution of practical change.   
Real change takes time, indeed. It takes as much patience as perseverance to enact change.  Recall the Israelites who are about to journey through the Reed Sea are not the same individuals who will have the privilege of entering the promised land.  The Biblical narrative acknowledges that a generation must pass to allow for changes in outlook, social mores, and behavior. These are vital changes that must occur in the community before the Israelites are able to understand what their freedom from bondage means and the responsibility such freedom entails. We are slowly learning how arduous the journey really is. 
Considering that women gained the right to vote in this country just a hundred years ago, great – indeed incredible – strides with regard to real equality have been made.  If I was an adult during the years of my childhood, I wouldn’t have been able to obtain a credit card in my own name. And, I certainly would not have had the opportunity to stand on a bema in the capacity I do today to deliver a sermon such as this. My children have had and will continue to have opportunities that were not available to even my generation.  Yet at the same time, the accepted images and stereotypes with which I was raised that I had hoped would not impact my children are still floating just beneath the surface of all the strides that have been made, and in a very real way limit our present-day redemption.  
Images and stereotypes can and should function in a positive manner in society.  We model some of our best behaviors on the images to which we are exposed; but when those stereotypes impinge on our choices – on our freedom to choose to be the best we are able to be, when they hold us in bondage, then we limit our ability to live up to the responsibility that redemption requires of us.   
As we mark celebrate Esther’s bravery and activism this Monday night, and as we prepare for Pesach in the weeks ahead, let us remain cognizant of our responsibility to ensure that the values and ideals of equality for which so many have worked throughout history are continually acted upon in our world. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Where's Isaac's List? Understanding Toldot - delivered Friday evening 11/29/2019 (Shabbat Toldot)

Parashat Toldot.
 וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם
“These are the descendants of Isaac, son of Abraham” our portion opens, but where are the descendants? Seriously. Where are they? The very next phrase is: “Isaac was born to Abraham,” which despite the Rabbinic idea that nothing in Torah is redundant is particularly redundant as Isaac was just identified as Abraham’s son. The text immediately proceeds to “When Isaac was 40 years old he married Rebecca,” and continues to focus on Rebecca and her pregnancy. So again, where are Isaac’s descendants?
Arguably after such a statement, “Eileh toldot Yitzchak - These are the descendants of Isaac son of Abraham,” we should expect a genealogical list of those who descend from Isaac especially as we have that elsewhere. Just moments before, literally at the end of the previous chapter of Torah, we have one for his brother, Ishmael. That paragraph opens similarly, “Eilet toldot Ishamael son of Abraham,” but it continues with the expected genealogical list.

These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibdam, Mishsma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by atheir encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. This is the length of the life Ishmael, on hundred thirty-seven years; he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people. (Genesis 24:13-17)

Where’s Isaac’s list? Especially in Torah a book whose primary purpose is to tell the story of the Israelite people, Isaac’s line not Ishmael’s.
One possibility is that through the process of textual editing, Isaac’s short genealogical list simply got cut out. Or, and in my opinion a far more satisfying explanation is that this word “Toldot,” that we translate as “descendants,” had a more nuanced meaning in its ancient rendering, and one that is actually suggested by the use of this phrase “Eileh tolodot” in the creation story.

Genesis chapter 2:4-5 reads:
אֵ֣לֶּה תֽוֹלְד֧וֹת הַשָּׁמַ֛יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ בְּהִבָּֽרְאָ֑ם ...
These are the “toldot” of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that Adonai God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up - for Adonai God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was was no one to till the ground.

While literally the word Toldot translates to “generations” or “descendants,” here we can see that understanding Toldot as “story” makes far more sense. This is the story of heaven and earth in their creation.
Eileh toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham, This is the story of Isaac son of Abraham. Translating Toldot here as “story” highlights that Isaac is more than a powerless placeholder in the chain of tradition. His story is important regardless of his progeny. He is the central character.
Isaac’s role in history easily gets overlooked. His voice is silenced in Torah. Even in the episode of the Akeidah, when his father is taking him up to Mount Moriah ostensibly to be sacrificed, Isaac is remarkably quiet. We are left to imagine what he is thinking. Even Rabbinic Midrash – the commentary that gives us stories such as Abraham smashing his father’s idols, or the one that imagines Jacob pushing against his mother’s womb whenever she passed a place of study– these post-biblical stories elaborate on Isaac’s father and children far more than on Isaac himself.
But, Isaac’s story is vital, not only to his immediate family, but to the line of the Israelite nation. Isaac is the patriarch who rebuilds and preserves, re-digging his father’s wells that had been filled by the Phillistines, and renaming them with the very names his father used. This effort is one of the most important insights we have into Isaac’s character. He isn’t an outspoken innovator, for sure, but he is a consolidator who ensures the continuity of legacy. He is the quiet but resilient link between Abraham, the first Jew and Jacob, the future namesake of the Israelite nation.
Isaac is so often painted as a weak unsuspecting victim. Not only in the Akeidah, but later in this week’s portion, too, when it appears that his sons (with Rebecca’s help) trick him out of his blessing for the first born. Perhaps, Isaac isn’t so unsuspecting. An insightful midrash, asks us to imagine Isaac as knowing exactly who his sons are by their choice of words during that famous incident of trickery. He doesn’t need to see or feel them. He knows his children. It doesn’t feel like Jacob, but ha-kol kol Ya’akov (Gen. 27:22). That voice? It’s the voice of Jacob. He recognizes him not only by his vocal timbre but also by his immediate reference to God.
Why, then, doesn’t he speak up and put a stop to the game?
Perhaps because Isaac understands his own story way more than we generally give him credit for. He understands that his role is that of preserving this covenant laid out by God, a God he knows Jacob recognizes and Esau ignores. Isn’t it better for Isaac to let Esau believe he was tricked out of blessing than for him to know it was never intended for him in the first place? That he wasn’t God’s chosen one? A difficult question for any parent to answer. What would any of us have done in that situation?
Eileh toldot Yitzchak. This is Isaac’s story; and, it’s one of strength. One that should inspire us to look past the surface, past immediate assumptions, as we work to consider and honor everyone’s story and their role in our ongoing history.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

When Loss Leaves a Gift (Remembering Jenni)

Among my most vivid childhood memories are two: the day my friend Jenni Harris died and the following Monday when while sitting in homeroom just one chair behind her empty one (Harrison always immediately followed Harris), her death was announced over the PA system to the entire school. The death of a loved one hurts. Losing a close friend at such a young age leaves a scar. If you’re lucky, the death of someone close can also leave an unexpected gift.
Like our names, my and Jenni’s birthdays were also back to back, in this case hers two days after mine. For her 15th birthday, I made a personalized box for her to keep trinkets and bought a silver butterfly necklace that I placed inside. On May 23, 1981, my mom drove me to Jenni’s house so I could leave the box and necklace for her as a belated birthday gift. It was one month to the day after her birthday. She had been at CHOP for an extended stay, and I was eager for her to know her birthday hadn’t been forgotten. Unfortunately, I was too late. That embroidered personalized box and necklace sit in a box of childhood keepsakes that has traveled with me throughout my life.
At first, I didn’t understand. When I arrived at the Harris home, Jenni’s mom came to the door and tried to explain to me that she was gone, yet I kept pressing with questions: what do you mean she’s gone? I know she’s at the hospital. I just want to leave this for her? Looking back, I realize this must have been just hours after Jenni passed. As an adult, as a mom, my heart breaks for Mrs. Harris who in those raw hours was faced with me trying to understand what she herself was just starting to process.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew Jenni had Cystic Fibrosis (CF). We all did. She talked about it openly. She told us she was lucky because she was only supposed to live to be 7 or 8 years old. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, today over 50% of those with CF are over 18. Many live into their 20’s and 30’s, but Jenni was born in 1966. I visited her during many of her hospital stays. I saw the bad moments. I watched her treatments where they beat her sides while she had to inhale that icky mist to loosen the phlegm. I saw her hooked up to the IV that sustained her. I witnessed her taking it in stride as she got poked and prodded by nurses. So, yeah, I knew she was sick. Really sick. I knew it was serious. What I didn’t fully comprehend was that my funny, vibrant friend would actually die – let alone without warning. I thought I’d at least see it coming.
Luckily, I have many memories of Jenni’s life to offset the ones surrounding her death.   Her beaming smile and her sense of humor are foremost. Cystic Fibrosis may have ravaged her body, but it didn’t consume her spirit.  Even when the illness would flare up and hospitalization was required, as it too often was, she made fun out of it. I’m surely not the only friend she’d engage in wheelchair races with up and down the halls of the peds unit at Holy Redeemer Hospital. That’s how Jenni approached life.  With zest, eagerness, and a desire to have fun no matter the circumstance.  
Of course, as any kid would, Jenni hated the CF. She couldn’t stand being sick. She couldn’t stand being so skinny and physically childlike when everyone around her was growing up. And, she certainly couldn’t understand one of her close friends doggedly refusing to eat, fighting against those normal processes of puberty that she herself was so eager to embrace. Jenni, like so many others, would implore me to eat. I didn’t, I couldn’t listen. Then Jenni died. Jenni’s death was my wake-up call. I recall the very moment later during that day her death was announced over the school’s PA system when I realized I could choose what she couldn’t. How dare I waste that opportunity when she wanted it so badly. I had a journey ahead of me for sure, but Jenni got me to the start. I wish I could thank her for that.
Memory is an interesting phenomenon. Two people can experience the same exact events while their memories of these shared events can be diametrically opposed.  I could continue sharing personal memories of Jenni, but anyone who knew her has their own unique and special memories of their time with her. Differing and varied memories for sure.  Some crystal clear and others faded with the passage of time. All of us who knew Jennifer Lynn Harris, though, can share in an incredibly important lesson from her life. Jenni had 15 years in this world.  That’s it.  She made the very best of those few years facing each day with courage and all the joy she could muster, but she only had 15.  So many of us choose to avoid talking about our age as if we should, or could for that matter, ignore the passage of time simply by refusing to count. Why? Jenni’s life and death taught me very early on to celebrate the very opportunity to have days and years to count. Had she lived, who knows if my and Jenni’s friendship would have endured the passage of time. Her death has made her memory indelible, eternally present in my life as a gift. A reminder to savor growing old.