As soon as I saw my father's face I knew something was wrong. I tossed my luggage into the back of the car, got in, and waited for the news.
"I'm sorry to have to welcome you home from vacation like this," he began, "but Aunt Rose passed away yesterday."
I sighed. We all had known this was coming, but it still left my insides sick and cold. "Why didn't you call me?" I asked. "I would have come back sooner."
"There was nothing you could have done." He circled the road out of LaGuardia and drove out on to the highway. "And we knew you'd be home in time for the funeral tomorrow."
I let the terrible news sink in.
And then other thoughts started crowding into my mind. I hadn't attended a Catholic religious ceremony since my conversion to Judaism almost a year earlier. And I had never been inside a church without knowing exactly what was expected of me. But now, everything was different: quite suddenly, the feelings of grief and loss at losing my aunt were compounded by confusion, for how would I be able to mourn for this extraordinary woman when I was no longer part of her faith?
My Aunt Rose was the kind of person I have always wanted to be. She was a devoutly religious woman with an irreverent streak a mile wide. She never took herself--or anyone else--too seriously, and when conflict arose in the family, she was the first to diffuse it, usually amid a great deal of laughter.
Still, when I made the decision to convert, I ultimately decided not to tell her. She was going through her second bout with cancer, and I didn't feel comfortable informing her that I no longer belonged to the faith that she relied on for hope and comfort. After one of my cousins--herself a partner in an interfaith marriage--gently told my aunt of my decision, I expected the news would be quietly accepted, but not necessarily acknowledged.
I was wrong. The last time I saw her before she died was at a family gathering for my nephew's third birthday. I was surprised when she motioned me over and said, "I have a present for you, too." Inside the tiny green velvet bag she handed me was a gold filigree chai, the Hebrew letters for life, or luck. There was a card as well, signed by her and my cousins, that said, "Dear Andrea, we are so proud of your decision and your courage."
I never saw Rose fearful or sad. We all admired her for her bravery, through the terrible years of illness and pain. At recent family gatherings she had often been tired, but on that afternoon her laughter rang through the kitchen as lively and strong as ever. When she told me she was proud of my courage, it was the highest compliment I had ever received, because she was courage personified.
On the day of the funeral, I drove to Hopewell with my parents, all the while trying to figure how I could honor Aunt Rose in a way that she would have accepted and appreciated. I knew that I would not participate in the Mass by reciting the Nicene Creed --the profession of faith to the Church and its teachings; taking Communion--the sacrament of bread and wine, or taking the body and blood of Christ into one's own; or making the sign of the cross.
Just as my relatives were seeking a sense of closeness and comfort in their faith, I was trying to find a path to my own. I pored over questions in my mind. Could I pray? Should I say "Amen" after the reading from the "Old Testament" but not after the reading of the Gospel? Was saying Kaddish, a Jewish prayer extolling God that is traditionally recited by mourners, appropriate for a non-Jew? Could I make the responses when they referred to God but not Jesus? And finally, the real question: How would Aunt Rose have wanted me to honor her today?
Once inside the church, the hour of ritual was excruciating amidst the raw grief and tears of our family, the strained, sad looks on everyone's faces, and the pain of dividing myself from liturgy and prayers that were as familiar to me as my own face in the mirror. And after all of the debate in my mind as to where I should draw the boundary lines between myself and the rituals taking place, I still had no answers. All that really mattered was that I was going to miss my aunt.
Thus, for fear of doing the wrong thing during the funeral, I did nothing. I didn't join in the responses to the Mass, or sing the hymns that I had learned as a child. I sat silently, letting the sadness and mourning build up inside, wondering if I would ever find a way to let them go.
After the funeral and the burial, the family gathered at my cousin Jacqueline's house for a luncheon. Along with our parents, just about all of the cousins were there--all the children of my mother and her siblings. In that warm, bright kitchen, with its smell of coffee and sugar cookies, we stood and talked about Aunt Rose.
My cousins and I kicked off our high-heeled shoes and laughed at the old stories as we remembered. In different faiths, with different stories to tell, we were there together to honor my aunt's memory, to support one another, and to shelter each other from the loss and emptiness that now shadowed our family. Among that group, I felt as if part of the burden of confusion and sadness that I had felt in the church had been lifted. And, remembering her final gift, I realized how ironic and strange and beautiful that my aunt's last message to me was the symbol chai, of life.
That Friday night, instead of adding her name during the Mi Sheberach, a prayer for healing, I said Kaddish for her at the end of our Sabbath services. I thanked God for her life and for everything she had taught me by the example of her strength and humor and bravery.
As I prayed, I wore the chai she gave me. And as I uttered the uniquely Jewish words of mourning, in the company of my congregational family, I hoped that somehow I was honoring my aunt as she would have wished, knowing that her gift of life was also, in many ways, a gift of faith.