Julie Gardner, an intermarried mother of two boys, writes a monthly column about her Jewish journey. Julie lives in San Francisco and was raised without a religious tradition.
This month was a month of passages for me. The death of my sister Kathi, my fortieth birthday, and my first tentative steps toward God. And while I struggled to make sense of her death, I also struggled to accept my fortieth with grace and goodwill.
While neither my sister's demise, nor my D-day birthday was unexpected (in point of fact, I had spent the entirety of my thirty-ninth year dreading my fortieth and Kathi had struggled with HIV for six years), the finality of both seemed somehow so depressing. Depressing, because Kathi's death was premature and so pointless in my mind. She had only just turned forty-four in March, and although sick with AIDS, her death was more a death by choice; a choice to love alcohol more than life; to hide rather than to face her fears, to succumb rather than to fight.
I, too, was hiding. I had decided not to acknowledge my birthday at all, assuring my husband and friends that I cared for no celebration and secretly resenting their insistence that I do something memorable to commemorate the day. In spite of my protestations, my birthday loomed over me like a large dark shadow threatening to engulf me; a benchmark in time that seemed to represent a demarcation of what I had not accomplished up to this point in my life. I had not become a doctor, a lawyer, a newscaster, a teacher, or a professional of any sort, I had not become an author of note, I had not traveled the world, I had not become rich or famous, I had not become a great athlete, I had not worked for world peace, I had not cured HIV (I had perfected the chocolate chip cookie, but somehow that seemed to fall short of my expectations), I had not...
So busy with regrets and "had nots," I had not considered, nor given any weight, to what I had done. But somewhere before my actual doom date it kicked in, due in large part to my husband, who surprised me with an intimate evening for two--our kids ensconced at a friend's home for the night. I had married a loving, supportive, and faithful mate who makes me laugh. I had given birth to two wonderful boys. I had managed to avoid the addictions which plagued my family. I had kept my body and mind strong. I had worked. I had played. I had renovated three homes along the way. And I had perfected the chocolate chip cookie! As my friends continued to surprise me throughout the week with dinners, phone calls, and gifts, I felt more and more blessed. What had I been whining about for the last year?
Their generosity in spirit and companionship reminded me that my sister's death had not been for naught. It serves as a daily reminder to me that life is about the choices we make, the friends we surround ourselves with, the time we spend with our children and mate, the service we give to our community and to one another. It is about loving yourself and those around you. It is about recognizing the importance of a really good chocolate chip cookie! It is about understanding that God's grace is evident in the smallest of blessings, like a child's laugh, a goodnight cuddle, a jog along the beach, or a fond memory. I will remember Kathi fondly. I will honor her life and her death by making choices that heal rather than hurt, that are productive rather than destructive, that create rather than destroy.
For the last ten months, I have been attending a Jewish conversion class with three other remarkable women--all gifted, all seemingly secure in their beliefs, all true to their journey. I, alone, seemed to be struggling with the notion of God; ambivalent about His existence, unsure whether I could commit to a life of Judaism without God as a core belief. I thought God would come to me in some large-scale way; that I would experience an epiphany of sorts. I now feel His presence in the smallest and profoundest of gifts and the recognition of those blessings. I think God loves me, but I believe I finally "get" that I needed to love myself, my life, and my choices before I could recognize God's love. I don't know if that's right, but if feels, at last, good.