This is the first Yom Kippur without my sister. Yom Kippur is the holiest of all the Jewish holidays. It’s about forgiveness and repentance. I learned early you don’t forgive people because they deserve forgiveness; you forgive because you deserve peace.
My sister died in December and they say all the firsts are the toughest.
Last year during COVID we streamed the high holidays online. She was in Virginia. I was on the Vineyard, and the temple was in Ojai, Calif. We sang together, we prayed together, and even with all those miles between us, we could actually see each other. It was a spiritual technological miracle. Neither of us was particularly religious, but we both love tradition and ritual.
Last week, after Rosh Hashonah, the new year, I was on an email chain with two of my childhood girlfriends. We were reminiscing about the meals we’d had as kids. My family’s favorite dinner was lamb chops and baked potatoes. My friend Pat’s was New York strip steaks and mashed, and my friend Susan’s was lasagna and sausage and onions. Friday nights all three of us had chicken in one form or another. It was Saturday night I was stuck on. Did we actually have hotdogs and beans cut up in one saucepan with Gulden’s mustard? I wanted to call my sister and ask. But I can’t call my sister and ask. She’s gone, and there’s no one else alive that knows our shared history. I remembered a quote from John Greene’s “The Fault in Our Stars”: “The pleasure of remembering had been taken from me because there was no longer anyone to remember with. It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory, itself as if the things we’d done were less real …”
I’m lucky I can cry easily; knowing I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call my own sister brought me to my knees.
When I recovered, and still in a fragile state, I began making my list of whom I have wronged in the past year. I couldn’t think of anyone I had hurt, and just as I was about to congratulate myself on being a most conscious, generous, caring being, an awful memory came flooding back.
My sister had had a very rare muscle disease that went undiagnosed until she was in her 50s. When we were growing up, my parents — and sadly I, too — thought she was just lazy. I remember when we lived on the second floor of a two-family house. Going up the stairs, I would be a few steps above her, and she’d say, “I wish I were where you are.” It never occurred to me what that really meant. That every step was a huge effort. And that I would reach the top before her.
One day, years ago, when she was visiting the Vineyard, I dropped her off at the appointed place where she supposedly was meeting her ride, taking her back off-Island. We kissed goodbye and off I drove back to Chilmark, unaware that it was the wrong place and that she ended up having to walk a mile carrying her bag (another thing that was almost impossible for her). It didn’t occur to me to check to make sure she was OK.
When she returned home she called me, devastated that I hadn’t waited for her connection to arrive, that I had simply dropped her and left. But worse, when she complained, I didn’t apologize. I even think I was annoyed. And now it’s too late. I can’t call her and tell her I remember and tell her how sorry I am.
And then it hits me. Of course I can tell her. Of course I can be accountable. And of course I can be genuinely filled with remorse. It’s never too late to apologize, to admit failure, to be fully human.
That’s what Yom Kippur is all about. Repentance. Duh.
So much for my self-described most-conscious, generous, caring human beingness. I sat in silence, knowing her spirit was nearby and accepting my apology with grace; I was able to forgive myself.
And give peace a chance.
Welcome to another first.
This one, not so tough.