I was at my cousin Jerry Sorkin’s funeral. He had fought a death sentence of Stage IV lung cancer since August 2007—cancer created by the treatments necessary to cure the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma he overcame in college and before that as a teenager. The first-year survival rate for Stage IV lung cancer is 2% or less; he lived nine years. He was someone who faced pain and suffering on a level I can’t even begin to comprehend and soldiered on positively to enjoy a standard of life unheard of with his diagnosis. He organized the first (now yearly) Breathe Deep fundraising walk on Washington for LUNGevity to bring that foundation’s cause to the national stage. He became the President of his synagogue; the synagogue for his service was packed wall-wall. He had gone to law school and studied in the same peer group as President Obama, and Obama himself called Jerry’s family to offer condolences. Jerry had obviously meant a lot to a lot of people whom I’d never met.
I didn’t know Jerry personally. I knew him in the way you know an older first-cousin-in-law. I mostly knew of him and his story and specifically how he lived with his disease. I knew him from the events he anchored in our family’s story, like the two awesome Bat Mitzvahs (we’re talking wedding-level production values) that he helped produce for his daughters, long after the time he had been told he had left to live. Almost the entire family flew across the country to be there at these events that Jerry himself had doubted he could attend.
I felt guilty at how much I kept looking at other people’s faces during his service, to see unbarred windows into each person’s feelings for Jerry. I tried to summon memories we had shared together, but we didn’t have many moments of just the two of us. I realized I was being a voyeur, looking almost hungrily at others’ reflections of their time with Jerry, and so I turned my gaze inward. And his death began to make me think about my own life:
I look at myself, and I see a mess of adjectives, and I am every one of them in some way. Sometimes, I can be cruel or gregarious or self-depricating or cynical or unexpectedly compassionate. Sometimes, I’m my own worst enemy; sometimes my best buddy. More often than not, I only feel good about myself when the circumstances are in my favor. Sometimes, something as trivial as an email drives me into despair, and then I hit the gas and exaggerate the stakes, and then hate myself for giving fear power over me. Sometimes, I end up in a pit of victimhood and self-pity…and even once or twice I’ve whispered to myself (mainly I think for attention) that I wish I wasn’t alive anymore — that I wish I could see myself at my own funeral. Can I love my own personhood even when it fantasizes hitting the red button to erase itself? How would I deal with a hammer like cancer thrown down across the story of my life? Would I even come close to the journey Jerry accomplished?
I read somewhere that one can think whatever one wants — it is one’s actions that define you. If so, is my character just a balance sheet of the worst things I’ve done vs. the best things I’ve done? I once screamed at my mother that I hoped she would become senile; I once saved a teenager’s life.
Am I defined by what I think and worry about? I realize I focus mainly on the surface of things. Literally, I can’t resist checking out my reflection. When I Skype or FaceTime with people I have to put a little ‘Post-It’ note over my own face so I don’t look at my portrait the whole time. I’ve been on Propecia for three years. I’ve probably lost more hair follicles constantly fussing with my hair than the drug has ever saved. Jerry was Jewish and so at shiva, after his service, all the mirrors in the house were covered per custom. But I caught my face in a window’s reflection and had to catch my hand before I fixed my hair part. I saw that my teeth were yellowish and needed a cleaning, and I thought about how because of the funeral I had had to reschedule my dentist appointment. I felt like a monster for thinking about all this during his shiva. I am vain.
Is it my relationships with family and friends that make me who I am? Would I still be me if I we’re totally secluded and no one could reach or find me? Isn’t that the same as when we die and eventually there’s no one left living to remember us? Is the fact that I regularly feel alone and long for a life partner an indication that without such intimacy I’m just half a man; looking for his other half? Is it love that makes one a whole human?
Am I my pain? When I was at shiva, I saw a member of the immediate family stand against a wall with nothing to do — a solitary moment in-between a thousand people to greet and thank for coming and attend to. I saw her listless, frozen, touching the first glimpse of when the well-wishes have come and gone and you are alone with your grief. It shocked me back into the frenzied panic I felt beneath my surface at my mother’s funeral. I was shaken and disturbed by that moment for the rest of the shiva and for days afterwards.
Am I my joy? I came home to my dog greeting me like I had left her forever but miraculously returned to the living. In her own way, she had felt that moment of despair when your loved ones are gone, and you don’t know if you’ll ever see them again. We hugged and wrestled on the floor, just giggling and overjoyed to be with each other, and I gave her as many treats as I could humanly justify.
Death reminds me of life, but most of all it reminds me of honesty. That the only thing that I can 100% commit to is what’s right in front of my face and how I feel about it and that I probably don’t understand it intellectually at all but will try very hard to and probably write a long Medium post about it. Death reveals how much I don’t know, and how much what I’m sure I know is bunk. I think I’m getting more and more wise the alternate realities that my emotions transport me to. I’m getting better at laughing at the irony of how often I draw inferences and come to conclusions about things just before the shoe drops, and I realize I totally misjudged what was going on. To me, death is a wake-up reminder to let go of my prejudices and behaviors and thought patterns and guilt trips and admit that I really know nothing and am again a newborn mind able to freshly see myself and the world.
I wonder if this train-wreck of thought is what Jerry would have wanted for me to be thinking about at his funeral. This whole story is about myself for one. I realize this could come across as an inherently selfish or even a disrespectful way to address someone who has just died; but I want to say more about Jerry than just, “I am so sorry for the loss.” I didn’t know him intimately in life, but I could see how he changed the lives of those around him, and he made me think about my own, and I’m grateful.
RIP: Jerry Sorkin