Remembering My Friend, Marcus, the Day After His Death

Thursday, October 13, 2016

They say that people with chronic illness sometimes wait to die until they've made it to an important date, a milestone. My own father died the day after Father's Day, one last holiday with his only child. Just this year, my friend Jen's dad died on his 70th birthday; he told his wife he just needed to make it that far. And last month, Mike's grandmother passed away at age 96 - on the anniversary of her husband's death many years before.

Last night, just after Yom Kippur drew to a close, my friend, mentor, & former colleague Rabbi Marcus Burstein passed away after a long struggle with cancer. Writes his grieving husband, "It is just like him to want to wait until the close of this most holy day so that colleagues, loved ones, congregants, and friends could finish before turning to mourning."

When I began my last position at the organization where I currently work, Marcus was assigned to help me acclimate. A veteran staffer, he knew the ropes but was also kind & adept at guidance. I was the youngest person on our team, but Marcus knew how to relate to me, to help ease my mind, to commiserate with me, to tap into my sense of humor & keep me laughing. We had video calls once a week to check in; after the first one, I started to consider him not just a colleague but a mentor, & not just a mentor but a friend.

A few years ago, our organization went through a restructuring, & Marcus's & my position was eliminated from the staffing structure. I found a new role within the organization, but Marcus left to become a pulpit rabbi in New York, just outside the city. It was a blessing in disguise, he told me, & we were happy for one another - but without those weekly video calls, we lost track of each other.

Though I had been out of touch with Marcus for years, he's never been far from my mind. You see, Marcus once gave me the best piece of advice I have ever been given, one that has eased my considerable anxiety & helped me through difficult times simply because I can still remember what the words sounded like in his voice.

I can't quite remember where we were or what I was so worried about when Marcus gave me this advice, but I vaguely recall that we were on a charter bus. To where? I can't recall. But as I panicked about who-knows-what, Marcus told me: When you worry about events you can't control, you live every experience twice: once as you worry about it, & again as it happens. And isn't that exhausting, he asked? Why force yourself to do so much extra living when you could cut it in half & only live each experience once, as it is?

When I am having panic attacks - when I lie awake at night worrying about everything to come - I remember Marcus. I remember that advice, the way his voice sounded when he said it, the way his smile looked as he reassured me. Last week, when I learned that Marcus had been moved to hospice, I wrote him a card telling him of his lasting impact on me - telling him that I think of him often & will continue to, that I am grateful to him for his friendship & his wisdom & for this lasting piece of rabbinic guidance that has stayed with me through times of struggle.

I waited too long to send the card. It sat on my kitchen table for four days & only went in the mailbox at the end of last week, & I feel quite sure that Marcus could not have received or read it before his passing. I should have sent it sooner! I've been thinking about it for years! How could I have let this acknowledgement go unspoken, let a friend go to his death without expressing to him how much he affected me?

But instead of beating myself up about it, I now hope that his family will eventually read my words to Marcus, & perhaps they will find additional comfort in yet another story of how he touched lives & made a permanent & positive impact on the people he met & cared for, even the ones, like me, who they've never met or heard of.

In Judaism, when someone dies, we say, "May his memory be for a blessing." The world is a darker place today without Rabbi Marcus Burstein, but his memory is already a blessing. I am forever grateful to him for his friendship & his advice, for his kind smile & his easy sense of humor & his infinite wisdom. And I am confident there are so many others like me out there, a web of lives Marcus touched & influenced, mourning him but celebrating his life. We are better for having known him.

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