June 18, 2019

Death makes life matter: Thoughts on my brother’s passing

Last February, I joined a club. It wasn’t my choice. It’s one of the worst clubs around, and if you’re not already in it, I hope you don’t become a member. If I could quit, I would. But the bylaws forbid it.

Like all clubs, this one has its benefits, too. It provides a community and helps clarify relationships with friends and relatives. It also force-feeds wisdom — and lots of it.

This is the club of people who have lost a loved one at a painfully early age. Within the clubhouse, I’m in the room with people who have lost a sibling. And in that room, I’m at the table of people who have lost a brother. 

My older brother, Aaron, died on Feb. 3. He was 34 and had been diagnosed in March 2014 with metastatic bladder cancer. It’s a freak diagnosis for a young, otherwise healthy American male. There are a few hundred such diagnoses per year. 

Aaron was an observant, intensely curious Jew and had a brilliant mind with seemingly endless interests (philosophy, politics, physics, the list goes on). In his final months, he never acted bitterly toward the world or toward God. He actually became sweeter, kinder and more grateful than he already was.  

A crisis, the saying goes, doesn’t build character — it reveals it. And cancer, with its intense, painful and exhausting regular infusions of chemotherapy, plus – in my brother’s case – regular trips of hundreds of miles between hospitals, is an indescribably horrible crisis. It steals both your energy and your time. You have to feed yourself and the cancer, or the cancer will simply eat you. It forces you to rely on others when you’re accustomed to relying on yourself. It makes the simplest tasks — going to the bathroom, getting a cup of water — Herculean challenges. It makes every normal activity hurt and sets your default mood to depressed. Being happy takes a lot more work. Cancer is pure destruction. It’s the ISIS of the biological world.

Amid all that, Aaron’s character revealed itself as fundamentally decent. If he was in particular pain at any given moment, he would ask those who he knew would particularly worry (like my parents) to leave the room for a bit. My family and Aaron’s friends weren’t the only ones to lose a lot when he passed. The whole world lost a gift. And although I believe he’s in a better place, we’re certainly not. 

This experience has confirmed for me that someone needs to write a short guide to avoiding well-meaning but inane words of comfort, such as “It’s all part of a plan” (How do you know that?), or “God wanted him” (Why can’t God want Kim Jong-un?), or “I know exactly how you feel” (That’s impossible, even if you’re in the club), or — and this is my (least) favorite — “At least he’s not suffering anymore” (I assure you, he preferred pain to death).

But death also has a built-in silver lining. It’s what gives time meaning. Death limits time. Economics 101: The less of something there is, the more valuable it is. Aaron’s struggle with death didn’t only force him to think about the Big Questions. It forced me, and, I presume, all those who loved Aaron, to ask themselves the Big Questions. The most important one: If I were to die tomorrow, what would I regret about my life?

Aaron’s passing taught that this is the most important question to living a meaningful life. Knowing that my defining fear in life is to have regrets before I go has influenced my long-term plans for career and family, and, in the short term, how I spend my time every day. I more clearly understand that every second really does matter, and it takes flirtation with death to make that obvious. 

Aaron was a private person. I know that he re-examined his own life. But I don’t know what he concluded or what he would’ve done differently. I do know, though, that he wanted his life to have a lasting impact. I don’t buy the saying, “He’s not dead as long as we remember him.” Let’s change that saying to, “He’s not dead as long as he continues to impact.” 

To that end, my family is working with UCLA, where Aaron spent his final weeks, to create a kosher helping us raise money for the Shabbat closet, are creating this sacred space to commemorate Aaron’s life and death. Keeping alive Aaron’s positive impact in the physical world is not just about allowing us to remember him — it’s about creating something in his name that lives on. It’s about performing good deeds in his name. It’s about giving to the world what he would have wanted to give, but no longer can.

Death forces us who are here to re-examine our own lives and complete the unfinished tasks of those who died. And at Yom Kippur, we can take time to become more focused and to get moving, so that when our own time is up, most or all of our tasks will be completed.

For more information on the Shabbat closet at UCLA, please email jareds@jewishjournal.com