Today is the 20th anniversary of my dear friend Charisse's death. She died erev Shavu'ot 5749 (1989).
Charisse and I knew each other from when I was 12 and she was 14. We grew up in Young Judaea together, attending Cincinnati YJ club meetings, Central States regional conventions and activities, and Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville NY. I followed in her footsteps and didn't attend the Young Judaea Year Course in Israel but instead went to the Machon lemadrichei chutz la'aretz (The Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad).
We sang, we talked, we ran around and had fun. I loved brushing her long, thick brown hair. She carried a toy Jeep at conventions and took the wheels off during Shabbat so it couldn't go for a ride. It didn't matter that I was two years younger or she was two years older. And when we had finished college and Charisse was in rabbinic school, she would come to visit me in Columbus OH on her way to her part-time student pulpit in northern Ohio.
One summer Charisse had a student congregation in Traverse City MI. I drove up to Michigan's lower peninsula and found my way to Traverse City, home of local cherries. Charisse was staying in a tiny apartment located in the old, small synagogue. We had a most wonderful time together.
While writing her rabbinic thesis Charisse began to complain of stomach pain. Everyone thought it was due to the stress of graduating from rabbinic school and looking for a job. She found a position as assistant rabbi at Temple de Hirsch Sinai here in Seattle. (I was still living in Columbus.)
Only a few weeks after arriving in Seattle, Charisse was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The stomach pains turned out to be a tumor the size of a grapefruit. My great shame in life is that when she asked me to come to Seattle to be with her during a round of chemotherapy, I begged off, saying I couldn't afford it and couldn't take the time off from work. I only wish I had had the sensitivity to really hear her fear and sadness and been able to respond to them. But Charisse didn't hold a grudge.
Throughout the four years Charisse battled this cancer, she lived life to the fullest. She married her graduate school sweetie, Winston Pickett, while still in cancer treatment and was a beautiful bride. (We went to lunch the day before the wedding and in the ladies' room at the restaurant, she said, "I simply must scratch my head," pulled off her wig and scratched vigorously.) Her two wigs each had a name for when Charisse felt like being someone else. Charisse never lost her sense of humor about it all.
Some time later, she was living in California but had a high holiday pulpit in Hawaii. She called me one afternoon when I was preparing to lead services at Hillel, saying she couldn't remember how to sing Kol Nidre and would I sing it into the phone for her? Ironically, Charisse was the one who taught me to chant for the high holidays. I still have the recording she made for me of all her favorite nusach and tunes. If I ever figure out how to upload music to this blog I will share it.
Charisse was gifted with a most extraordinary voice. She was an inspiration for Bonia Shur, music director at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and recorded for him. Some of my fondest memories are of just singing together at a Young Judaea meeting or at camp.
It's been twenty years since Charisse died, and when I said kaddish this morning for her yahrzeit, tears came so strongly to my eyes that I could barely read the words. I miss her still and wish we could have shared these past twenty years together -- my move to Seattle, marriage to Rik, frustration at infertility and cancer diagnoses.
Charisse and I were supposed to grow old together, still laughing and singing into our 80s. Now I have no life expectancy, having outlived all the statistics for women with metastatic breast cancer, and I don't know how many more birthdays I will celebrate. No matter how many or how few, they will be without Charisse -- and that's something I will never get used to.
Zichrona l'vracha -- may her memory be a blessing.