Wednesday, June 8, 2011: It was a warm, sunny day – the first break from a week of cool and cloudy weather. At 4:30 p.m. the Paly High School seniors – 403 of them -- lined up in their caps and gowns in Viking colors; the boys in green, the girls in white. Many of them wore garlands of fresh orchids around their necks.
At 5 p.m. the ceremony began, as the graduates marched in to “Pomp and Circumstance.” Together those assembled on the quad bid farewell to the class of 2011 with grand ceremony; with heartfelt speeches, music and confetti; with laughter and tears, with joy and celebration. Students gave talks entitled “A Village United,” “Memories,” “Finding a Passion,” “Safe at Home.” A group of seniors sang “High and Dry” by Radiohead:
Don't leave me high, don't leave me dry…
It's the best thing that you ever had,
The best thing that you ever, ever had…
The best thing you ever had has gone away…
At the end of the ceremony, in time-honored fashion, the newly-minted high school graduates threw their caps into the air to celebrate their triumph. Among them was a fresh-faced young woman with clear skin, long, lustrous hair and a radiant smile. She’d had a difficult decision to make a few months before – would she choose to go to Cal, as her parents had done before her, or take the more adventurous choice, go far from home and attend Washington University in St. Louis? To no one’s great surprise, she had opted for adventure. That fall, she would head off to the Midwest to start her freshman year at Wash U.
In Saul Bellow’s novel More Die of Heartbreak a botanist is asked by a reporter about radioactive pollution. “It’s terribly serious, of course,” replies the botanist. “But I think more people die of heartbreak.”
Our hearts are breaking tonight. The word about Emily went out like ripples from a pebble dropped into a pond. Ripples of shock. Ripples of disbelief. Reverberating circles of grief and pain that touched hundreds and hundreds of people.
And so tonight we are here, summoned by a call. The Beth Am community has come out, as the Washington University community met for a vigil on the night of Emily’s death. The extended family has gathered; the Paly community is here; friends of all three generations of the Benatar family have come from near and far. This is our time to be together and to mourn, to say goodbye to Emily and to celebrate her bright young spirit.
Into this room we bring our sorrow and shock, and our many unanswered questions. Into this sanctuary we bring prayers and stories and tears that need to be shed, and also laughter and memories that are funny and sweet. This big tent embraces us all tonight, as we do our best to embrace this family that we cherish and care for so much. We cannot give them back their beloved daughter and sister and granddaughter and niece…but we can show them how very much Emily was loved.
So let us look for comfort and remember her together. Who was Emily Benatar? She was the peppiest girl who ever walked the earth. Precocious. Positive. Poised and polite. Unfailingly pleasant. Pretty, petite and playful. Persistent. Plucky. Passionate. Popular and personable. A painter. A planner. A personality, and a powerful presence. Full of promise. Infinitely precious. And those are just the p’s.
She was the baby wrapped in a pale pink blanket with long, delicate fingers and such soft, soft skin. She was the toddler, not even a year old and already on her feet, looking up at you with an innocent face and huge, mischievous dark eyes. She was the bright little girl who did everything early – walked and talked and drew like an angel; and who loved to play teacher, setting up her stuffed animals in a circle and reading to them by the hour, earnestly showing the pictures to each one of her “students.”
She was the Jordan Middle School student, wise beyond her years, who counseled her peers and won the Becky Schaffer award for her compassion. She was the smallest one on the soccer team who gave it everything she had; tenacious as a little lion on the field. She was the teenage fashionista and make-up expert and the brave high school girl who toughed it out during one brutal summer in Nicaragua with Amigos de las Americas. She engaged in her share of drama and she was not unaware of boys.
When she came into the room she brought the sunshine. She was gifted and creative in so many ways, overflowing with talent and always up for something new. She was full of spunk and full of life and full of fun. She was sunny and open-hearted and friendly; she’d do whatever she could to cheer you up if you were sad.
She was the best and kindest big sister in the world – always looking out for Isabel and Maya, guiding them, goofing off with them. She once created a little crafts book for Maya, fully illustrated and elaborately lettered, listing all the useful things Maya could do instead of watching TV or sitting at the computer.
She was a hugger and a cuddler; a loving daughter and granddaughter and a treasured friend. She was a bright and shining young woman with a beautiful soul. And in our memories, she will never grow old.
Into this holy place we bring our sorrow and our confusion and our many unanswered questions. In the days ahead we may begin to find some answers…or perhaps we will not, and the answers will never come, and we will have to go on living without them.
Perhaps that is itself an answer. To go on living, even with a broken heart. To force this tragedy to yield up something positive – some way to redeem the loss of Emily, some way to carry a sense of meaning away from her death. “I can’t believe her life is over,” said one of her friends. “It can’t be over yet. It can’t.”
So let us promise ourselves that Emily’s life will go on in us, that we will keep alive her goodness and her generosity and her loving heart and her sense of fun. Like ripples from a stone cast into a pond, ripples that go on and on forever, Emily’s spirit will never die.
You bring a child into the world, and you spend years and years taking care of her and worrying about her and loving her intensely and selflessly. Your deepest instinct is to protect her and keep her safe. You give her everything you have to give, and she grows up to be smart and sweet and everything you could have dreamed, and she is your pride and joy. Never, ever do you imagine that you will have to see your daughter laid to rest with white roses and her baby blankie and her little stuffed lion.
Our hearts go out today to our friends Lisa and Darrell, and to Isabel and Maya, and to all the family. There are no words to tell you what we truly feel…but we are with you in your grief, and we will walk with you in your time of darkness, and like you, we will never forget Emily.
Martin Buber wrote: “Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique.” Emily Benatar was an individual – precious to God, precious to us who knew her and loved her. Let us thank God for the gift of her life.