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AMBER SEXTON New York City 917-207-2375

comments Love is not a victory march

I’ve been trying to write about and also process something profoundly sad which has happened in my family. My cousin Israel Hersh has six children with his wife Lareina (known as Lori but I don’t know how she spells that), and three of them were killed in a terrible car accident. His children Julianna, Jeremiah and Jessa died, his son Joseph survived the accident with barely a scratch. I’m told Joseph kept his brother alive for two hours waiting for help to arrive, for that, as my own brother said, he is a hero.

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I’ve had differences with my cousin, we’ve gone through periods of facebook chatting a lot, to recent estrangement. Since early childhood though, we’ve not spent a lot of physical time together. His parents moved their family far away at a certain point and they mostly broke off contact with us in the 80’s and 90’s. I won’t go into the background of all that because it’s not particularly relevant to say here. It’s just shorthand to explain barriers to us being a close extended family for much of our lives, even though we are first cousins. I did reconnect with my cousin in his teens during a difficult time, and since then we had been in sporadic touch until a recent year when I just became angry with the social media arguments we had been having and I cut him off. I rebuffed his few attempts to reconnect.

My cousin is a few years younger than me but has built a large family of six children with his wife, and I have remained single with cats and no offspring. We don’t have the same spiritual or religious leanings and our politics are diametrically opposed, so there are cultural as well as physical distances between us and I guess we are not very alike. When something of this magnitude happens you realize how thin those differences can be, the truest part is that you are family. Anything that he had said in the past to irritate me dissolved in the face of this, I felt how petty the reasons I had to be estranged from him were. I felt a little small when I got the number from my dad and called him, because I wasn’t feeling too proud of myself. The first thing he said to me when we spoke was “I love you Amber.” That was just heartbreaking.

This type of loss has to be more than anyone is likely to bear in a lifetime, and just in a single day to lose that much has to be the limit of human endurance. I listened to him tell me of how much he loved his children and how painful it was. And he relayed their last day together as a family was Julianna’s birthday, just the day before. They had all been together making music, being a loving family together, and how he had almost missed being there that last day. Because he had been scheduled to do out of town work, but he turned his car around and drove back for her birthday, which they had been going to postpone celebrating till the following weekend. My cousin Israel is such a loving father, that really comes through, how much he deeply loved and loves all his children, he and his wife have no regrets of love not given. I am proud of them for that, its a beautiful achievement and really one of the best things you can do with your life.

My dad flew out, and my brother Brendan drove in the very first weekend after the tragedy. Israel’s younger brother Shules dropped everything and went there and stayed for the duration, he is just in every sense a mensch. I flew in for the service later, and my brother met me at the Phoenix airport and drove us to Chino Valley.  I felt very inadequate but just my instinct was just to show how sorry I was and give my love as best as I can. My cousin Shules was a such a solid brother to Israel, not only writing and giving a portion of the eulogy but being a logistical rock, including other family relationships more fraught with drama. He’s really a great guy, he’s trying to get us all to be closer and do things together in the future. To stop having a weddings and funerals sort of relationship.

The service was very touching, full of love and music. Israel delivered an extended and poignant eulogy for each child, and the siblings wrote and read letters written by themselves and Lori. It was a very devoutly Christian service, as the Hersh family is extremely committed to their faith and spend a lot of time in their church. A local celebrity Drew came and sang a song, If I Die Young, that just brought me to tears and it was ringing in my ears for days. I looked it up after, and it is a popular song, but the original version is not performed as sad as it was that day.

Here is the video which was shown at the funeral, which I only had the courage to watch again just prior to starting to write this post. Jeremiah is singing the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” at the very beginning. Heartrending for sure.

I felt so lacking because I’d never met any of Israel’s children, that is something I will always regret. Julianna had come to NYC as a teen which Israel was frantically worried about and asked me a million questions. I had wanted to meet her and her friends, but I think she wanted to strike out on her own and not have family eyes on her and so she never got in touch when she was in my town. I’m sorry that I didn’t know her, or any of my littler cousins, and I had to introduce myself to all the remaining Hersh kids at the service.

I hope the memorial helped the family, it was beautiful and full of love. When my mom died, I know that her service helped me. I think of it often and it still heals me to remember what love and regard people had for her. I hope the same for the Hershes. Perhaps the worst suffering is unanswered suffering. It was gratifying to see a huge turnout from their community in their church and town, their pain was seen and heard and felt by all around them and was witnessed. The town of Prescott/Chino Valley, which experienced the loss of those 19 firefighters in that terrible wildfire, arranged for the Hershes to bury Julianna, Jeremiah and Jessa in plots right next to them. The rawest part for me was at the cemetery. There was a lot more silence there, and it’s a larger hole needed for three coffins than you are used to seeing at a funeral. I hope I’m never at a triple funeral again, and that no one else ever is either. A cemetery in the desert is different than what I’d experienced before. In the east these are very manicured, with miles of headstones, and it feels like a controlled environment, well landscaped and softened by human design. I’ve even visited a famous cemetery in Los Angeles to see the sights, as a tourist. This was a very different cemetery, it was either new, or this was an unused part of it, the earth was raw there wasn’t grass or manicured bushes and flowers because this is the desert of Arizona. There were no headstones, there were iron wreaths as grave markers and benches for the firefighters, but the rest of it was the scrub vegetation, and the bare honest soil. We all threw handfuls of dirt and before the last bit of service there was a great deal of silence, I was sitting behind the Israel and Lori and the kids. That was the rawest bit for me, it was the most profound reality. What a terrible silence it is to lose your children or your siblings, how empty that space is that they occupied in life.

My cousin and his family are deeply devoted believers in Jesus and in heaven, so they trust that they will see their beloved family members again. Amen.


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About the photo above. I brought my Rollei because I think I needed some kind of crutch to distract me or feel like I had an outlet when I couldn’t figure out how to help. I took this picture from the parking lot of the church. I don’t know why I did it, or if it was a good idea, or if it was selfish and about me. I certainly knew I wasn’t going to take any pictures of the bereaved or of the service. I just seem to take phone pictures regardless of how I’m feeling, and using the film camera felt less flippant and more serious than that (though I took pictures with my phone too.) People also notice a vintage camera so it’s something you can talk about when you feel awkward.

Julianna was a musician, and played many open mikes and was a gifted songwriter. An album will come out next year which includes some material she recorded and tributes from other musicians. When they looked on her computer they found a brand new song she had written and made a video of on it. Apparently her guitar playing didn’t come through, so one of her friends watched her fingering and figured out the chords and added the guitar later. The drum she received for her birthday right before she died, so the friend added that too.

Here is that incredibly haunting and beautiful video

Jessa did a lot of equestrian school with her older sister Jazmyn with her pony that Santa Claus got her. I took a picture of it while her brother Jacoby told me about all the family’s horses. Here is a picture of her pony. It is red-headed like her. I think the family is going to give it to another little girl who will enjoy it.

image by Amber Sexton

image by Amber Sexton

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 11/23 at 04:46 PM

Amber, you have said that you are “not a writer” but I beg to differ. This is an eloquent and heartfelt account of an experience no family should have to endure. I’m so glad you were able to be there with them. Amen,indeed!

Posted by Carroll  on  11/25  at  02:59 AM

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Posted by home  on  12/04  at  09:50 AM
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