Six Days Later
It took six days for me to generate the courage to visit the memorial. I avoided it that first week, circumventing the surrounding streets of my Squirrel Hill neighborhood, bypassing the police cars, barricades, and media trucks. Six days later, I felt compelled to be on this familiar corner. This was the street where I had lived for almost 30 years, where I raised my sons, where I took walks by the beautiful metal tree sculpture affixed to the outside of the synagogue. As I approached Tree of Life Synagogue, I was overwhelmed by the aroma of hundreds of flowers. A collection of about twenty visitors were there, along with a few police officers and a photographer with a media ID tag.
I gazed at the eleven Star of David shaped tributes perched on stands, each star imprinted with the name of one of the dead. Floral bouquets laid at the feet of the stars, joined by candles of varying sizes and messages of love and hope written on note paper and cardboard, some covered with plastic to shield from the rain. In the Jewish tradition, stones rested on the top ledge of each star as a sign that someone has visited. I stood for a long while. I felt tears on my face, and I was surprised that so much emotion still existed six days later.
A young Asian man holding a toddler moved next to me and stood facing one of the stars. He was reading aloud from something on his phone. I listened closely and realized that it was a prayer. After a few moments, he moved to the next star and began again.
A young boy around six or seven approached the memorial holding a small stone. An elderly man, perhaps his grandfather, pointed to a spot on the ground among the flowers. “Here,” he told the boy, “leave it here.” There were hundreds of stones, large and small, some painted with messages – hope, be strong, love not hate. Many were painted with the Star of David. The boy placed the stone and then turned his attention to a small Yorkshire Terrier nearby.
I moved from one memorial star to the next, pausing to silently repeat the name of the dead. I came to the name of a doctor who attended to me once in Shadyside Hospital’s emergency room. I remembered him as thoughtful and caring and cheerful. I let out a sob.
A tall Black man with a grey beard and wearing a Steelers jacket moved to my side. “It’s hard,” he said. “I’ve been here a few times, and it’s hard each time.”
We talked for a bit, sharing our heartbreak. He told me that his wife and grown children were Jewish. “One of my sons married a Catholic girl, so now we have a few religions in our family,” he said smiling. I returned the smile, thinking how this man represented what I loved most about my Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
We were joined by a 70-something blonde woman with large glasses that she removed to wipe her eyes. “How do we recover from this?” she asked no one in particular.
“The way we recover from all our struggles,” the man said. “We lean on each other.” I wondered to myself why it takes a tragedy to recognize how much we needed each other.
The man, woman, and I watched together as a group of high school girls honored the dead by approaching each star to lay a stone. “That’s my hope right there,” the man said pointing to the girls.
“Yeah, me too,” I replied.
We were joined by the woman’s husband and the four of us stood silent for a long while, contemplating the memorial, watching a somber parade of visitors, some leaving notes or flowers. When the couple departed, we hugged good bye. The man and I stayed a few minutes longer. We petted a small black dog that stopped at our feet. We silently paid homage to each other’s sighs.
When it was time for me to leave, we hugged and thanked each other.
“I needed this,” he said.
Strangers leaning on each other.
As I walked back to my car, more people passed walking toward the memorial carrying flowers, stones, and notes. I was grateful to be surrounded by strangers who felt like neighbors.
Two months to the day after the shooting, I saw Rabbi Myers from Tree of Life in Giant Eagle, our local supermarket. Hands on our carts, we were both studying an array of plastic storage bag options. He could probably tell that I was stealing glimpses to be sure that it was him. I wanted to say I’m sorry, to say thank you, to say how grateful we all were for his strength. But I decided not to interrupt his grocery shopping. I wondered later if I should have said something.
In the months since, I’ve passed by the synagogue countless times. Eleven makeshift memorials remain as do the metal police barriers that surround the building. The notes and stones are mostly gone. I’ve seen the fresh cut flowers die and get carted away, replaced by blooming plants, their blossoms peeking out through the snow.
Linda Schifino, a life-long Pittsburgher, is Professor Emerita of Communication at Carlow University where she is also an MFA student in Creative Nonfiction. Linda is currently writing a memoir describing growing up in the Larimer Avenue neighborhood of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. She writes with Madwomen in the Attic and has had pieces published in Voices from the Attic Vol XXIV and XXV.
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