Father and son

Eli and his wife Mandali in New York City, 2006 (Photo provided)

I tell young parents to hug their kids tight and not let go because they’ll be grown up and gone in a nanosecond. I also tell them to hang on for the ride, for their children will bring them more joy, and more pain, than they can ever imagine.

My two boys, Eli and Dustin, came along — and while I know it’s cliche, they made my life complete. The older, Eli, was born in April after the 1980 Winter Olympics.

He was a great kid and as a family we had great fun traveling the country, visiting relatives and experiencing the outdoors.

When Eli hit adolescence he became a handful, but the foundation had been laid and although he went through a long rough patch, I knew things would work out for him. Eventually he found Krishna Consciousness, a fundamental form of Hinduism and it proved to be the right path for him. Like many people who find religion, he once told me, “I couldn’t leave the destructive lifestyle behind without help. I needed the guidance of a higher power.” It was with the guidance of Krishna Consciousness that he cleaned up his act, found his passion (spreading the word through food), and met his wonderful wife Mandali.

On Jan. 31, 2012, Eli was killed at the age of 31 in a car accident. I have never felt such pain. I had lost my parents and three siblings way too young, but nothing comes close to the pain of losing a child. Thirteen years later, I still have to remind myself to focus on the good times and the joy he brought to my life, rather than the pain of losing him.

I visited Eli in different parts of the world during his Krishna travels. In Albany outside a Grateful Dead concert, where he was selling pizza to concert goers. In England at an estate once owned by George Harrison and given to the Krishna community. In New York City, where I helped pull a float down 5th Avenue during a Krishna parade. And the last time, when he was coordinating 4,000 meals at a Wanderlust Yoga and Music festival in Stratton, Vermont.

He had two funeral ceremonies, one in Florida and one in India; Each was uniquely Hindu in its own way. In Florida we were ushered into a reposing room where a couple of devotees were chanting “Hare Krishna” accompanied by an Indian drum called a mridangam and a small harmonium. The ceremony started with some wonderful eulogies from Eli’s friends.

My favorite demonstrated Eli’s compassion as well as his business acumen. A friend told of Eli at the Burning Man Festival, where Eli coordinated food for thousands. Eli had decided to rent a refrigerated tractor trailer to keep their produce fresh but needed just half the space. Eli figured by renting out the other half, he would pay for the rental of the truck. It was working out well until one vendor, who was storing a pallet of melons in the truck, accused Eli’s staff of stealing some of his melons and he threatened not to pay his rental fee. Eli was compassionate, telling him they had not stolen his melons but offered to contact the produce company to see if they could track down the missing melons. Then he said if they didn’t pay the rental fee, that was okay, too. He’d have the rest of their produce immediately taken out of the cooler and left in the hot desert.

After the eulogies, the chanting resumed. Slowly it grew in tempo and volume. The casket was wheeled out the door into the crematorium. The priest started reading Sanskrit. We were all sobbing as the doors to the crematorium were opened and we pushed in the casket. Then the doors were closed, and we put our hands on the button and started the fire.

It was all too surreal and was all a haze, but I like to think it provided some closure that is missing from most western funerals.

Eli’s mother, his brother Dustin and I decided to travel to India to spread his ashes on the Ganges River, a Krishna tradition. Within a couple of days, we flew to Kolkata (Calcutta) where we were met by friends of Eli’s, who drove us the two and a half hours to Mayapur.

The culminating event was a ceremony on the Ganges River. From my journal:

“Today’s the day — not much sleep last night — got up, put on my Yogi pants and Indian shirt — I’m terribly sad but ready.

“As we look out from the 3rd floor, we see a small crowd gathering and starting to chant. We are the guests of honor. We walk down the road to the Ganges, where a boat awaits. The chanting continues as we load the old boat. We headed downstream to a large sandbar. Eli’s friends lead more chanting while we wait in the warmth of the sun. A colleague of Eli’s comes over and explains the service to us then tells us we need to be strong. That’s easy for him to say.

“I’m in a warm fog. The priest starts the ceremony. There is a round straw tray. They line it with a layer of river mud, then Mandali pours Eli’s ashes on it, along with some ghee, honey, and sesame seeds. The tray is sent down the river with many candles on floating leaves.

“At one point I break away and walk down stream to collect some Ganges water as a keepsake.

“We boat back to the temple and convene in a spacious room where we are served a meal of prasadam (holy food), an interesting mix of traditional Hare Krishna food and an Italian pasta dish. It turns out Eli had a soft spot for Italian food. There are more eulogies by people whose lives Eli touched.

“I speak with great difficulty, but my message is simple, ‘When our children are born, we have dreams and aspirations for them. It has taken me a long time to realize that those were my dreams. While those dreams and aspirations are worthy, you must let go of them and realize that the important dreams and aspirations are not yours but your children’s.'”

Eli traveled a unique path. It wasn’t the path I envisioned but it was the right path for him.


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