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The Road Home

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Returning to Miami meant confronting the loss that devastated my family—would I ever be ready?

By Jamie Kolnick

I’d driven down this road many times before: U.S. Route 1 to Galloway, past Norman Brothers, home of the irresistible sticky buns. My husband, three kids, and I had been living in my hometown, Miami, for the past two years after fleeing our New York City apartment in the middle of the pandemic. Since we’d moved back, I’d longed for––and avoided––the cemetery. But today was the day.

Mount Nebo Cemetery is in Glenvar Heights, far from the new restaurants in Coconut Grove or the neon skyline of downtown and Brickell. My mom and I had once jumped over these same high stone walls because the front gate of the cemetery was locked on the Sabbath.

Slowly, I drive down the road and look for signs. Mom always said to look for a dime, the number three, and a butterfly.

Once inside, I sit down on a stone bench engraved with “EPSTEIN,” our family plot. There’s a tree with three chimes hanging from its branches and a large headstone that reads, “U Complete Us” because Alan, my brother, always said he was going to be Jerry Maguire when he grew up.

His epitaph continues, “Until we are all together again, may physical life only be a fraction of eternal life.” Alan’s tombstone is to my right; my parents’ are to my left. The majority of my immediate family is before me. The chimes suddenly became louder.

I close my eyes and remember the last time my family and I were together 24 years ago at my bat mitzvah, held at the Eden Roc Hotel in South Beach. I wore a long, custom chiffon black dress with criss-crossed spaghetti straps and beading on the top. I felt beautiful. My family and I huddled together before entering the grand ballroom. “This is it,” my mom said with the most perfect grin.

“Who’s ready for the Epstein Family?” the MC of Platinum Gold roared on the microphone from behind the mahogany ballroom doors––if you didn’t have Platinum Gold perform at your bat mitzvah, you didn’t do it right. “Welcome the Epstein family! Murray, Cheryl, Alan, Michael and…Jamie!”

We ran down the center of the room in between decked-out round tables. This was our moment, but everything was about to change. Only a month later, a car accident took Alan’s life, and my parents died from cancer in the decade that followed.

“How did we get here?” I ask through gasps of air, staring out at the cemetery. I take a deep breath. The Miami summer heat hits my face, so I turn my body, letting the sun strike only my back. I feel present and alive. I am home.

I was hesitant to move back to Miami, the place where I experienced so much pain. I opened a new chapter in New York City, which allowed me to meet new people and begin my career. It was where I started my business, Jam with Jamie, a national children’s music company. New York was also where I had my two boys and became pregnant with my girl. Parenting in that city allowed me to continue discovering myself while growing my family.

But now I’m back to my roots and bittersweet memories wrapped up in the subtropical sun’s warm embrace, I am planted with two feet on the ground. I check my phone, which shifts my focus back to the present and to the embodiments of my parents’ legacy––my children––who are eagerly awaiting me at the school carpool. I stand up, readjust my jeans, walk back to the car, and take one last look at our plot. The chimes sing as if to say, “Goodbye, until next time, and don’t be a stranger.”

I was hesitant to move back to Miami, the place where I experienced so much pain.

Sitting in the carpool line, I look to my left and see diamonds flashing on steering wheels all around me. This is suburban Miami––a Miami I am very familiar with––starkly different from Mount Nebo Cemetery where nothing material matters. I am a guilty diamond-lover, too. As the niece of a fine jeweler, it’s in my blood. I am guilty of loving “things,” all the “things,” just like Miami wants me to. But my losses have also granted me a different perspective. I now know a version of Miami where things don’t matter, where it’s not about what we have, but who we have.

When I near the front of the school, I park my car, turn the engine off, and spot my boys running toward me. Wearing a freshly colored paper hat, Evan has a big smile, and Zach proudly dribbles his basketball. The kid never leaves home without it.

“My boys!” I give them a warm hug and pick up the backpacks they threw on the cement next to the car. Apparently, I’m also their maid.

“How was school?” I ask.

“Well…not so good,” Zach says as he climbed into the car.

“What happened?”

“I was supposed to bring in my homework today, but you forgot to put my folder in my bag.”

“Well, you forgot to put your folder in your bag. You have to take responsibility for your things.” I already know I’m not going to win this. I don my sunglasses, turn the car back on, and smile at a teacher as he waves me through the line.

“No, Mom. You forgot it. Goldfish!”

“Things,” I think. He demands things like his life depends on it. For a second, I imagine leaping at him like Cady in that scene from Mean Girls when she goes apeshit on Regina George. I feel like saying: Do you have any idea where I just came from? The cemetery. Where the people I loved are buried. You have zero clue as to how good you have it. Here’s your goldish, you over-privileged, selfish turd!

Alas, he’s seven and I’m 38, and gentle parenting is all the rage. I may know the hard truths of life, but I weave them in more subtly than that. I throw him a bag of goldfish.

“Kidz Bop!” interrupts Evan. “Sunroof” began to play as the sun beamed in.

“Yes, this one!” Evan shouts excitedly.

While the boys sing along to their new favorite tune, I pass the road that leads to my childhood home. One chapter had already closed, but a new one begins as I turn left onto 52nd. Surreal to think that this is now the road to my home. I pull into the driveway, and the kids run inside.

“Shoes off!” I demand. I walk to the front door, hands full of backpacks and water bottles. Right before I open it, a butterfly flits by me and lands on the doorknob. As quickly as it lands, it flutters away.

Hi, Mom.

Jamie Kolnick is a woman wearing many hats: mother of three, entrepreneur, philanthropist, writer, and performer. She is the founder and CEO of Jam with Jamie, a nationwide children’s music entertainment company, and the co-founder of The “Epstein Reach for the Stars Scholarship Foundation” in memory of her parents and brother, who passed away. Jamie’s work has been featured in Modern Loss, Baby by Hatch, and Medium. She has appeared on multiple podcasts on the topics of grief, loss, and entrepreneurship. She is at work on a coming-of-age memoir.