A Father's Death Marks A Chance to Start Anew

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September 15, 2010

On June 1st, my father’s first Yahrzeit came and went without a dedication service. My sister and I had put it off, and I thought we might do so indefinitely. Although I’d had to make countless important decisions about my father’s life since his death, I entered paralysis when deciding the details of the marker for his grave. Did I prefer Wausau Red or Missouri Red granite? Was a Chai or a Star of David more appropriate? How did my father spell his name in Hebrew? At 28, I was still tentatively pencil-sketching an outline of my own life. How could I possibly etch the parameters of father’s in stone?

I tried to think beyond the how of what I was supposed to do and focus on the why. Jewish mourning customs are designed to ease the grief of the bereaved. They are individual actions, yet they require community participation; you cannot sit shiva or recite the Kaddish alone. Designed to relinquish the mourner from the pedestrian tasks of everyday life, Jewish customs of mourning silently acknowledge that life cannot go on as usual in the wake of a death. A dedication merely meant gathered a few close family members together in another act of communal recognition.

But what happens if there is no community? What happens to someone like me, hanging in twenty-something limbo neither tethered to the family I came from or anchored to the one I’ve yet to create? What if my current connection to Judaism is oblique and inconsistent – though important nonetheless - and the closest I’ve come to belonging to an organized Jewish community in recent years is J-date? What happens when you’ve grown up in a family where Jewish identity is reflected more accurately in the unholy “Curb Your Enthusiasm” than sacrosanct ritual? What happened was this: the customs meant to ease suffering only reinforced my sense of disconnectedness and isolation. Tradition felt inaccessible, reserved for those who practiced regularly, just when I needed it the most.

In the days before my father’s death, I scrambled to find a Rabbi for the funeral. We had not belonged to a synagogue since I was in high school so I called the Rabbi who officiated my Bat Mitzvah. She said she would help out for a small fee. At the funeral she went through the motions of reading verbatim exactly what my sister and I had told her about our father. Her eulogy felt insincere, and I began to wonder why the Jewish way was necessarily the right way of doing things. I resented having gone out of my way for something that ended up feeling impersonal and failed to comfort in the least.

Yet for reasons not totally clear to me, I craved the sense of connection I felt Judaism could provide more than ever before. A disconnect between what I expected after death and what actually occurred kept drawing me back to this feeling. I’d envisioned having a soap opera-y breakdown, after which I’d go apoplectic and therefore be exempt from responsibility. Images of myself so wrought with grief that I would simply cease to function became a strange fantasy. The reality was much the opposite. I functioned – albeit on automatic pilot – with a capacity I did not know I had. People commended me on being responsible and together, but all the while I felt like a fraud. It didn’t feel right to indulge in sorrow; I wanted nothing more than to relinquish control.

I began to feel like I’d I missed an important memo on death. I had not been forewarned that “handling the affairs” – even the phrase has a metallic sterility to it – would usurp all the mental energy I had assumed was directed toward grieving. I was left executor of my father’s will, and there was much to organize, coordinate, and plan. Life felt more pedestrian and less sacred, and I found it unsettling. I wanted to seep into the stillness I’d felt in the final days of my father’s life, when death felt imminent and I’d accepted the inevitable. I thought about saying Kaddish, but didn’t. I hardly ever went to services, so why start now. Besides, I didn’t know what good it would do. I was sorrowful not just about my father’s death, but my inability to mourn it.

It didn’t initially occur to me that the unveiling of my father’s stone might be a way to begin. I have always had my own rituals for marking new beginnings, big and small: making resolutions I don’t keep. Cleaning house. Chopping off all my hair. Sitting down with a blank notebook and literally starting a new chapter. There was nothing inherently meaningful in these actions, but they took on a personal significance in the their repetition. When my sister and I finally dealt with the details, I found it no coincidence that the dedication fell on the Sunday before the High Holidays. It would affirm a new beginning as clearly as it marked an end.

And then, as usual, things didn’t go according to plan. The truth is, I didn’t have much of a plan. I wasn’t able to get a Rabbi to officiate the weekend before the High Holidays. A small glitch led to a mini-meltdown when the monument company failed to deliver my father’s stone. It finally showed up two hours before the service. My father’s best friend forgot the kipot and led the Kaddish with his palm over his head while my aunt poured Grand Mariner into plastic cups and watered my father’s grave with the remaining brandy. “L’chaim, Sol,” she said. I started to laugh and cry.

Exhausted and puffy-eyed, when the time came to deliver the speech I’d prepared, I was emotional and ineloquent. I had been responsible for planning the dedication, and I felt I’d failed to properly honor my father’s life yet again. Again.

But maybe the way things turned out was the way they were supposed to be. Maybe I wouldn’t ever be able to see the trajectory of the present until it vectored toward the past. I thought of all the times I’d stood on the shore of Lake Michigan as a kid and thrown a rock into the water with my father, not knowing why. Later, of course, I learned the significance of Tashlich, but early on I didn’t think the act itself held intrinsic meaning. For me, the significance had emerged through repetition, and layering new memories on top of old. I then recalled what I had been told about the purpose of mourning rituals: they prevent the bereaved from wallowing in sorrow and letting it conquer them. You are allowed to go down to the depths of despair, but only with the understanding that you will rise up and stand on your own two feet, renewed. You have to act as if order in chaos exists, until it becomes the truth.

The dedication marked the first time I had returned to my father’s grave. It was the beginning of a pattern, and I suppose that every time I return, the memories will feel fresh and the experience raw. I also suppose this year I won’t think of Yom Kippur as a day to repent, but rather a day to return and start anew, again and again.

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