I didn’t tell my father I loved him the last time I spoke to him.
This has never haunted me. My father lived for forty-eight years, six months, and twelve days. He is not his last words, and our relationship is not our last conversation. He knew I loved him. I know he loved me.
Today (tonight, tomorrow)–the 23rd of Tevet, 5774–is his fifth yahrzeit.
* * *
We stood in a circle in the hallway of the funeral home, the nine of us plus the rabbi. My grandfather, my grandmother, my aunts, my stepmother, me, my sisters. There may have been other people watching, but if so, I didn’t notice.
My grandfather went first. He took the collar of his shirt in one hand and the scissors in the other, and he started the blessing.
ברוך אתה ה’ / Blessed are You, Hashem
אלו-ה-ינו מלך העולם / Our God, King of the Universe
דיין האמת. / The True Judge.
He got as far as the third word before his voice crumpled, and so did we. My stoic eighty-year-old Zayde, who corrects our grammar and bemoans our liberal arts degrees (not mine, my sisters’; I would never be so impractical), whose face lights up when playing with his youngest grandchildren, who makes wry jokes, who drinks the leftover flat soda rather than throwing it out, who is in charge of the eruv in every community he lives in.
My grandfather, who miraculously survived the Holocaust along with his immediate family, who came over to New York with fifteen languages under his belt (Belgians, you know how it is), who built a close-knit family of his own and all of a sudden, at the age of eighty, has to bury his eldest child, his only son.
He finished the blessing, and then it was my grandmother’s turn.
* * *
They had set up a vigil by his hospital bed, my grandparents. They wouldn’t both leave him–even at night, they would take turns, switching shifts every few hours so the other one could get in a little bit of sleep. Meanwhile, my sisters and I commandeered one of the waiting rooms each night (woe be unto the poor soul who had a craving for M&Ms at two in the morning), and when we couldn’t sleep, we would drop in to visit.
On Shabbat afternoon, I sat down next to my grandmother for a session of family history. I learned all about my grandmother’s maternal family, a subject of which I’d heretofore had almost no knowledge at all. (On my grandmother’s father’s side, I can name and trace my fourth cousins, and I had discovered my grandfather’s extended family a few years earlier, but I knew nothing about my grandmother’s mother’s side.)
She was passing the care of her son to her mother, she told me. Because she wasn’t going to be able to watch out for him anymore. So her own mother, A”H, would have to take over from here.
You know what’s hard?
Watching your grandparents lose a child, that’s what’s hard.
* * *
3. Son of a Sprinkler
When Rabban Gamliel was temporarily removed as nasi and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was appointed in his stead, the number of people studying in the beit midrash increased–some say by four hundred, others say seven hundred. This was because Rabban Gamliel was very selective in the people he allowed into the beit midrash, and wouldn’t let in people who weren’t the genuine article, people who weren’t same on the inside, in private, as the face that they presented themselves to the world.
My father “would have been welcome in the besmedresh of Rabban Gamliel,” the rabbi of my father’s shul said in his eulogy.
He didn’t even realize that the story he was referencing is somewhat of a private joke in my family. I had learned it in gemara class in the spring of sixth grade and given it over at the seder. My grandfather had been highly amused at the translation I had learned, when R’ Yehoshua goes to the Rabbis and asks them to reinstate Rabban Gamliel, calling him a “sprinkler, son of a sprinkler.” We still use the phrase once in a while.
I looked over at my grandfather. For some reason, he wasn’t laughing.
* * *
4. Two Lists
There are two kinds of people in this world: people who are alive and people who are dead.
It’s hard work moving someone from the Live list to the Dead list. I didn’t want to get used to it, I didn’t want it to get better, I didn’t want to forget. But it happens, against your will. Babies are born and other people die and people get married and life goes on and I’m no longer shell-shocked.
At this point, my father is firmly ensconced in the second column and I’m used to it, and I hate it, and I hate that I’m used to it, and I’m used to hating that I’m used to it. But sometimes I take a few minutes to remember that he used to be alive. It used to be that I would talk to him, present tense, it used to be that I would see him, it used to be that I would interact with him. He used to be on the Live list.
* * *
5. Angsty Poetry
I think about the history of our People
The Romans, the Spanish
The Crusades, the Pogroms
The torture, the beatings, the rapes
The gassings, the burnings
And I think,
What right do I have to be upset
Over my father’s peaceful, relatively painless
(For him, anyway)
Compared with all that our ancestors faced,
How can I complain about this quiet little
The gaping hole in our family,
In our lives?
A good friend’s grandfather passed away nearly two years ago.
He was 94.
My friend said to me,
‘I think about about how young your father was,
And I think,
What right do I have to be upset?’
* * *
6. The Mundane
When I finished college and started looking for a job, I didn’t have a clear direction. And it’s not as if I had no one to go to for advice–basically all of the women in my family who are older than me do “computer stuff” for a living–but if my father were alive, he would definitely have been the first person I would have asked.
It’s not the kind of thing that makes you break down in tears, but it kind of stings.
* * *
7. Mazal Tov
My youngest sister got married this past August. It’s wonderful; they’re a really cute couple. And the best part is, they live in Israel.
I’m not sure whether there was more crying at my father’s funeral or at my sister’s wedding.
To be honest, I felt kind of bad for the groom’s family–they fly in all the way from America for what’s supposed to be this joyous event, and our side just keeps going on and on about how much we miss our father and how proud he would have been and how much we wish he could be there. What a downer, right?
* * *
* * *
9. Me, at Seventeen
“Abba? Communism seems like such a good idea, in theory. How come it turned out so badly?”
“Abba? Who invented the infield fly rule, and why?”
“Abba? What’s the deal with the stock market? Like, what actually happens to the money that you put into it? And what does it mean when stocks go higher or lower?”
Finally, he says, “You know, they have these things called books, and you can actually read them and find these things out yourself.” (This was before Wikipedia.)
“Yeah… but why would I do that, when I can just ask you?”
* * *
10. Everything is Good With Onion and Garlic Powder
My father wasn’t a picky eater, and picky eating wasn’t something he could really understand. He always said (not literally always–only when the topic came up) that the only food he didn’t like was celery, and even that he could eat if he had to; he just preferred not to.
Which was what made the okra incident so funny.
I was about nine years old when he brought home the okra one night. It was late, so all my sisters were asleep, and it was just me and my parents and the okra.
I had never heard the word before, but it didn’t sound like a food. And the way my parents were talking, it wasn’t any food that I wanted to eat, either.
“I’ll cook it with onion and garlic powder,” my father said. “Everything tastes good with onion and garlic powder.”
“No thanks,” said my mother.
(At this point in my life, I was one of those kids who picks the onions out of the spaghetti sauce, so you don’t need to wonder whether I considered eating it.)
He added the onion and garlic powders, and put it in the oven. “It’ll be good,” he said. “It has onion and garlic powder on it, so even if the okra itself isn’t great, it’ll still have a good flavor.”
When it was ready, he brought it to the table and served himself some. He put it on a plate. Cut it. Put some in his mouth. Chewed. And spit it out into a napkin.
“Okay,” he admitted. “Not everything is good with onion and garlic powder.”
* * *
* * *
12. Talking to Strangers
He was always making friends with strangers, something that, as a child of the 80s, ran counter to my Rule #1 of self-preservation. (But Abba, what if they want to trick you into buying dope?) Somehow, it would come up in line at the bakery that he has five daughters, and that he refers to himself sometimes as Tevye the dairy man, and that he has another nickname for our family too, because of our last name, and this is our last name and this is his full name and this is his father’s full name. In line at the bakery!
I would be in the corner, hiding my face. Abba, you can’t do that, I would think. You just met this person. You can’t just give them all the details of our lives.
You can’t get personal with strangers.