Today I’m 63 years and 11 days old, one day older than my father at the age of his death. I remember getting the call – the call – around 6 a.m. that my father z”l was being taken by ambulance to our local hospital. That his lungs had collapsed under the weight of cancer and his first round of chemotherapy. That he wasn’t expected to survive. I remember hearing my own voice say, ‘No, no, no. It’s too soon, it’s too soon.’
I remember waiting for my uncle to arrive at the hospital, a buttoned-up legal powerhouse who arrived disheveled. Who upon receiving the news – dad was dead by then – stumbled back against the hospital wall and crumpled to the floor. It’s the only time I’d ever seen him cry.
It’s been 31 years, eight months and seven days since my father died. It’s been an eternity. And it was yesterday. Today, however, feels no different than yesterday. Another day. Perhaps because it’s already been so long since he died. Perhaps because – odds are – I’m looking ahead to fewer years than I’ve already seen.
Dad would have loved what I’ve done with my life. He would have been torn apart by my wife Ami’s z”l death (11 years, one month and three days ago). He wouldn’t have been able to get enough of his three grandchildren, my daughters and my nephew.
We lose our fathers, and sometimes our husbands or sons. We lose our mothers, and sometimes our wives or daughters. This is undeniable, irrevocable, the way of the world, although we rebel against the idea of death, accidental or natural.
These days, losses are mounting on a global scale. Thousands upon thousands taken by pandemic. Hundreds of thousands in mourning. Yet we die one at a time. And with each passing, hearts break.
There’s only one answer. To love. To dance. To be joyous and grateful for the gift of this precious life. To live with passion. To mourn with passion. To love G-d and to do G-d’s will.
My father received his lung cancer diagnosis on his birthday. It was grim from the outset. In the 10 days between the diagnosis and his death, he showed us all how to die and, therefore, how to live. He selected his pall bearers, spoke to the rabbi about his eulogy and spoke to me about his casket.
“Do you remember the casket we picked out together for Grandpa Dave,” he said.
“That one. Make sure I get that one.”
One of his pet projects – fundraising to endow a chair in arthritis research at Northwestern University – was not complete. He worked the phones to make sure enough pledges were in hand before he died to fund the chair. Dad connected with his daughters, his mother, his brother, other family members and me. There were nights awake speaking with mom. And he started chemotherapy.
A rheumatoid arthritic from childhood, when he got the cancer diagnosis he said: “I always thought that I’d die of secondary infection due to arthritis. Now I’m going to have to change my major.”
Dad knew that the chemo could kill him. Cause his lungs to fill with fluid. That he could, essentially, drown on the inside. His cancer was too far along, but he couldn’t give up the fight.
We are all temporary residents in this life. You know that. It’s easier to forget, or ignore, or to pretend that we don’t see.
When I go, I hope to go fighting. Like dad.
When I go – and there are no plans yet – I hope to leave a legacy. Like Dad. Mine will be, G-d willing, a legacy of prayer and Torah. And children.
When I go – in G-d’s time, which is the only way it will be – I pray that the world will be in better shape than it is today.
Here’s a memorial prayer for the family patriarch, as well as a link to one for the family matriarch:
In Memoriam, Our Patriarch
In memory of our patriarch,
A song of dignity and honor.
Guardian of mitzvot,
Keeper of truths,
Hand of protection and peace,
We were blessed,
Throughout your days,
With your humor and compassion,
Your zest for life
And your zeal for family.
You reminded us to open our lives
To majesty and mystery,
To G-d’s justice and mercy.
You reminded us to seek radiance and splendor,
To live in awe of creation
And with compassion for each other.
You were a beacon of light,
Reminding us to choose joy over grief,
Laughter over tears.
G-d of fatherly patience and strength,
Bless our family with love.
May the memories of our patriarch
Provide us with vision, endurance and hope.
May his unending devotion
Inspire our family to deeds of righteousness and charity,
Guided by Torah,
To help lift his soul to the highest heavens.
Bless our lives with abundance
And our days with vigor,
So that we bring majesty and mystery to our lives,
And into the world, in his honor.
Blessed are You, G-d of our fathers,
You provide just and righteous men
In every generation.
“In Memoriam, Our Patriarch” is © 2017 Alden Solovy