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My Father's Yahrzeit

02/27/2020 03:25:35 PM


Shalom Lewis, Rabbi Emeritus

My father and I walked this earth together for 59 years until his death 12 years ago this week. In the days following shiva, I wrote a piece that I shared then and share now, once again. It comforted me in the confusing haze of loss and provides me today with a tear and a smile. For permitting me this personal moment of reflection when I first became a mourner, I thank you. Perhaps in some way it will serve as comfort for others of you who have suffered loss as well.
This message is written not with ink nor pen, but with tears. I am in New Jersey sitting at my father’s desk fumbling through drawers, staring at books, flailing in a torrent of memories. Ab’s office-not a shrine, not a museum, but a place where his spirit lingers. Everything before me has become sacred. A paper clip he bent. A note he wrote. A rubber band he stretched. A fingerprint on a dusty shelf. Save it all, I cry out in my weepy silence. Let go of nothing. In my heartbreak even a crumbled tissue has become a precious treasure. Discarding even the trivial feels a betrayal.
I am empty, yet full. Lonely, yet surrounded. I dwell in a place of paradox where the heart has yet to catch up with the head. I have entered a cliché and joined reluctantly an ever-beckoning fraternity that for 59 years, I happily avoided. I fear forgetting the voice as it fades into a soft whisper and then into distant oblivion. I feel guilt and infidelity when not in pain and a perverse joy of filial loyalty when I sob.
Peculiar phrases are uttered that are agonizingly strange. “Ab has died”. “Ab’s yahrtzeit”. “My father passed away”. “When Ab was alive, I remember…”. I am in a place familiar yet bewildering. Routine, yet indescribably different. There are moments I am numb with relief and other moments when I am numb with sorrow. Clarity has become confusion and focus, disarray. When I think my fog has lifted, I realize it is a fleeting respite, that I am still lost in a place of relentless torment and puzzling absence.
Yet today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today, yet I still plod through every hour. There is no guilt nor anger that needs probing or resolution with an analyst. I remain in some shock but not in denial. I freely admit, with childish confidence, I believed my father to be immortal. But I know Ab no longer walks this good earth, that his seat is forever empty, and I will never again hear him sing his songs. But I also know that I would never exchange my 59 years with him to be spared the sorrow of today. Though now I tearfully stumble through the valley of the shadow of death, I know that for so long I skipped joyfully on the top of mountains.
At such times, routine is draped in eternity. The last phone call. The last kiss. The last Shabbos. The last breath. All move from expectant continuity to incomprehensible finality. ‘The End’ is no longer a closing line in a feature film but an excruciating mystery. Stillness has never been so still. Life has never been so lifeless. Silence has never been so loud. We are all fragile creatures - death is the leveler of all - of those who are taken and of those who are left behind. No one is spared. Not those in the ground. Not those above.
For so many years I have been wiping the tears of others. Comforting the bereaved. Dispensing sincere counsel to shattered souls. Now I must heed my own words and make them the vocabulary of my heart. Good words, indeed, but I long for the real thing, not the well-intentioned consolation prize of gentle eloquence and soothing theology.
My father loved life, but in our last conversation, he said, “Shal, I am tired.” Whether it was of the day or of his life, I was not then certain. Now I am. His journey was coming to an end. He was tired and ready for the long sleep. His life was glorious. His death, perfect. I am grateful to the Almighty for the blessing of Ab’s many years, but only now do I realize and only now do I understand that I’d rather be a rabbi than a son.
Fri, April 3 2020 9 Nisan 5780