[NOTE: It remains true that the concentric circles for this blog’s audience centers on my local school community, and then zooms out to Jewish day school, education and the universe. I do, like here, occasionally publish on topics that are deeply personal. For those posts, I calibrate the web of social media leading to the blog, but the blog remains the same.]
“Yizkor?! I don’t even know her!”
Because there can be no reminiscence of my father of blessed memory without at least one awful pun and, although timely, that is simply awful.
Although yizkor comes four times a year, for me, this one, this year – at Shemini Atzeret – feels like yizkor with a capital “Y”. I don’t know why. Maybe the emotions at the time of his yahrzeit (20 Av) weren’t process-able at the time, and maybe the Yizkor of Yom Kippur was too wrapped up in the High Holidays. But now, headed into the comparatively quiet of this Yizkor, I am finally both struck and somewhat capable of wrestling with the enormity of what it means to have lived a full decade since my father, Michael Mitzmacher, passed away on July 27, 2013, weeks after having suffered a massive stroke.
Grief makes me think in fractions.
I have now spent almost 1/5 of my life without my father. I have almost spent half my married life without my father. Eliana has now spent 5/9 and Maytal 2/3 of their lives without my father. The fractions explain and describe the enormity of the time taken, the experiences missed and the pain caused by a life taken too soon. They explain and they describe. They don’t heal and they don’t comfort and they don’t provide closure. Time is supposed to be the author of those feelings, but in my experience time dulls and distances. I’m not sure how the rest is achieved.
The need for my children to remember things they cannot be reasonably expected to remember is the fuel on the fire of my loss. Pictures, videos, catchphrases and memories are all I have to tilt at the windmill of time. As it inexorably goes by, my greatest fear is that all my children will have to remember him by is his absence. He was the grandparent who wasn’t at the Bat Mitzvah or the Graduation. He was the grandparent who we spoke about because he wasn’t there; not the grandparent we speak to because he is there. But focusing my mourning on my children’s loss is as much a dodge as it is true, because focusing on what it means for them not to have a grandfather is a helpful distraction from focusing on what it means for me not to have a father.
With all the other things that it means, the one I am thinking about most this year is how remarkable nature and nurture truly are. I see it through my own children. There are traits and habits and personality quirks that are clearly present in my children because they are present in me. Silly things and not-so-silly things. Not having a father, or better said, for me, not having my father, means that the person who most saw the world the way I did is not here to share it. There are moments, all the time, where I know exactly what my father would have thought, felt, said and done, but that knowledge is equal parts comforting (it reminds me of my Dad!) and gutting (it reminds me of my Dad’s absence).
That’s the loss. Of course, I miss the wisdom he could have provided. Obviously, I mourn the experiences he should have had. But, this year, ten years into grieving, I feel the absence of being in the world with the one person who experienced it most like I did. I feel it when I watch TV. I feel it when I watch sports. I feel it when we are with family. I feel it scrolling through my phone. And the only thing worse than feeling it, is the fear that one day I won’t feel it all.
I can pledge tzedakah in his name (and do). I can volunteer my time in his name (and do). I can create family rituals designed to keep his stories alive for my children to own and to pass down (and I have). I light candles and go to synagogue at the appropriate times. I do all these things to make up for what I do not have. I am both grateful for what I had and angry for what I don’t.
And somehow it means everything and accomplishes nothing at the same time because ten years ago my father died too soon.
I have sat with this blog post for a few days trying to figure out how to wrap it up. What big lesson have I learned that I want to pass along? What new insights have I to offer upon reaching this milestone of grief? How do I tie this up and move forward?
I have no idea.
There are days where I think of my father and it brings me great joy. There are days where I think of my father and it brings me great sadness. And there are days – despite all the safeguards I have put into play – where I don’t think of my father at all. That’s what is true. Yizkors and yahrtzeits are valuable waystations on grief’s journey, but it is a journey that has no ending. The work – work that I will lean into on Saturday – is to try to make the journey one of meaning and purpose. Even when the meaning and the purpose aren’t so clear…
The 49ers play the Cowboys on Sunday. If one takes the liberty to imagine a heavenly broadcast, one can – and I will – update the puns that animated so many childhood Sundays. Yes, Jerry Rice and his brother Fried, remains an undisputed champion. But what about Brock Purdy? Deebo Samuel? One can only imagine…