Recently, I observed the yahrzeit of my father’s death 25 years ago. Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word that means time of year. It represents the anniversary of a parent or close relative and is marked by the burning of a candle for 24 hours. During this time, the Mourner’s Kaddish, a hymn of praise about God, is recited in the synagogue with other congregants. I would like to share some of my reflections I wrote at the time of my father’s passing.
Upon hearing from my older brother of my father’s death, I had to rapidly change my plans inasmuch as that evening I was scheduled to give a talk on the poet, e.e. cummings, in Los Angeles. Fortunately, I had a friend that came by and videotaped my talk. One of the poems I planned on covering was Cummings’ elegy to his father: my father moved through dooms of love. Toward the end of the videotape, when I discussed Cummings’ attitude toward death and dying, tears welled up within me. To Cummings, death was stagnant and evil, whereas the gerund, dying, to him suggested movement, captured by an invisible transformation or change of condition that man can neither alter nor impede. Dying is perfectly natural and an extension of life. My father had no desire to wage a war against death. Prior to his demise, he told my brothers and me he had lived a wonderful life and was ready to die. My father’s life ended by his dying and not by his death.
When I arrived on the East Coast, most of my relatives had already gathered in the house where my brothers and I grew up. I immediately hugged my mother, and together we shared the fact that her husband, my father, had lived a good life. My mother had lived with my father for 58 years, and although it was a sad time for all of us, she recognized the years with him had been filled with joy making it easier for her to accept my father’s dying as a natural stage in life.
The next day my brothers and I met with the rabbi that would preside over the funeral service at the synagogue our family belonged to when we all lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The rabbi told us he would call us, after he spoke, to give our eulogies. When I walked into the main part of the temple where the service would be held, I was amazed at all the people who were assembling. Because there were no empty seats, there must have been close to 500 people present. When it was my turn, I delivered the following eulogy:
I consider myself supremely fortunate and glad that I was the son of my father. As a boy growing up, I remember well the times when I was feeling down, when I did not want to get out of bed, but rather escape into sleep. My father always would exhort me to get out of bed. His message was a consistent one: I was allowing time to slip by from my life. Time that I would never get back again. Time lost forever. My father cherished every waking moment of his life. And he, like the rest of us, faced some hard moments. He had a passion and zeal for life that few men his age, or much younger than he, possessed.
There was no one more generous than my father. If he could help a fellow human that was struggling, he would. At the retail clothing store he and his brothers owned, he was one of the first to hire blacks to work there. He did this because he knew it was the right thing to do, not because of political correction. If anything, when he employed blacks, it was if anything, not politically correct.
There were times when I would become angry at my father. Like any close relationship, such as father-son, we had our confrontations. But I found, as the years passed, our differences lessened. I came to see more clearly how great my father was compared to others who had not lived their lives to the fullest. My father’s loss of eyesight never stopped him from living and pursuing his interests. This loss he suffered in his later years made my vision of him that much clearer.
Toward the end of his life, we came to admire each other greatly. The last few years of his life he would call me in California at all hours to express his admiration of me. It was a wonderful way to gain closure. We communicated. No longer were there confrontations.
God bless you Dad! You taught me what it meant to be alive.
At the end of the memorial service, my brothers and I walked behind the limousine bearing my father’s casket. Suddenly, a bearded man approached me and introduced himself with his wife and son. He told me that when my father’s eyesight started to fail, his son had helped my father obtain auditory learning tapes from the synagogue. He related that when his son’s bicycle was beyond repair, my father, without asking, replaced it with a new one, to the utter amazement of his son. It was strange. As I walked behind the hearse with my family, that same boy looked at me as if I had descended from the heavens. His face wore a sense of awe and wonderment that lightened my own pain by transforming my sorrow into a son’s pride of his father.
In the past, I have seen many clients in my private practice who have lost close relatives. Several of them do not have a built-in restorative mourning process. The Jewish religion provides what are called morning minions where 10 or more people gather with the mourner for about one hour to recite the mourner’s kaddish. Different temples throughout the community offer minions throughout the week. The mourning period is about one year. Subsequent to my father’s dying, I made it a point to attend at least one minion per week for one year. I found it alleviated much of the grief I was feeling when I was around people I knew or came to know during the year I mourned my father. Part of the healing process came as a result of my being around people who had suffered similar losses in their lives that allowed them to better understand and empathize with me in an honest manner.