A little over three months ago, my father died. It was sudden and devastating, but not totally unexpected. I held his hand, and with my mother, our rabbi, and sister on the phone, we said the shema and told him how much we loved him as he left us. We should all be so lucky.
My dad passed away just before Shabbat, which I think he did on purpose, to be sure that we’ll remember him at least every week. Not that he needed to worry about that, since I’ll miss him every day. He loved our Shabbat dinners around the table and singing a few zmirot before we lit candles. Shabbat became extra joyous after the first granddaughter—my gal Charlotte—was born. My dad added lyrics to one of his favorite Yiddish songs, “Shabbos, Shabbos, Shabbos, Shabbos, Shabbos, yidn zol zayn Shabbos,” to include “Charlotte, Charlotte, Charlotte, Charlotte, Charlotte, yidn zol zayn Charlotte.”
I am so grateful we moved from New York to Seattle two years ago and had our year of multi-generational living with my parents. I treasure that time with my dad and appreciate that he got to spend so much of it with his granddaughter, watching her grow from crawling to walking to running, hearing her say her first words and then babble in full paragraphs. His smile when she would shout “Zadie!” is etched on my heart. Of course, I wish that he could be around for her bat mitzvah, but I’ll count my blessings for all the beautiful memories we have of weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays together, like when my dad led his last Passover seder this year, for the first time, at my house.
When we were sitting shiva, we told Charlotte that we were having special goodbye parties for Zadie. And since we did not bring Charlotte to the funeral or the cemetery, explaining why we weren’t going to see Zadie anymore has required a lot of spiritual creativity on my part. I told her his body stopped working, so we won’t get to see him and talk to him anymore, but we can think about him, and talk about him and miss him very much.
Ultimately, after many conversations about where he went, and, without thinking too much before I blurted it out, I told Charlotte that Zadie went to heaven. I don’t personally believe in heaven. I think, and my dad did too, that once you are dead, that’s it. But I appreciate heaven as an idea to help explain the unexplainable. I hope one day Charlotte forgives me for sharing the idea of heaven, even though I don’t think it exists. Perhaps we’ll be ready to talk more about what it means to really be dead next year, when Charlotte is almost 4, at my dad’s unveiling.
In the meantime, I told Charlotte that heaven is a great place, high in the sky, past all the clouds. The only sad thing is that we can’t visit, and the people who are there can’t come visit us. Charlotte’s vision of heaven thus far includes unlimited jellybeans and Zadie playing poker with his friends. She’s also decided that he doesn’t need his walker to help him get around up there.
Most days we talk about how much we miss Zadie and Charlotte reminds me that he is very happy in heaven. I feel good that she finds comfort in heaven, as I am exploring other Jewish traditions around mourning. This year, on Yom Kippur, I attended my first yizkor memorial service. I’ve been going to services more often these days and even though I’ve never felt much connection to prayer, every evening I say kaddish. Sometimes alone, or with my husband, with my mom when she comes over to our house for dinner, and often, with Charlotte. She hands us the prayer cards and enthusiastically chirps in with the “amens.” It’s not so much the words of the prayer that I find so meaningful, but taking two minutes every evening to intentionally remember my father is what’s important for me.
I think my father knew that we would say
for him every day for a year. I remember when my Bubbie (his mother) died and my dad would grab the prayer book and put on a kippah and say kaddish for her after dinner each night. At the time, as a tween, I thought, “well, this is just what Jewish people do when someone they love dies.” Now that I am the one who has lost a parent and understand how hard this loss is, I’m thankful that my dad modeled the ritual of saying kaddish. I know it must have brought him support in his grief, as it now does for me.
I hope one day, in about 75 more years, Charlotte will find comfort in saying kaddish for me, even if she no longer believes in heaven.