Learning from Loss
I went to visit my dad today. For those of you who remember coming to visit me the week of shiva (mourning), who remember seeing me heartbroken with my fresh loss may be confused by this statement, so I'll explain.
My father, my Abba, died 4 years ago on chol hamoad Pesach after being diagnosed with cancer only 3 months earlier. I was 9 months pregnant at the time and was not able to travel back to the US to visit him. I say to visit him, not to say goodbye, because we had no idea what was coming.
Every year since that Pesach, my mother and brother have been coming to me for the holiday and we go together to the cemetery to visit my father's grave (my sister came the first year too but unfortunately, wasn't able to come for the years after). It was such a comfort for me to not have to go the grave alone, to know my brother and I can go together, both suffering the loss of a father and the loss of important conversations and reconciliations that would never occur.
This past pesach though, was not like any other year. With the blizzard of uncertainty and chaos that was rained down upon the world as a result of COVID-19, my mother and brother were not able to join me for pesach and I was not able to visit the cemetary due the country-wide lockdown in Israel.
Instead I decided I would visit my Abba before Rosh Hashana. With another lockdown iminent, I went this morning.
I arrived at the cemetery in Beit Shemesh and cautiously descended the steps to my father's gravesite. I say cautiously because I never know what to expect when I go. Will I cry or will it just feel so foreign to me still? Will I feel connected? Will it feel like I'm in his presence or will it feel like I'm speaking to stone? Honestly, I felt all of those things. But, as usual, my caution is for naught because the second I see his name on the gravestone, רפאל גרשם בן נחום, Rafi Guber, I cry.
I cry as I remember the loss all over again. It feels like yesterday when I last heard his voice saying "I have some things I need to tell you but the nurse is coming in. I will talk to you later. I love you." only to be followed an hour later by a phone call telling me he was gone. It feels like yesterday when I let out an anguished cry while grabbing hold of the full grown baby in my belly and begging it not to be born for just a little longer so the miracle of his birth wouldn't be mixed with the agony of loss. At the same time, it feels so long ago. The sound of his voice is fading in my memory.
My baby listened to my request and 3 weeks later, my beautiful son Rafi was born, named after his Zaidy that he would never meet. A gift of life to a mourning family.
I sat in shul on Rosh Hashana about 4 months after Rafi was born with him sleeping in a baby carrier on my chest. I stood so as not to wake him and gently rocked back and forth while singing with the congregation:
בראש השנה יכתבון, וביום צום כפור יחתמון, כמה יעברון, כמה יבראון: מי יחיה ומי ימות
On Rosh Hashana it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created, who will live and who will die.
I remember closing my eyes and letting the tears fall as I thought back to the last time I said these words a year ago - when my father sang these words too not knowing it would be his last Rosh Hashana, when my baby was just a thought in my mind. I thought about the Rafi lost to the world and the Rafi gained. I thought about how every year, I think there is time to become the person I want to be. Time to reconcile differences and grow closer to my Creator, closer to my potential. I now know that the perfect time is now, its today.
Below is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to my father on his 4th yartzheit. A letter which was published on the Layers Project:
"In a strange way, I eagerly await this day every year. It’s the one day where I don’t have to pretend life went back to normal after the shiva. I don’t have to pretend that the world is unchanged and I am unchanged. Usually, I visit your grave and pray. I spend the day speaking to my siblings and remembering shared stories from our youth or funny jokes you always repeated.
But this year, with the whole world in isolation, I couldn’t go to the cemetery and, with it falling on Shabbat, I couldn’t speak to the family. Yet, the day still came and went like any other year. I decided to write this letter to mark the day with something tangible that can serve to remind myself of what I lost 4 years ago and the lessons I have learned since then.
Abba, you and I always had a complex relationship. We were so different in so many ways. You were a dreamer. A man gifted with so much creativity and talent who was always looking to leave an indelible mark on the world. I, well, I am an accountant. I crave stability and order. Even as a kid, that is what I wanted so badly. I called you impractical and short-sighted. You called me rigid and inflexible. We loved each other so much but didn’t understand each other. We had trouble putting ourselves in the other’s shoes.
I get it now Abba. I really do understand so much more about you and about me. I wish I told you I was proud of you for working so hard to share secrets of history with the world. I know how much you wanted to hear it from me and I’m sorry I wasn’t more supportive of your dream before it was too late.
About a year before you died, before we even knew you were sick, we got into a fight. I don’t recall the specifics but I remember you saying “Rayla, sometimes I wonder if something happened to me if you would even miss me.” I thought about that line a lot. Unfortunately, we don’t have to wonder. I know now with 100% certainty that I miss you so much more than I ever thought I would. I’m sorry I spent so many years being angry for my childhood. I always thought we would have more time to fix our relationship.
I wish you were here Abba. I wish I could ask you for forgiveness and I hear one of your corny jokes. I wish you could see your grandchildren and how they are growing up into amazing little people. I wish I could tell you one last time that I love you, I am proud of you and I really do understand now."
Now, I am thinking back to last Rosh Hashana too. How much has changed in the world since last Rosh Hashana. The world was different. We were different. Everyone thinks there is time to become the person they want to be, the person they were meant to be. To ask for forgiveness and straighten your priorities. How many people thought last year that there was more time. What if that time is today?
This is not a rebuke or a "holier than thou" message from someone who has seen the light. This is a message I am writing to myself to remind me that I need to seize the opportunities given to me to become the person I can be, the mother I can be, the daughter I can be and the Jew I can be. I hope I am able to start that journey today and I am thankful I got the chance to visit my dad in order to get into the mindset that has been so difficult for me to access.
I wish all of you a shana tova. A sweet and happy New Year. May I greet you all in Israel (with no 2 week quarantine period) in the near future.