I’ve been absent from this virtual space for awhile. My last post was in October and it was prompted by the book club I belong to (From Left To Write). And, prior to that, I was posting from Sierra Leone.
This month, January, is the month that my father died, 34 years ago. My daughter was due to be born in February, but she came, precipitously, in November, a 2 lb miracle baby! So, she and my father shared this planet for 3 months, but never met, since he was living in Sri Lanka, and we were in New York City.
As I think anyone who has lost a dearly loved parent, or anyone close and highly valued, I mourn my father almost daily – sometimes with an acute sense of loss, and sometimes with just a distant wonder that he should no longer be here, that he should be here, but isn’t.
Every religion, and every culture, throughout history as far as I know, has traditions and rituals to celebrate/commemorate both ends of life – birth and death. The extreme ends of life – the first breath we take, and the last we expire – define the boundaries with Mystery. We don’t have a direct understanding of where we existed before we were born, and we have no idea what we will experience, if anything, after we die. We may have mythologies about what lies on the other side of either end of our experience, or we may be firmly convinced of the rational provable truth, and have no expectation at all of an existence beyond our lives on this earth.
In the more than twenty years that I have identified as Jew, I have struggled with how to honor my father within the structure, which is extremely well-defined and proscribed, of Judaism. Each year, mourners recall their parents, or spouses, or siblings, or children (all first-degree relatives, and sometimes more distant, depending on circumstance) by observing their Yahrzeit, the yiddish term for anniversary. Additionally, four times a year, on Yom Kippur and the three pilgrimage festivals – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkoth – a special service is observed called Yizkor, a time to remember those close relatives who have died.
It must have been 14 years ago, at one of these Yizkor services, that I suddenly became grief-stricken for my father, 20 years after his death, and I left the service to sob in the bathroom. Someone came into the bathroom, or was already there, I can’t remember who, as I was so distraught, and she offered comfort, asking if I was OK. I replied that my father had died, but that this was so silly because it had been 20 years ago. I had thought up until then that I had made my peace with his absence, but realized that day that I may never fully “accept” that he is gone. It will always be a palpable hole in my heart. You don’t get used to loss of someone dear. It’s never OK.
So, at every Yizkor service, I remember my father, and it is no longer a trigger for that same deep grief. But, I have not taken steps to observe his death in the other more traditional way that Jews do – observing his Yahrzeit every year. Until this morning, when I suddenly realized what month it is, and that I should DO SOMETHING. Ironically, when I went online to calculate the hebrew date corresponding to his date of death, I discovered that his yahrzeit was last month, and so I have a year to consider my dilemma. Is if appropriate to observe a tradition that was not my father’s belief or tradition? I often hear it said that mourning practices are for the mourner, not for the dead, so, if I believe in Jewish practice and theology, isn’t it right for me to observe?
I’ll have a year to ponder this, but there’s one action I can take without question. My father was Buddhist, not necessarily practicing, but that was his tradition, and I know from a momentous conversation I had with him when I was 15 or 16, that he felt very strongly about his connection to Buddhism. I suspect, had he lived long enough, he would have become a devout practitioner. So, I can donate to the Washington Buddhist Vihara and know that he would have thoroughly approved.
It feels good. Even if it’s 34 years late…
One more thought – the cover photo at the top of this blog is a photo taken of the Kalutara River, where my father’s boat struck a rock, marked by the branches in the water, causing him to fall off the back of the boat, probably strike his head on the rudder, and drown.