A few months ago, before the pandemic began, I almost started crying smack in the middle of DSW. You see, it seems that Bass Weejuns have made a come-back this year in women’s fashion and so the aisles of the shoe store were suddenly full of every possible variety of classic penny loafer – exactly the kind of shoe that my father, of blessed memory, used to wear. When we think about loss, we often anticipate the times and occasions that will be difficult – birthdays, anniversaries, life-cycle moments, holidays. But almost as often, at least when it comes to missing my Dad, it is the simple, everyday things that set me off. I’ll see a car of the same make and model that he used to drive. Or I’ll write something that I’m particularly proud of and want to share it with him. Or I’ll say goodbye to my mother back in Boston and we’ll smile over his famous line, “Who am I going to hug tomorrow?” I am sad for all the big things in the life of our family that my father has missed these last many years, but I’m even sadder for all of the small things. So much of life resides in the daily and mundane.
Perhaps one of the lessons of this terrible pandemic that has taken and upended so many lives is just that – while we often feel like life is lived in the “special” and “extraordinary” moments, it’s actually much more fully realized in the quieter, everyday ones. Over the last months I have seen families quickly pivot when long anticipated weddings and b’nai mitzvah, baby namings and graduations have been scaled back or gone virtual, morphing into something we never would have imagined. There has been disappointment, yes, but also a sense of acceptance – it’s just one day, we will mark it again in safer times, how lucky we are to have such blessings which to celebrate. Far harder, it seems, have been the many small and pervasive deprivations that each of us has had to contend with since March. The sadness in not being able to see or hug our grandchildren. The constant, draining stress of trying to hold down a job while supervising Zoom learning and the safety of young children. The isolation of being kept at home, away from friends and family, with days that stretch on each one so much like the last. And then there are those of us who have lost loved ones during this difficult time. This, for sure, has been the most painful experience of all.
I don’t know that any of us can quite imagine what it is like to be scared and alone, facing one’s final days in a hospital room far away from family. The ubiquitous iPad goodbyes that we’ve seen all too often may provide some small amount of connection and comfort, but it is not nearly the same as being able to hold a hand or stroke a shoulder or kiss a cheek. Over the last months I have heard gut-wrenching stories of relatives fighting for the chance to see a loved one just one more time and of the tremendous guilt and sorrow that comes from knowing that one’s parent or sibling or spouse or child died alone without loving family to surround them. This, to me, seems like the Coronavirus’ cruelest and most devastating blow.
I am not sure that it is possible to alleviate the terrible grief experienced by those who have lost loved ones in recent months, unable to be together in final days and mourning without the comforts of more traditional funerals, shiva, and community support. But much as life is ultimately measured not by the special days but by the ordinary ones, so too it seems to me should it be in death. Being present at one’s bedside is one hallmark of devotion, but so is being present on all the other days – the happy ones when it’s easy to show up, the exhausted ones when there are so many other things clamoring for attention, the difficult ones when being present is an act of sheer will and commitment. Speaking words of tribute at a funeral is one way to show love and honor, but so are all the many, many other words spoken over the course of a lifetime – the encouragements and soothing, apologies and affection, murmurs of tenderness, promises rendered, secrets kept, private jokes shared, and all the rest. How we were able to care for our loved ones in life is ultimately as important, if not more so, than how we were able to care for them in death. And if we couldn’t care for them in death as we would most have wished to, they certainly know that it wasn’t for lack of trying.
When I think about my father, I feel blessed that he was able to be present for so many important, significant, special events in my life. I remember dancing with him at my bat mitzvah, celebrating together my acceptance to college, watching him beam with pride on ordination day, introducing him to my new congregants in Princeton when I was installed as rabbi. But even more, I feel grateful for the many regular, ordinary, utterly unremarkable days that my Dad and I were able to spend together – family dinners and vacations and sitting in shul, countless hours spent editing school papers or learning how to drive, special father-daughter time when he would pick me up at the airport on a visit home. I remember how he welled up every time he saw me give a sermon; his meticulous, calligraphed handwriting so unusual for a doctor; the way he’d call me “My Rabbi” or “My Cookie” or sometimes “Rabbi Cookie.” It is all these things I miss even more than the marquee events. So much of life resides in the daily and mundane.
In their poignant poem, We Remember Them, Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Reimer write: “At the rising of the sun and at its going down we remember them. At the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.” These words, of course, are a merism – a combination of two contrasting terms used to reference the entirety between them; here, the fact that we think of our loved ones, now departed, all year long and every single day. Memory at times feels more urgent or more immediate or more devastating but it’s always there in the background, ready to be coaxed out by something as small and trivial as a pair of penny loafers in a crowded shoe store. The sadness I could sometimes live without. But it’s nice to feel that my father’s presence is never too very far away.
And so, as we gather together for Yizkor during this most painful and unusual of years, I invite us to remember. I invite us to remember all the special times – weddings and anniversaries, births of new babies, graduations, promotions, awards received, other kinds of peak events. And I invite us to remember, too, all the regular, ordinary, commonplace days – play time and bath time and kissing a boo-boo, dancing cheek-to-cheek, snuggling together on the couch, sharing an eye-roll that only siblings would understand. We remember carpools and Shabbat dinners and so many soccer games and school plays, date nights, weekend getaways, laughing and laughing over something silly. So much of life resides in the daily and mundane rather than the epic and consequential. This and every day, we remember them.
Y’hi zichronam baruch – May the memories of our loved ones be for a blessing.