Gary Goldhammer is a freelance writer based in Orange County, Calif. Visit his blog, Below the Fold, at http://belowthefold.typepad.com.
It was unexpected; that's how these things happen. You can't plan for them, can't do them over or wish them away. Life is generous and cruel, often simultaneously. Life is happy and sad, easy and hard. There is darkness and there is light.
My dad died when I was eight years old. I didn't understand what it meant to live, and now I was supposed to understand what it meant to die. A rabbi sat in my dad's chair and told me it would be okay, and that I had to be strong. Being eight, all of this went over my head. As far as I was concerned, my dad's death was the rabbi's fault, or God's, or somebody's, I didn't care--I just wanted to know whom to blame. I didn't want comfort; I wanted my dad back.
For years I blocked the memories. I didn't go to the cemetery or look at his picture. The only reminder was once every January, on the anniversary of my dad's death, when my mom would light the Yahrzeit, memorial, candle. For twenty-four hours, the memorial flame would flicker, and I would curse the ghosts until the light was gone.
This is what Jews are supposed to do, even though I didn't want to face my past. Jews remember. We reflect. We are told never to forget our history or its importance to our future.
But Jewish mourning is even more pronounced--we talk about the Exodus from Egypt once a year at Passover, but we talk about death all the time.
Every Friday night and Saturday morning at synagogue, we say Kaddish. Every wedding, every holiday, practically every time Jews gather, we remember the dead. Yom Kippur has a whole service devoted to mourning (Yizkor); we have songs and memorials. And then there is the Yahrzeit, that brief candle which marks the anniversaries of deaths and signals families to mourn yet again.
My wife, who is Christian, used to believe as I did about Jewish mourning rituals. Why is there so much focus on death? Why so much sadness? In other words, why can't we just get over it and move on?
She was right, in a way. Christians don't focus on death as much as Jews because they believe they will have eternal life. By contrast, Jews mourn so much they make Buffalo Bills fans seem optimistic (actually, the same now can be said for Philadelphia Eagles fans). Jews have trouble being too happy about anything, lest they feel guilty for having a good time.
Then my wife's aunt died. Scotti had cancer, and while it wasn't sudden, it was nevertheless a shock. For me, her death was especially troubling. She was the only one in my wife's family who not only didn't care that I was Jewish, but embraced it. Some people are light, but this woman was lightning--bright and powerful and unpredictable and so drenched with love you would almost drown in her presence.
So it was no surprise that my wife began to light a Yahrzeit candle for Scotti. We make sure her name is in the Yizkor book at High Holidays, and call her name out at services when asked whom we want to remember.
My wife's views on Yahrzeit changed--and so did mine. We now see it as not a time to mourn, but to celebrate. Yahrzeit is a gift--it allows us to recall our loved ones and bask in their spirits again, to be with them again, to see them in the flame and feel them in our heart.
That's why this year was so hard. I still can't believe it happened. Now that I am writing about it, I can't believe it matters as much as it does.
I forgot to light a Yahrzeit candle for my father. I had been traveling over the holidays, and when I returned home I was focused on work and some big new projects. I had the letter from my synagogue reminding me about the upcoming Yahrzeit observance on Friday night, but I didn't realize what happened until Saturday when, after morning services, several people who had heard my dad's name read aloud the previous evening came up to me and asked why I wasn't there.
Talk about Jewish guilt; I had it up to my ears. My mind drifted back to the day he died, the meeting with the rabbi and the uneven years that followed. I thought about graduating high school, going to college and getting married.
I thought about my five-year-old daughter and whether my dad knew she existed. Although she never met him, she nevertheless is thankful that he was her grandfather.
And I thought about how it took a Christian to teach me that the Yahrzeit is a celebration, a shining reminder that life, and the memory of those who lived, is a blessing to us all.