Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Sitting on My Shoulder

Rosh Hashana approaches this year as it never has before.  On Erev Chag, we will celebrate one month of enjoying our beautiful little boy who is named after my father.  This year I'm looking at the world through the fresh eyes of new parenthood.  Everything looks and feels different... and at the same time, totally familiar.  It's as if the people I've loved and lost throughout my life are sitting on my shoulder, guiding me through the challenges and wonders of motherhood and more present than they have ever been in recent memory. 

Every time I interact with my son - singing songs, playing games, talking to him conversationally - I find myself uttering words and phrases that I heard in my childhood.  From the very first days in the hospital, coaxing my son to open his mouth to eat, I heard my father's friendly voice in my mind encouraging patients in his dental chair to "open open open!"  When I burp him after a meal, I hear my grandmother's voice asking if he "has a bubble."  And whenever I zip him into his sleep sack and lift him into his bassinet for the night, I think of my Uncle Paul playing "Casper the Friendly Ghost" with my infant cousins.

When my father passed away suddenly, I was so worried that I'd forget.  Forget what specifically, I don't know, but I remember furiously writing memories in a journal throughout the shiva and afterward.  Have I looked at them since?  Not really.  I haven't needed to - though it is a comfort to know they are on paper.  Instead, the memories have stayed with me and bubble to the surface on all sorts of occasions, especially milestone moments when emotions run particularly high.  I'm finding that it is even more comforting to know that the memories are really and truly ingrained deep inside and that I can call on them when I wish.  

So... even though my father is not able to be with me at the table this Rosh Hashana, or play with my son the way I wish... I find he's even closer - sitting on my shoulder - and I know by now that I can count on him always being right there.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Nechama (Comfort)

My father was a collector of unique and interesting items.  At his funeral, the rabbi commented that he liked to take care of not only people, but things as well.  Among these treasures was a collection of brass candlesticks of various sizes and designs.  Not long before he died, my father polished up a few of these and offered them to me for my apartment, apologizing that they did not match.  

A few months later, while cleaning up his basement workshop, I came across another candlestick in the back of a shelf that was a twin to one that I already had.  The only difference was that the one my father gave me was polished and this newly discovered one was not.  In a way, it felt fitting... my father died too young, and this felt a bit like his unfinished business.

I brought both candlesticks to my apartment and have been lighting shabbat candles with them for the last four years.  The idea persisted in the back of my mind that one day Saleh would polish them to a matching shine and it would feel a bit like completing the cycle.  As it says in my bat mitzvah parsha Chayei Sarah (which my father taught me to lein) - when Isaac met and married Rebecca, he brought her into his tent and was comforted over the death of his mother, Sarah.  As the midrash explains, the miracles that were associated with Sarah paused at her death and restarted with Rebecca's entrance into the family.  

For one reason or another, we never managed to get the candlesticks polished.  Perhaps it was too soon... or I just wasn't ready.   But last shabbat - our first Shabbat home with our Little Man - I finally felt the pull to complete the job.  

As I lit three Shabbat candles for the very first time I looked at the three candlesticks on which they were perched.  One bright, shiny and new, representing the New Addition to our family, and two older ones with different degrees of tarnish, as my father's polishing has dulled with time.  And I looked at my Baby Boy - now carrying my father's name.  

My heart is full.  I still miss my father, but I see so much life and love and wonder in his newest grandchild.  It is finally time for the candlesticks to match.  

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Inconvenient (On My Father's 4th Yortzeit)

 Dear Dad,

As your 4th Yortzeit approaches tonight, the word that comes to mind is inconvenient.  Nothing about your passing has been convenient or comfortable for me - that I'll acknowledge - but let's review for a moment what these last few years have been.  That first year, your death thrust me into a year of aveilut and a whirlwind of Kaddish that interrupted nearly every facet of life (including all my dates with Saleh).  Your second Yortzeit fell on my birthday/Maggie's naming party and the third was in the middle of a global pandemic.  And this year... I'm waiting to go into labor any time now - I don't know if I'll be in shul tonight to say Kaddish or at the hospital meeting your new grandchild.  Inconvenient is an understatement!  I've made all the plans within my power... and now the decisions are up to Baby and Hashem - as they always were.  I guess one important lesson from these last 4 years is about how many things are outside of my control, whether I like it or not! 

On the other hand, the last few years have also been filled with blessings - Meeting Saleh, Marc's and my weddings, the birth of your 2 (almost 3 grandchildren) and more.  Would that you could have been here for all of them... For example - I wish you could have heard me speak at Seudah Shlishit at the end of that first year... I could have chosen any topic - it didn't need to be about missing you!  And on your second Yortzeit, wouldn't you have rather held Maggie in your arms than had her named for you?  And the pandemic... well - I can't really lay that one at your feet, but I imagine that you and Uncle Paul could have figured something out if you'd put your heads together... maybe you're working together on a solution even now so that we can celebrate your new grandchildren properly - safely surrounded by loving family and friends!

Bottom line is... I'm still missing you - especially now that I'm on the verge of (finally) becoming a parent myself.  I can't believe it's been 4 years... and what years they have been...!  I'm not mad anymore (at least not right now) and I recognize that missing you won't really go away, but gosh it's inconvenient.  

Thinking of you with love...

All of us 

In loving memory of Maury Joseph Fechter - Mordechai Yosef ben Shmuel (24th Av)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

The Void You Leave Behind...

Dear Uncle Paul,

    I know that with your passing, your children and Aunt Joyce are experiencing an immediate hole in their everyday life.  I unfortunately know how it feels to miss my father and I remember how you helped me through it nearly 4 years ago.  Everyone will experience grief differently, but on the occasion of your Shloshim (has it really been that long?!) I want to tell you about the void you are leaving behind in our extended family.  

    You were the keeper of family traditions and memory, the one we turned to with all our questions.  You organized our viewings of family movies and projected the old fashioned film onto window shades and blank walls so that we could all watch and discuss. You spoke our hearts at every funeral and officiated at every unveiling.  You were the designated passenger in the hearse when Grandpa, Grandma and even my father passed away.  Who else could volunteer to do such a beautiful last kindness?  You knew the locations of family plots across the several NY cemeteries and made annual pilgrimages to visit them all.  At the same time, your shabbat table was always festive and joyful and you were the one who led the singing on holidays and special occasions -- you were the obvious choice to lead the longest, most leibedik sheva beracha at my wedding. 

    At family gatherings, you brought the laughter.  My Donald Duck imitation doesn't hold a candle to yours - I don't know how you were able to make words come across so clearly!  You could tell almost any story in a way guaranteed to attract smiles - even just hanging out and shooting the breeze, your laughter came naturally.  It was never forced, just honest, true and deep - belly laughter from the heart - and prompted a similar response in all of us. 

     I'll never forget your enormous salads brought to family gatherings on Thanksgiving and Purim - so large they had to be carried in a clean garbage bag! - with tomatoes on the side for sensitive palates.  I'll miss my annual "sukkah hops" to visit you in your heavy wooden sukkah and hearing you talk about those beautiful Angelfish that you nourished so carefully and with such success - you were always proud to show them off.  You were the one that we called on for advice from family minhagim to all sorts of fix-it issues.  We never had to wait long for you to stop by and help out with whatever needed doing, especially in the last few years -- it was nice to know that my mother could always count on your help and support.

    I've always been impressed by your knack for engaging with all ages - from adults to teens to little ones.  No wonder you were the shul Candyman - I'm not surprised that the children lined up to wish you "Good Shabbos" every week!  I still see your "Casper the Friendly Ghost" routine in my mind when I think of when the twins were babies and you lifted them up in their sleep sacks to the sound of their giggles!  I've always been so proud to be introduced as your niece.  Oh how we all love you!  

    The void you leave behind is a gaping chasm... for me, for my cousins and for our children.  How will we tell your great nieces and nephews how much you meant to us and to our family?  Even more important, who will be the "Uncle Paul" for the next generation?

     We love you, we miss you and we won't forget you.  

                            יְהִי זִכְרְךָ בָּרוּךְ  

    May your memory continue to be a blessing.  






Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Remembering Uncle Paul Kalish, z''l (Melech Yona ben Yidel Dov)

It's so hard to write these words today.  My uncle, Paul Kalish, passed away this morning at home after a valiant 10 months battling glioblastoma.  I am missing him tremendously as the memories are piling up and the tears are spilling over.

My Uncle Paul was my Rock for the year that I was mourning my father.  When I could not voice the words, he read my eulogy to my father at the funeral.  Then, completely unsolicited, he volunteered to say Kaddish for his brother-in-law... for the entire year!  This was no small undertaking.  I know that he did it mainly as a kindness to my father, but having company in my journey made it both more bearable and less stressful, as I could count on him on the few days that I was unable to make it to a minyan.  At the same time, knowing there was another person sharing my journey of remembering my father in that way made me feel less alone in a lonely period.  

For my whole life, Uncle Paul was my confidant.  He was always just a phone call away when I was growing up and I used to talk to him about dating prospects before my parents imagined I was even in a relationship.  He listened, gave advice and kept all confidences close to the vest.  He had a knack for making everyone laugh in the most positive way, being honest about life's realities and challenges and simply always being there.  Always.  

Uncle Paul knew just about everyone in the Baltimore Jewish community and his chessed knew no bounds.  He used to organize kiddish at his shul and make sure that everything was set up and presented in just the right way.  His creative juices flowed in many other areas as well.  His jokes were both funny and memorable and his photographs captured all the important occasions.  His woodworking skills were second to none - I often heard about how he and my grandfather built the first Aron Kodesh for the Young Israel of North Bellmore when it was founded.   I loved to hear him reminisce with my mother about the early days, growing up in Long Island with a houseful of siblings.  Uncle Paul's perfect vocal imitations and storytelling skills made the moments come alive for me in my mind! 

I hate that this past year he had to suffer through painful treatments and unimaginable stressors.  For someone as good, kind, compassionate and generous as he was, death should have come with greater dignity and ease.  My grandmother used to say that he'd give the shirt off of his back if someone needed it.  It's true, I've seen him do it.  It's been very difficult to watch from the sidelines for the last many months and even more difficult now that the end has come.   

How I'd hoped he'd be able to meet my baby and participate in a meaningful way in a bris or naming ceremony.  How I wanted my baby to meet him and know all the love and joy that he had to give!  And how I never imagined being in a position where I could not attend his funeral in person and support my mother and family in their grief and mourning.  It's just not fair.  

The hardest thing of all is not being able to act.  It makes me feel helpless.  And like my father before me, all I want to do is try to take away some of the pain that I'm witnessing.  Watching from afar and not being able to help... that is the hardest thing.   

But I'm not going to stop at bemoaning the circumstances of the situation.   I AM going to act - in his honor and in his memory.  Tonight, I'm going to bake challah.  Tomorrow, I'm going to watch the funeral on zoom.  And after that... I am going to be the Rock for my friends and family - for anyone who wants or needs a listening ear.  

Uncle Paul, from the bottom of my heart - thank you for all you've done and all that you have meant to me throughout the years.  Your memory is a blessing to everyone who had the privilege to know you.  I'm proud to be your niece and so grateful to have benefitted from your love and kindness.  I love you deeply and will miss you SO much.  










Monday, May 24, 2021

A Club No One Wants to Join

The experience of loss is jarring.  Whether preceded by a long illness or a sudden, unexpected parting, it is impossible for the survivors to return to a place of blythe ignorance of the pain induced by the mourning process.

What I learned from my own experience of mourning for my father makes me feel both more hesitant and more determined to do my part in offering comfort when the time arises.  

As a friend commented to me in the aftermath of losing her father, "the worst possible thing has happened - how can there be any more sorrow left in the world!"  So true.  It is unthinkable that so much pain can exist, and knowledge and understanding of the toll my own pain took and the road I've had to travel since only makes such news even harder to bear.

I know I cannot comprehend anyone else's feelings of grief and loss.  There are so many many human variables at play.  

And yet, I feel. 

From the other side of the curtain, I find myself tearing up at news of the death of a stranger's aged parent.  I cry for a bereft adult child who has lost a parental confident after many years of love and support.  And I cannot fathom the loss endured by young children with so many milestones to be experienced in the absence of a beloved parent.  And other unspeakable losses... There are no words.

And yet, I feel. 

I feel news of loss more deeply and more keenly than I ever did.  Making it simultaneously easier to empathize and harder to offer comfort, because I know that platitudes are not helpful.  

It is a painful conundrum. 

I cannot offer happy hopes that the pain will swiftly go away... because I know it will not.  I cannot visit a shiva house without experiencing flashbacks of my own period of intense grief and I wish with all my heart that there was any kind of fix - something I could offer that would make a real impact and lesson the pain of the other.  And yet, when I was sitting shiva, I found the greatest comfort from those whose faces showed that they understood - and my heart cried for them too.  

The experience of losing a family member inducts you into a club that no one wants to join - and even so, we are lucky that Jewish tradition offers beautiful mechanisms such as shiva, kaddish & community/shabbat meals, etc. to help us connect to each other.   I feel truly grateful to have found support from my community during my most difficult time and I hope that my experience has, in some way, helped others to find some solace from their own pain.  And in my heart of hearts, I wish I could close the club membership so no one would experience further loss or pain.  At least not until 120 years. 












Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Words Are Not Necessary, But At the Very Least... Leave Your "At leasts" At Home!

Mourning is fraught with feeling.  Every loss is a new one, a different experience and a myriad of emotions, often unanticipated.  When we try to comfort mourners, we sometimes find ourselves at a loss of what to say.  And that's when we blunder into inadvertent conciliatory phrases that might not be as helpful as we intend.

Raw emotion is uncomfortable.  It triggers feelings inside observers, whether we like them or not.  Makes us think about our own human relationships, past behaviors, and potential future reactions.  We don't like feeling uncomfortable. 

It makes sense that we try to avoid feeling powerless, uncomfortable and unprepared by filling the silence with something we feel to be true.  "At least he didn't suffer..."  "At least she's resting now..."  "At least you got to say goodbye..."  Any of these might be accurate, but might not be what the mourner is focusing on at the moment.   Maybe, in the face of this loss, all the mourner wanted was a chance to tell their loved one just one more thing... or maybe watching a drawn out illness tore their heart to shreds.  It's impossible to know how your words will be received - even from one day to the next - as the mourner grieves their loss.  

"At least he's in a better place...."  "At least your father will be a melitz yosher - will intercede for you and you'll get married this year...."  These ideas might help you feel better, but everyone's experience is different... and sometimes sharing your belief can cause more pain than healing.  This is why it is best to take cues from the mourner themselves. 

What can you say instead when you're searching for words?  Try talking about the person who passed away, for example, I like to ask the mourner to share a memory.  Even better, if you have a memory to share, go ahead and share it!  I found these memories to be priceless because they gave me new insight into my father's life and personality - new memories that I could store away now that I could not make any more of my own.   

Every death is different... 

I cannot decide whether my father's sudden passing was easier or harder to handle than my uncle's slow illness.  With my father, we had no preparation and no warning.  It's a comfort to me to know that he didn't suffer - I can say that - but I can only imagine what I might have told him or asked him if I'd had the chance.  Watching someone deal with a drawn out illness is an entirely different story -  in the same thought I don't want to see them suffer but I don't want to lose them either.  Seeing a loved one lose themself to Alzheimer's or Dementia feels like you've lost them long before the final moments... and yet, glimpses of their personality still come through at times to remind you of who they are/were.  And then there are losses where the mourner was not so close to their relative and keenly regrets the lack of relationship.  No "At least..." will fit all of these scenarios; in my opinion, it's better not to try. 

Everyone's experience is painful in a different way, and there really is no comparison.  People who have experienced loss are part of a club that no one wants to join and through it we have a unique ability to know what it feels like to be totally lost and adrift after losing a loved one.  We know that we can't possibly know how the mourner is feeling.  Silence and compassion go a long way.  So do hugs and a listening ear.  And as hard as it is to hold back the platitudes, let the mourner lead the conversation.  They will tell you how they are feeling - and how you can help - if you give yourself space to listen with your heart instead of focusing on planning what to say.  Because, the truth is there really isn't anything you can say to make it better.  Just being there - physically or virtually - is more than enough.  





Sitting on My Shoulder

Rosh Hashana approaches this year as it never has before.  On Erev Chag, we will celebrate one month of enjoying our beautiful little boy wh...