Three years ago today, I stood in front of family and friends on the Northwest side of Chicago and gave a eulogy for my father. We laughed and cried and were gently guided by a rabbi to the gravesite where we buried my dad in the ground, each of us shoveling a bit of dirt into the Earth.
Nothing makes you feel more like an adult than losing a parent. Somehow, you are left in charge, making ‘arrangements,’ comforting your surviving parent sometimes, comforting your children, praying for grace to do any of it at all. I was blessed that the days surrounding my dad’s death were filled with so much love and grace and a sense of peace. There were many tears and a lot of sadness, but during those days, somehow, grace fell upon me, and I was able to feel and breathe and act like the adult I am.
The day we buried my father though, September 28th, I woke up with a vice-like grip on my heart. “I can’t do this. I WON’T do this,” I remember thinking. I turned to my husband and told him “I think we can call this off, I don’t want to go. I don’t think we really need to go.” He looked at me, thinking I was being understandably maudlin and rhetorical. “Neen, we’ll be ok,” he said.
I looked at him like he was CRAZY. I threw back the covers and pounced out of bed and said “NO, we don’t have to be ok, we DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS. I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS.” And I thought I was justified. It made perfect sense to my new five year old brain. Why do we need to be there to bury him? They have people to do that. We can stay here and talk about him and people can come here to eat and bring the flowers and whatever. Really, what is the point of driving 45 minutes to WATCH HIM BE PUT IN THE GROUND?
I rationalized with myself that since I’m the one in charge, clearly I can make my mother see my point of view, we can make some phone calls and tell everyone of the change of plans. I ran down the stairs and found her sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, looking out the window. She looked tired, but so strong. I figured she would love my idea. I knew how she was hurting, so I thought this would save all of us some extra grief and tears.
She knew something was up because I stood there for a while before I said anything. When she finally asked me what was wrong, I squared my shoulders and said “I don’t want to do this today. I DON’T think we need to do this. I think Dad would be ok with it.” I was a little shocked when she didn’t immediately say, “Great idea, o.k. then.” I realized I needed to up the ante, so I started to cry and I even whined a bit.
“Mooooom, really, I DON’T want to do this, I CAN’T do this Mom.”
She looked at me with wide eyes, and somehow. Somehow, this gorgeous woman, who just lost her husband of 44 years, who was relying on me to forge ahead with our day, squared her shoulders and put her hands on mine.
She looked at me with her serious mom look. The one that she has used since I was an actual child and not just behaving like one. She said: “Nina sweetheart. We will do this. We will go. You will look beautiful and say good things about your father. We will do this for him. We will do this for us.”
My first nano second internal reaction was FUUUUUUCK. I couldn’t sell her. So instead I hugged her. And for the first time since he died, I cried a desperate cry. Not a cry of loss or sadness or uncertainty, but one of sheer fear, terror and desperation. I let it out, all the walls down, all the adultness pooling around me. This was it. I had no choice. I had to honor not only my Dad, but my mother. My amazing, powerful, wise and generous mother. She held me up that day, like she has held me her entire life.
In that moment, she took the child in me by the hand with grace and strength and told me to do what ought to be done. The look on her face grew me right back up really quick. I took many deep breaths, and somehow, like a time machine appeared, I was transported out of my child-like funk right back into myself. Right back into my grace and strength, brought back from myself, by my mother.
The day went on very smoothly from there. I shook a bit when I spoke of my Dad. I bravely walked with my Mom and husband and the rest of our family to the gravesite and watched as my father’s remains were buried. We cried, we smiled, we held each other tightly. It all felt strangely alright.
The little kid in me came back for a moment right then, though. I pretended I could see my Dad, standing tall behind a tree in the distance, wearing his favorite bright pink v-neck sweater, arms behind his back, a smirk on his face only for me, watching. I imagined him so very clearly, right there in the grass, wanting him to be real, pretending I was in a movie, where things like this actually happen.
My child like imagination helped me leave the cemetery with a smile on my face and grace for the days ahead. My child like behavior that day reminded me that listening to your parents is a good thing. I listened to my mom, and our day, despite the gaping loss, was one of dignity and beauty. And I listened to my father too, He always told me, life is for the living. I listened. I lived on that day and continue to live my life and will do so, every day I’m blessed to be alive.
Have you lost a parent? How are you handling it? Do you ever feel like you’d like to be a little kid again, hoping someone else can come and take care of you?
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