As Thanksgiving approaches this year, I’m feeling the familiar cyclical angst that signals that it’s that time of year when I almost lost my dad, but this year, there’s no “almost.”
He is gone.
It all began two weeks before Thanksgiving during my first semester of law school, and for 29 years I’ve suffered a sort of seasonal PTSD in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. The thought of losing him was so overwhelming, that sometimes it was hard to practice the obligatory holiday counting of the blessings, but as the years progressed, the gift of his presence could not be overlooked. He had health issues for my entire adult life, and yet he tenaciously hung on for all of us. How could I not be grateful?
“Your father had a heart attack a few minutes before he was due to lecture. He’s in Chicago at Northwestern.” My mom could barely get the words out.
Within hours of my mother’s phone call, my sister and I were en route to Chicago from New York, while my mother and brother flew in from Texas. We walked into his room unsure of what to expect, but he was laughing and holding court with the nurses and doctors. It’s not easy for patients, their families, and medical staff to spend holidays in a hospital. It was particularly difficult for my dad, who was a doctor and not used to managing things from that end of the bed. The hospital cafeteria turkey was rubbery and slathered in lumpy brown gravy, and the mashed potatoes runny and powdered, but I’d never been more grateful in my entire life, and that year, Thanksgiving indelibly ingrained the meaning of gratitude and priorities on my heart.
We had 29 more years of firsts and lasts after his heart attack, but the fear of losing him never diminished. We danced at my wedding to the lullaby he sang to me each night throughout my childhood. He got to hold my son during his Bris and lived long enough to know that he was accepted to law school. He was present for the birth of all six of his beloved grandchildren. He was the only one to whom I revealed my babies’ genders, living in fear that he wouldn’t survive until the next milestone. He intuitively knew my daughter’s heart more than anyone in the world, reassuring me that her fierce, determined sense of justice and guts to stand up for what’s right are not only nothing to worry about, but something to celebrate. But when he died last spring on the morning of her high school graduation, it felt as though my gratitude died with him. Why of all days did he have to leave us that morning?
Suddenly all those milestones were not enough, and I desperately wanted him around for at least a hundred more. After his “holiday surgery,” my dad designated Thanksgiving as his new birthday. He felt reborn after surviving his quintuple bypass, but at the same time resented all the instructions and directives regarding not eating cholesterol-laden fried foods and ice cream in outrageous quantities (because this was his birthday, after all, and what was a celebration without his favorite foods?). I guess old habits die hard, even after experiencing a rebirth.
I thought the worst of it was in the hospital when he was unconscious and no longer with us, his breathing labored, but his body warm as if he were just napping in front of the TV. I mistakenly thought that I couldn’t cry harder and couldn’t hurt worse. His funeral took place in Israel on a scorching hot day and I left the cemetery sticky and completely drenched in sweat, snot and other people’s fluids trickling down my neck. I didn’t know that such pain was possible – it was as though my insides had oozed out graveside. I remember thinking that it would only get easier from here, but “easier” is relative. I may no longer be in mind-numbing, indescribable physical pain, but I walk around the massive abyss he left behind each and every day, treading lightly so that I don’t fall over the edge.
The song he sang to me every night in Hebrew depicts memories carried through the years by ocean waves, treetops bowing heavy with rustling leaves and the fleeting golds of autumn. The warm, safe and soothing space he created each night before I closed my eyes, extended beyond lullabies to his implicit promise: I will always be there.
This is our first Thanksgiving without him and while I cannot fathom sitting at that table without him at the helm, I feel his presence viscerally and absolutely. Although he was pragmatic and realistic, his idealism was contagious. “It will all be okay,” he used to tell us, and for the first time in a long time, I’m feeling he was right. Maybe it will be okay.
Instead of counting all the years he was here and all the years I will miss without him here, I am grateful that of all the fathers in the universe, he was mine. The alternative is unthinkable, and for that, I am thankful.
This post is republished on Medium.
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