Most of us have seasonal associations. That time you fell in love during the height of summer, had a memorable road trip with your friends in the spring, some terrible breakup in a cold rain, one very special Pesach; we carry these things in our bodies throughout our lives, and they echo when they’re triggered.
From the moment there’s a nip in the air until it begins to warm, I walk around with a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. It ebbs and flows throughout the winter, but stubbornly remains. I was never able to consciously name this feeling until now, but suddenly I know. Its name is grief.
My father was my hero. That may seem trite, but for me, it’s simply true. As a child, it felt like he was the only person who really understood my soul. He was my anchor, the thing that tethered me to the world and made me feel like I belonged here. He took me seriously as an intellect, a rare gift from an adult. Most fathers just play games with their kids, but mine knew that what I needed was to have the universe explained to me, and someone to hold my hand through the things that make no sense.
What I needed was to read through his legal briefs and understand the words and processes that are normally left opaque to children. I needed to know what an agunah was and why they existed. I needed to know how our religion could possibly be the only truth in a subjective world. Every Friday night, we would lie in bed and discuss these things, and I would read to him until I could no longer stay awake. These times we spent together are what molded me into who I am.
During the winter when I was eleven years old, my father died suddenly, and I became untethered. This time of year is a dichotomous trigger for me: the best and the worst. That last winter, I made it to the school spelling bee, but I was terrified to go on stage. I was chubby and self conscious and embarrassed.
The morning of the bee, my father drove me to school instead of making me take the bus, and proceeded to bribe me out of stage fright. He gave me a beautiful pair of earrings. These little extra acts of attention made me feel embraced, and I knew I owed it to him to get on stage and try. I was knocked out after a few rounds by diphtheria, a word whose spelling is now etched in my brain. I still cherish those earrings, even though one is broken. These things- the simple declarations of love- are the stuff of childhood.
These final memories are what sustain me.
Memories of Chanukah in particular carry a vast store of spiritual and emotional wealth. They are some of my most nourishing memories of family togetherness, presents, warmth and safety. It is my favorite time of year. It is also the last holiday we shared when anything was normal, before life imploded.
I still try to love it, and sometimes I even succeed, but this year it crystallized for me that I have been miserable in some fashion every Chanukah of my adult life. Suddenly I realized, maybe it’s not normal to choke back tears during Maoz Tzur and then cry in the shower? Maybe it’s weird that I am viscerally upset every time my husband sings the song at a different pace than I’m used to? Why do I care so much that the family minhag is now to light one set of candles for the whole family, instead of each kid getting their own? Maybe it shouldn’t give me a stomach ache to think about lighting a chanukiyah? Because this all highlights that it’s different. I am reminded that I haven’t fixed Chanukah.
By all observable measures, I am an orphan success story. I am blessed with a wonderful spouse and incredibly happy children. A part of me must have thought that getting married and being a mother would make Chanukah feel good again, by creating a complete family unit, as things should be. I would restore all the warmth and joy by doing it over for my kids, and if I were very lucky this time around, with two living parents for their entire childhood.
But I realize now that grief can’t be fixed by adding more happy things. If anything, as my life expands in beautiful ways, the void only grows in scope. With every new addition to our family, there is one more thing my father is absent for. Happy times are tempered by a niggling ongoing process of constant loss. I have a husband he will never know, and my husband will never know him. There are twenty-seven grandchildren for whom he will only exist in apocryphal stories. He will never be real for them the way he is real for me.
Because of this, a part of me will always remain unreachable, unknowable. That in itself is something to grieve for.
Maybe I’m waxing philosophical because this year is a big, round number. I assumed that by the time I reached my father’s twentieth yorhtzeit, I’d be over it. I’m an adult. I’ve lived an entire life without him; I have made it for such a long time. Shouldn’t we be done with this by now? Shouldn’t I be fine? Where’s my twenty year recovery chip? I had a misconception- one I think is very common- that loss is just extreme sadness. Sadness is something a person can overcome and fix. But grief is different; there is no conventional recovery.
Profound grief is a chronic condition you manage, not one you can cure. Grief, especially during childhood, feels more like a vital organ is wrenched from your core when you’re still in development. The rest of you grows up, malformed, around the hole. You adapt and change and live and even exult in joy around it, while it remains, gaping.