My father passed away last April and I’m coming up on his first yahrtzeit, the anniversary of the death. The Jewish mourning process, aveilut in Hebrew, is intended to make one confront the reality of loss and then gradually move back into regular life. Marking the first yahrtzeit represents the end of Judaism’s permission to stay lost in mourning, and every yahrtzeit thereafter is its way of making sure you never lose your connection with the deceased. I have always viewed this as a psychologically healthful and helpful approach, and having done it for both my parents, I definitely feel the benefits.
Time passes and the process of building perspective on my father’s death has been deeply therapeutic. As I wind down my year of mourning, I’ve been reflecting on what aveilut has offered me. Often this year I found myself reaching for the phone to tell him a new (inappropriate) joke or share something about my kids. Man, as a Yiddish speaker and lover of all things Israel and Jewish, he would have really loved the Netflix show “Shtisel.” I still really miss him.
As the executor of his estate I’ve also been preparing his final tax returns, and going through the financial records from the months immediately preceding his death has brought me right back, as if no time has passed. The timeline of my dad’s last days is reconstructed when I review his checkbook registers and credit card statements. It’s sort of like my own “Slumdog Millionaire,” where the movie’s protagonist relives his life through the trivia questions he’s asked on a game show.
My dad had been recovering rather nicely from successful brain surgery in the summer of 2017, but he suffered a serious and sudden neurological setback right before New Year’s Day. For four months my family chased our tail, never able to get out in front of his declining health and altered mental status.
Check no. 102: Payment for TV services at the first rehabilitation facility. It was early January and I had set the television in his room to his favorite channel, Fox News, when he recognized Rahm Emanuel and managed to say emphatically “that bum.” This was my sign that he was still him, and I would rely on it when I realized that he had stopped saying his reflexive “baruch Hashem,” praise God, normally uttered throughout the day.
Multiple checks and credit card charges: He bounced between different hospitals and rehabilitation centers so there were various out-of-pocket expenses and payments for medical transport. I lost count of how many times he went back and forth among facilities, but I can still recall the smell of each one.
Four checks to Aronsoncare: When we needed medical guidance we enlisted the help of this private health-care service and consulting company. Evelyn, our nurse and case manager, was our angel, our knight in shining armor, our well of unending comfort, and a tormentor of doctors — she demanded their attention and insisted that they run tests they said weren’t necessary, and Evelyn was always right. When my father started to crash, she took command of the situation from the attending hospital personnel and saved my dad’s life not once, but twice. We ran every medical decision through her.
We were working with Evelyn to return my dad home, but it wasn’t to be. The second to last check, no. 419, was for the funeral home, and the last one, no. 420, was for the cemetery.
While the financial records have been completed, the story of my father’s life doesn’t end there. We can always look to the checks preceding those in the medical timeline which he wrote to every charity which sent him an envelope, several dated a few days before everything went sideways.
My perspective now includes memories only of the happy, healthy, proud times such as years of Shabbats in my home and Passover seders at his. I attribute this in large part to the experience of aveilut. The framework of mourning, which does not allow denial or avoidance, has enabled me to make peace with my new normal and given me the fortitude to relive those last, difficult months. The confluence of his first yahrtzeit with tax season has not been as traumatic as it could have been without good preparation, and I am grateful for the rituals, my family, and friends who are family, for making this so. May his memory be a blessing.
Jonathan Fox lives in West Orange and is the founder and managing director of Alliance Legal Search.