Exit Ramp: The house of life

Exit Ramp: The house of life

Though it broke my heart, I had to stop visiting my grandfather. His body was the crumpled shell of the man I adored, his eyes somewhere far away. Knowing he would no longer recognize me, my grandmother implored me not to come with her to see him in the nursing home, to cling to my memories of him instead. So I stayed away in order to honor them both.

It meant that I already felt his absence long before he passed away decades ago, just days before Rosh HaShanah. Yet I came to terms with the loss only the following year, when I arrived at the cemetery as his first yahrtzeit approached. There were plenty of other visitors that morning in late Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar. The season of atonement is a popular time to visit loved ones who have left for the World to Come, to let them shape the perspective we have on our own mortality. It’s also a good opportunity, especially in the approach to Yom Kippur, to have them put in a good word for us with the heavenly court — for blessing and long life and whatever else it is we pray for. 

But what surprised me that Elul as I stood in front of my grandfather’s grave, and then later, when my grandmother joined him, is how comforting the custom is. There’s solace in the physical proximity, in knowing exactly where to locate those who have departed before us. It offers a sense of purpose, too. How else will they know they have not been forgotten if we don’t occasionally stop by?   

I knew my husband and I were kindred spirits when he brought me to a cemetery for one of our earliest dates. He introduced me to his grandparents and told me it was among the cemetery’s striking arcades and cupolas and silence that he came to clear his head in the hours before a medical school exam. He found inner calm there, not because it was a place of loss, but because it was filled with so many lessons about life, a sentiment that resonated with me. 

From the time our boys were ready, we took them with us each Elul. We wanted to snatch the fear out of it, to make the custom feel natural to them. They would search for the largest stones to place on the graves, trying to connect with their namesakes and wrap their heads around something they were just beginning to understand. We would have them tell my grandfather, a former vaudevillian, a corny joke and share something to give my grandmother nachas. And when we had the opportunity to travel to Zagreb, we would encourage them to say a few phrases in Croatian to impress my late mother-in-law, z”l.

They would ask me, “How do you know they can hear me?” I told them I believed it in my heart. I still do.

A few months ago, we paid a spontaneous visit to my grandparents. We found our way to their graves easily, the route along the cemetery’s winding alleys by now familiar. We picked up a few stones to leave as a remembrance. We prayed. I gave my grandmother a family update and shared a funny story with my grandfather. 

We then headed toward the exit, stopping to perform the ritual hand washing that caps a cemetery visit in accordance with Jewish custom. At first, we couldn’t open the faucet. But when we threw more force into it, the water burst out so powerfully it drenched us, a comic gag that I am sure was my grandfather’s doing. 

“He answered us!  He heard my joke!” I told my husband through peals of laughter. He nodded, certain I was right.

God now sits in His celestial chamber, the Book of Life open on the table before Him as He plans the year ahead. Meanwhile, we will find time in the coming days to pay our respects at the cemetery, often called the Beit Chayim, the House of Life, a euphemism meant both to comfort us and honor those we’ve loved and lost.  

As we drive home, I will glimpse the last of the graves in the rearview mirror, and I will hold close the truth that our own little worlds are reduced in the end to a few words etched in stone. I’ll think, too, about how they pulse with the memory of a life, and that it is up to us to instill meaning between the lines.

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