On the train back from Baltimore the other day, I decided to start editing a bunch of old family photos. I clicked on the tiny icons, not knowing what each picture was until I opened it. There was my grandmother’s cousin George, who just died this summer at age 90, in his Navy uniform from World War II. There was my mother’s Uncle Andy in what looks like a World War I cavalry uniform, complete with riding crop. There were Mom, my siblings, and me on the beach, circa 1967.
And then, unexpectedly, a much more recent shot: Mom and Dad, gray-haired, standing with Mom’s cousin Peggy, Peggy’s husband, and Mom’s sister. The three women all have their heads tilted in laughter. The men are looking at the camera, also laughing.
I was jolted by this image of my father—alive and happy, his hands on my mother’s shoulders, enjoying himself. Looking not too different from the last time I saw him. My eyes filled with tears. Sometimes the grief still comes without warning, the way his death did three years ago.
Arriving home a few hours later, I found a heartwarming Facebook message from someone who is part of my extended family but whom I’ve met only once or twice, decades ago. She had begun to read this blog, she wrote, and she could see that it’s “a way for you to process your grief since the death of your wonderful, marvelous, sweet father.” Again, tears came to my eyes.
When I saw my therapist that evening, I told her about stumbling upon the picture of Dad. “It made me think of that Jackson Browne song,” I told her—“the one that’s supposed to be about finding a photograph of his wife who died. ‘I took your childish laughter by surprise.’”
She nodded. “‘Fountain of Sorrow,’” she replied.
In synagogue yesterday, a friend I haven’t talked with in a while said that she’s been enjoying my writing. “You miss your father,” she said. “It took 10 years for me to get over my father’s death. Well, I’m not really over it. But for 10 years, it was every day.”
A few minutes later, she was wiping away tears and blowing her nose. “I guess more than 10 years,” she said.
At the beginning of this month I observed my father’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death. Two years ago, on the Shabbat (Sabbath) before his first yahrzeit, I gave a devar Torah, a sermon, in Dad’s memory. This year, I thought maybe I would write something here, but I didn’t. Now, after three reminders in as many days, I guess it is time.
Dad died on a Friday night, and for a long time I couldn’t get through Friday night services without thinking of him and crying. Because I don’t use the phone on the Sabbath, I didn’t learn of his death until that Saturday night. I celebrated the entire Shabbat as usual, not suspecting anything was wrong. It was only a few weeks ago that I realized that he died on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation, a special day on the Jewish calendar. Some consolation.
I no longer think about Dad every day. But the grief is never far away. And although I’m not the world’s biggest Jackson Browne fan, that song has been in my head for the last few days. I’m quoting here from memory. To paraphrase a different ’70s pop tune: “I cried when I thought of this song; sue me if I quote it wrong.”
Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you.
There were one or two I know you would have liked a little more,
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true.
You were looking back to see who was behind you
When I took your childish laughter by surprise.
And in the moment that my camera happened to find you
There was just a touch of sadness in your eyes.
Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light.
You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight.
You’ve had to hide sometimes, but now it’s all right.
And it’s good to see your smiling face tonight.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.