The cavernous void after losing a loved one

I flew out to be with my dad in early August after his wife of 36 years suffered a debilitating stroke. Two weeks later he died.

 My father was the towering figure in my life (photo credit: Courtesy)
My father was the towering figure in my life
(photo credit: Courtesy)

When I look into the mirror, I see an old man,” my father said when I visited him in the San Francisco Bay Area early last month, the first time I had seen him since the COVID pandemic.

“Well,” I chuckled, “you are 90.”

But my dad didn’t see himself as an old man.

He may have had the hearing of a 90-year-old man, the gait of a 90-year-old man, and at times the short-term memory of a 90-year-old man, but he neither felt nor seemed old.

His secret was twofold. First, he looked with an almost childlike wonder at the world, both natural and technological, that continued into his 10th decade. He could still marvel at the patterns on a sunflower, just as he remained amazed at how all human knowledge ended up on Google. 

And, second, he had a tremendous sense of fun and humor.

I flew out to be with my dad in early August after his wife of 36 years suffered a debilitating stroke. My sister and I were taking turns being with him while figuring out the next steps.

Two weeks later he died.

He died of a combination of medical complications following a broken hip he suffered five months earlier, and, I’m convinced, a broken heart following his wife’s stroke. He lost my mother 37 years ago, and to go through that all again was just too much for him to bear. My dad was not built to live alone.

MY FATHER was the towering figure in my life. He loved his family deeply and his people and Israel intensely. He was an award-winning teacher who liberally quoted Shakespeare and John Keats, loved biographies, and was fiercely proud to be an American. He regularly listened to Willie Nelson, Pavarotti and marching band music, the latter because it reminded him of his glory days in the US Air force during the Korean War.

No, he didn’t fly F-86 Sabre jets, but rather was a clerk typist stationed in California. When the enemy came, my father would frequently quip, using his all-time best line, he backspaced. To his dying day he wore a US veteran baseball cap, and loved talking to strangers who would stop him on the street and thank him for his service.

For the last number of years, we spoke on the phone six days a week for at least 20 minutes, compensating for living so far apart. We saw each other about three times a year before corona upended everything. We made it a point to ensure that my move to Israel nearly four decades ago would not tear us apart. The wonders of technology made sure that it didn’t have to.

I knew my father better than I knew anyone else alive. I could tell how he was doing by how he answered the phone, could read his thoughts, anticipate his reactions. On one hand, this was a testament to our closeness; on the other it created problems – I would get annoyed sometimes not at the things he said, but just at what I knew he was thinking.

One of the most frequently asked questions at my dad’s shiva was his age. I felt uncomfortable saying 90, because I knew the other person was probably thinking, “Well, he lived a good long life.” Which is true and a tremendous blessing. My father lived a good, full, long life, with his mental faculties intact until the very end, and without any major medical issues throughout.

But none of that mitigates the scope of the loss, even at the age of 90. If anything, it compounds it. That he lived so long means that he was a huge presence in my life for so long, meaning that when that presence was taken away, a massive void was created.

THAT VOID is already manifest in many different ways.

On the very day of his funeral, my daughter gave birth to her first child. My father was not there for me to share the news, email a picture, or discuss the circle-of-life irony that just as he died, another of his great-grandchildren was born.

I couldn’t joke with him about her name, Tamar. I couldn’t quip that my daughter should have given her a middle name that starts with O, so that her name would be Tamar O, pronounced tomorrow, and that when a sibling is born someday, her parents could call it Yesterday. Only my father would appreciate a line like that.

The void is felt here as well: after 30-plus years of writing columns, this is the first time I won’t be able to send it to him. As someone who writes for a living, I have learned to live with criticism, to take it in stride. Except for my dad’s.

When I wrote a column that my father liked, his approval would send me over the moon, I’d feel like a little kid who just aced an exam.

But when he diplomatically would not respond to a column I emailed him, or – even worse – when he criticized it, I would get defensive and insulted. It hurt because a child constantly wants his parents’ approval, and also because most of the time – my father spent the majority of his 30-year teaching career as a high school English teacher – he knew of what he spoke. 

I’m 61 years old, why do I care so much about what he thinks, I chastised myself recently when he did not respond as I would have liked. Why should I care?

But I did care. Deeply. His was the opinion that always mattered to me the most.

And now, for the first time, I’m writing a column without worrying whether my dad will like it or not. Now, for the first time, I’m writing a column without wondering whether my father will approve or disapprove. But the experience is in no way liberating. What it is, on the contrary, is just painful and intensely sad. 