Out There: The faraway passing of a close relative

Deaths in the family are tough to integrate: they throw things off kilter, they change patterns, they alter things, they upset the applecart.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
‘How’s Ima?” one of my children asked two weeks ago, after my wife returned from sitting shiva for her father in Chicago.
“Sad,” I replied, honestly.
“How long do you think it will last?” my son replied.
“It’ll take what it takes,” I said, having a pretty good hunch of where he was going with this conversation.
Deaths in the family are tough to integrate: they throw things off kilter, they change patterns, they alter things, they upset the applecart.
My son understood full well that his mother was going to be sad at the death of her father. That he was nearly 86 years old when he passed away in a hospice; that he was afflicted with a debilitating case of Alzheimer’s; that he lived thousands of miles away – none of that mattered.
When a parent dies, a void emerges. Regardless of the age, or the cause, or the distance removed – physically or otherwise – a void emerges. My son understood that intellectually. But he wanted his mother back just the way she was before her father died – cheerful, smiley, optimistic, energetic. He wanted things to go back to normal.
He wanted her to “snap out of it,” something – obviously – that doesn’t just happen; something that takes time. Which is the psychological and emotional brilliance of the Jewish mourning laws – they mandate taking time. First there is the seven-day shiva period, then the 30-day period from the death, then 11 months of kaddish.
All that sends a signal that going back to life as normal, getting back to life as usual, is a gradual process; there is no “snap back” clause. Not everything has a “snap back” clause. The Jewish laws of mourning mandate that the mourners be patient with themselves – which is neither a given nor necessarily an easy thing to do.
HE WAS a good man, my father-in-law; upbeat, optimistic, happy. Even through the haze of Alzheimer’s, he retained a positive attitude.
The stories he repeated over and over again under the influence of Alzheimer’s were mostly positive ones: about the American jazz scene; or taking part in protests to integrate segregated institutions in Chicago; or going to Poland in 1936(!) for a vacation to see relatives – relatives who later were all killed in the Holocaust – and playing with the local kids there who yelled “Capone, Capone,” whenever he said he was from Chicago, a reference to the famous gangster from that city.
My American-born father-in-law was very Jewish, yet neither religious nor a Zionist. He was a Yiddishist. He loved the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture, and could talk at length about the Yiddish theater of his youth – which actors came through Chicago, and which plays they performed. He joked about the different Yiddish accents and pronunciations.
He, like so many other Jews of his generation, was liberal through and through and never quite “got” why his daughter would want to leave family and the United States, which was such a great country that gave the Jews so much, to move to Israel. He never “got” it, but he also never actively opposed it, unlike some others in the family. And for that, both my wife and I were extremely appreciative.
HE LIKED me at first, when his daughter brought me home from college one cold November Thursday for Thanksgiving dinner and introduced me as a “friend.”
A “friend” who was going to move to Israel was okay, but a “boyfriend” who was going to move to Israel could be much more threatening to parents who wanted their children to live close by.
But, being a decent man, he didn’t hold it against me. I grew on him, as did the idea of his having family living in Israel.
Until the onset of Alzheimer’s almost a decade ago, my father-in-law would visit about once a year. He’d show up at one of the kids’ preschools sporting a Bukharan kippa, or at one of our bar mitzvas and dance on the women’s side with his daughter and her friends, or take a tour of the Golan with his daughter.
And my wife, grateful for the visits, soaked it all up.
Even after visiting us in our “habitat,” he still never quite understood why we wanted to give up the good life in America – where it was so easy to live a full Jewish life and be physically close to family – to struggle here alone.
But, beneath it all, he was proud that he – who had much of his extended family wiped out in the Holocaust – had Israeli-born, Hebrew-speaking grandchildren.
I think this also gave him a certain sense of victory.
THOSE GRANDCHILDREN, my kids, knew their grandfather because, until he fell ill, he made an effort to visit here, and because we made an effort – when they were small – to send them there for vacations, to send them alone on airplanes while they were not yet even teenagers as “unaccompanied minors.”
We wanted them to develop a relationship, despite the distance. Yet the amount of time they spent together was limited. When he died, one of my children noted that he didn’t feel the way he thought he should feel. But there were no right or wrong feelings at a time like this, I counseled. You feel what you feel; nobody’s grading.
Aliya today is not what it was a half-century ago, when those who moved here really cut themselves off from those left behind. Skype, cheap calling plans, phones plugged into computers, discount air fares have all changed that equation.
My kids had more of a relationship with their grandfather than if we had moved here 50 years ago, but not the same type of relationship they would have enjoyed had they lived closer; not the same type of relationship they would have merited had he regularly baby-sat for them, taken them to baseball games, treated them regularly to ice cream cones.
He didn't get that, and they didn't get it either – and no matter how you wrap it up, that's a loss. We knew about that loss, that sacrifice, when we moved here three decades ago with eyes wide open, and we don't regret the move because of it. But that doesn't make it any less of a loss, or make the pangs of longing and occasional guilt any less intense for what might have been had we all lived closer together.
A collection of the writer’s ‘Out There’ columns,
French Fries in Pita, is available at www.herbkeinon.com and www.amazon.com