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 Judaism’s 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 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 version of “Slumdog Millionaire,” where the movie’s protagonist relives his life through the trivia questions he’s asked on a game show.
My father 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.
Even though my father’s taxes have been completed and his financial records will have no new entries, the story of his life doesn’t end with my 2018 bookkeeping. I credit the framework of aveilut for helping me craft a perspective that keeps the happy and healthy times at the forefront even when I face reminders of his last months of illness.
Nearly a year after his passing I can readily think about the years he spent every Shabbat in my home or how much he loved to hide the afikomen from his grandchildren. If that weren’t enough, I can also look at the checks in the register that he wrote to every charity that sent him an envelope, some dated just a few days before everything went sideways. May his memory be a blessing.
Jonathan Fox, who lives in West Orange, N.J., is the founder and managing director of Alliance Legal Search.