On a hot and humid July afternoon, two months and one day shy of a year, we gathered to unveil my father’s gravestone. We chose the date for this ritual because all five grandchildren would be in town. The next day we would leave for our annual family vacation.
Rabbi Matt, my step-son, officiated. (Rabbi Rachel would have participated too had she not been with her son at a Rubik’s Cube competition.) All of us were invited to speak, but it turned out only my son Charlie and I chose to. Here is what I shared:
I start with a quote by Mark Epstein, psychotherapist and Buddhist. “Grief and love are connected. If we push the mourning, the grief, the sadness away, we are also pushing the love away.”
I have been grieving and loving a lot in the last nineteen months. Prior to your diagnosis, I would have the occasional thought about what my life would be like after your death and almost always I would experience a terror so great it would take my breath away. How could I live without you present in my life? How could any of us bear the loss? How would our family move forward, how would we celebrate holidays? Mark life events? Who would send emails with articles attached?
After your diagnosis, the ground beneath me began to shift. Loose stones, gravel, unevenness, solidified. I stepped into a new space. You made room for me to comfort you, to be a steady presence for you, to teach you. We held hands a lot.
In the ten months since you died so much has happened. Emma started and finished her second year of college. She got accepted into a study abroad program. She got an internship at the Levin Center, something that would have brought tears to your eyes. Sophie got her Master’s degree and a rock solid job. Rebecca graduated from Macalester and began work at Family Tree. Caleb applied to and was accepted at three universities and will attend grad school in Chicago. Charlie and Stephanie both received fellowships to study in Germany and they got engaged.
It is breathtaking the speed at which life continues to unfold. This is exactly what you had hoped would happen. That you would plant the seeds for this family to grow from. It has never been clearer to me how heartbreakingly beautiful it is to be human. I have never felt closer nor more appreciative of my family.
It is so painful that you are not physically here. You feel present to me all the time. Not just in how we are all constantly invoking you — Zeydisms — telling stories, maybe doing an imitation, sending an article around with a note… Zeyd would have sent this. But also in how we all show up in the world.
I needn’t have worried about how we would carry on. In the ten months since your death, we have celebrated Thanksgiving, Mom has gone to Florida, we have marked your birthday, we held a beautiful Seder, and tomorrow we will begin our first Glen Arbor week without you. We are living life. I believe that, second only to being here with us, this is what you would have wanted more than anything else.
I want to say something about the stone. About Mom’s care, attention and intention to make it just right. Yes, this occasionally veered off into a tiny bit of compulsion. (I think the guy from the monument store has her on his list now.)
But ultimately this marker will be what my descendants — my kids’ grandkids — will see. What they will be curious about.
“Who is this Dexter Boy?” they will ask. What does this mean? And they will find your book on their Bubby and Zeyde’s shelf and they will read it and they will learn about their great, great, great grandfather and about how he was the bridge between the Old World and the New, about how he poured his heart and soul and mind into our family, about how he taught us and led us. This stone will be the portal … into history, into identity, into the future.
We love you, Dad.