In recent days a couple friends have texted me that they are thinking of my father and hope I am doing alright. My father passed away 12 years ago today, in the Jewish calendar. It meant a lot to receive these texts after so much time has gone by; I was surprised and humbled when receiving these well wishes.
The truth is I shouldn’t really be surprised. After all, my father died immediately after celebrating a significant Jewish holiday, and so those who knew me then, and especially my friends who were in college with me when it happened, would surely recall it.
And so, every Simchat Torah, memories of THAT Simchat Torah rush into my consciousness…
The day before Simchat Torah is called Shemini Atzeret and on this day—among others—we recite the Yizkor memorial prayer for those who have departed. That year one of the college rabbis suggested that even those without a family member for whom to recite Yizkor should stay in the sanctuary as a sign of support for those who had to recite it—most likely for a parent.
Being the obedient and do-gooder type that I am, I remained in shul for the Yizkor prayer. I remember feeling a bit wary and superstitious—I didn’t like the feeling of staying—but I wanted to show camaraderie as the rabbi recommended.
A day and a half later—the night after Simchat Torah—my mom called with news that my father was in the Neuro-ICU after a sudden brain injury. No one else had any tragedy strike that day, so it is unlikely that my having stayed for Yizkor led to this horrific outcome, but nevertheless the Yizkor prayer on Shemini Atzeret kicks off my memories of the week my father died.
Other powerful memories associated with my father’s passing are that it came a couple weeks after my having broken up with my college boyfriend of one and a half years; as well as, that it happened in the middle of midterms. I made sure to make up all midterms and keep up with all my college assignments while this all went down. I had just petitioned my college to graduate one full year early and I wasn’t about to back track on my plan to start nutrition graduate school the following year. After all, my dad was my biggest inspiration for my wanting to become a dietitian/nutritionist and just 3 weeks before he passed away he had edited the petition that I submitted to my college advisor to graduate in 3 years, so I had no plans of changing that.
So the night after Simchat Torah I hopped on a plane at 4 am with my uncle, who thankfully lived near my college, and joined my mother and brother to be with my father in the Neuro-ICU. He passed away 5 days later.
Needless to say, Simchat Torah lost much of its luster after that year. My father’s last experience on this earth was joyously dancing on Simchat Torah with my mom and brother at my brother’s college, and while I was grateful for that poignant happiness he experienced in his final days, I simply couldn’t associate much joy with this holiday going forward.
That is, until this recent Simchat Torah, when I observed (or more accurately, kvelled) as my husband danced with my 10-month-old daughter, gently bobbing her up and down in his arms as she excitedly waved the Simchat Torah flag. (She loves shaking ALL toys, I don’t know how I didn’t anticipate her elation with the flag…) Man, it was such a joy to watch!
Until this year my favorite Simchat Torah was the one five or so years ago when I had a sprained ankle and flew down to Miami to relax by the beach. I loved the beach, the pensive nature of that trip, and the self-care I had given myself.
There is a time for quiet healing and there is a time for stepping back into celebration and hope. Please G-d that the joy only builds from here.