Recently my family gathered for our annual reunion. In the past, we’ve met in different cities, coming together to reconnect, enjoy each other and eat lots of food. The last several years, in an attempt to make the journey easier on my parents, we picked a location closer to where they live. This year we met in Los Angeles, at my parent’s house…and it was our first reunion without my Dad.
Having already put the weekend aside for our reunion, we decided it would be a good time to have my Dad’s Celebration of Life. I began planning the event several months ago. When we put the word out, we anticipated only a few would be able to attend. In the end, our celebration included almost one hundred people- some from as far away as Italy, Canada and all over the US- New York, Miami and of course, California.
Doctors, statisticians, former medical students who’d studied under my Dad, caregivers, gardeners, cleaners, accountants and family, all coming together to celebrate my Dad.
In our conversations before he passed, Dad made it clear that he didn’t care what we did to honor him after he was gone. He’d shrug his shoulders and, in his most Jewish way say, “What do I care? I’ll be dead.” But when he was pressed, he shared that he’d like to have the Mourner’s Kaddish read by one of his children. And with those broad parameters, I did my best to create an event that would honor him and all of his amazing achievements.
I thought it would be cool to show images of Dad, so I created a slideshow of over fifteen hundred pictures that spanned his lifetime. After collecting the images, I spent many hours, tediously examining and cropping each and every photo. And because I knew I’d be unable to speak at the actual event without decomposing into a puddle of mush, I spent just as many hours creating a video that celebrated my relationship with Dad.
During that process, I noticed something really interesting happening. Memories popped up, both good and bad, that offered perspective, healing, and opportunities for forgiveness. Looking at the pictures and videos that spanned our fifty-six year relationship, I began to see my Dad differently. For the first time, my Dad seemed human.
Ok, it’s not like I didn’t know my Dad was human. I mean, I was never a Daddy’s girl and I didn’t see him as some superhero or put him on a pedestal. However, I did have a deep respect for him (he demanded that) and an awareness that he was a leader in his field and was highly respected by others. But as I examined his images throughout the years, listened to him speak in old videos and recalled so many of our shared experiences, he emerged somehow more like a…normal man. I became aware of his speech patterns: sometimes quietly intense, and other times with a louder, impassioned energy, but always choosing his words carefully in order to ensure he was being clear. I noticed his vulnerability, his tenderness, and of course, that look he would give when we opposed him. (He was a mighty intimidating man who, on several occasions, brought his medical students to tears- not out of meanness, but because he challenged them to be their best.)
With the gift of time and space, I was able to process all these feelings as they bubbled to the surface. And by the time the event arrived, I was moving through my mourning process with grace.
The day of his celebration was so full! Having served as a Doctor in the Navy, part of our celebration included a military service. So before all our guests arrived, our family gathered outside, under the gazebo that Dad had built, to witness the poignant service. Feeling the sun shining on my face and the light breeze brushing against my skin, I listened to “Taps” being played on the bugle and imagined how pleased this would have made my Dad.
Soon after, our guests began to arrive. It was amazing to see faces I hadn’t seen since I was a child. Doctors, whose presence immediately took me back to when I was expected to behave ‘properly,’ offering a firm handshake, standing up straight and speaking loudly, clearly and with respect. Only now, I was able to be more myself, greeting these men and women who’d been so influenced by my Dad with a warm embrace and gentle conversation. We visited with extended family I’d not seen in ages, old friends from my youth who’d come to remember Dad, and countless others who all came to offer their love and support and to celebrate his life.
Our guests mingled under the large tent, the slideshow of all my Dad’s images running in the background. It was such an amazing convergence of so many pieces of my life and Dad was everywhere.
My older sister honored Dad by reading the Mourner’s Kaddish (with the help of one of the neighbors, who jumped in to assist with the Hebrew!) Then guests began to share their memories. Many spoke about how Dad influenced their lives in the field of medicine. I was surprised at the vulnerability these doctors showed as they let their guard down, allowing those stoic ‘doctor’ facades to drop so they could share from their hearts. Some guests shared funny stories, family offered wonderful memories, and I showed my video dedication. Then we enjoyed a delicious meal, topped off with dessert from Ben & Jerry’s, Dad’s favorite ice cream. Daddy would’ve been both humbled and thrilled by the whole event.
I’m unsure what I expected, but there just wasn’t much sadness. Mom (understandably) cried a lot, but the overall feeling of the event was joy. My siblings and I stayed close to each other, ready to jump in and offer support if needed. Our kids were respectful and interested in interacting with our guests. And everyone seemed to have a great time reminiscing and telling Dad stories. It was a wonderful event.
Perhaps it’s denial, or maybe it’s just where I am in my mourning process, but I am very much at peace with Dad’s passing these days. I think about how his feet shuffled so much towards the end and how he couldn’t communicate because the Parkinson’s was affecting his ability to speak. I think about how he spent time building the train set, mostly to appease Mom because it kept him out of the garage, where she worried he’d hurt himself doing what he’d rather be doing - wood working. And then I think about all of those pictures- all of those images of Dad through the years. when he was healthy and strong, and I am grateful that he no longer has to deal with the pain and limitations his age and disease brought. And I’m good.
We’re all energy anyway. We’re here one day in this physical form, residing in these amazing bodies for just a blip of time. And then our lessons are learned, our bodies are done, and it’s time for our souls to return to the Source. Spirit. God. Energy. Star Trek. Whatever it is you believe. It’s all energy.
This human experience, in all its glory, challenge, and wonder, is one that allows me the privilege of exploring all of these feelings. I imagine there will still be moments when I’m sad and I miss holding his hand or getting a hug. But Dad’s all around me. Like when I was throwing the ball to our younger son and a pitch got away from me and a sound involuntarily came out of me- the same grunting sound Dad used to make. He was right there. Energy. He resides in the air I breathe, the beauty I admire, and the thoughts he so carefully planted in me through all those years. And I’m just filled with gratitude.
Because in the end, all that’s left is love.