My Uncle David died suddenly.
I wasn’t bedside, but was told of his remarkably accepting demeanor anticipating his fate. After an odd spontaneous burst of anger, he quietly passed on a Montreal hospital bed. It was Sunday morning, Chol Hamoed Sukkot, October 12th. He was diagnosed just two weeks prior.
Loneliness may know us best, but our friends and family love us more.
No one knew my father better than David. Even sadder, he was my father’s last remaining immediate family member. “Daddy, not true! You still have us!” my sisters and I exclaim. But I know our words cannot console such familial void.
In the days following, we formally mourned and we genuinely grieved. My angst came in strides, stemming more from the pain of my father than the loss of my uncle. The eulogies were abbreviated due to the holiday; prayers and Psalms honored him instead.
Our home had become a shiva address; surreal was the ambiance and shock was our ice-breaker. Rugelach masked our table as festive; we ached but ate anyway, we sighed but socialized anyway. Simchat Torah that year had been personally inverted, fulfilling Lamentations Chapter 5: שבת משוש לבנו, נהפך לאבל מחלנו"- the joy of our hearts ceased and our dance turned into mourning.”Art By: Ruthie Matanky Skaist
Sad memories now scathe me: a teary-eyed father shaking with a shovel, a distraught widow gasping for an impossible peace. I now know the sound of dirt soiling a coffin. I now know the weight of pall-bearing a corpse. Sixty-seven years ago my uncle took his first breath. Next year will be sixty-eight, but I presume we’ll stop counting.
Oh death; why do you loom?
Well, what’s the alternative? Death makes life wholesome. Imagine a movie without a last scene or a painting without borders. Ends beget substantiality; infinity is depressingly static. Eternity, after all, seems scarier than mortality; even bad music can sound pleasant, it’s a broken record that makes us cringe.
Truthfully though, life is never repetitive. We may replicate our days with routine behavior but yesterday is forever gone. Time is profoundly unique; our days only appear homogeneous. “There are no two hours alike” says Heschel. "המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשת."
Anyone who has lived recognizes the irreplaceability of events: a casual kiss, hearing your daughter laugh, standing silently graveside. Even a routine morning coffee or a walk home is special. Our illusion is that we tend to assign specialness to rarity of life’s moments in time, rather than rarity of time in life’s moments.
And yet, we drift into distraction by the logistics in our lives. Indeed, the most ironic part of dying is the subsequent need to make arrangements. Such preparations have never seemed so lifeless. We overdose with life in our emotional grief, while we whither in conversation with the funeral director. “Choose a funeral time? But my loved one just died!”
Life has gradations; we are sometimes flowing with human expression and other times bare. But grieving is always supremely intense. Such pure multifaceted sensitivity can, for many, be the quintessential moment of feeling alive, and therefore perhaps appropriately, the natural response to death. Our grief, in this sense, is not simply a selfish reaction but a protest to dying; a clinging onto life’s most manifest expression.
A friend of mine, whose father recently passed, couldn’t understand his own grief. “Death is inevitable” he explained, so “grieving just seems idiotic.” He’s right if our sensitivities are mere reactions to surprise. But are we really numb to a cancer patient’s death, however much anticipated? Sorrow stems from the void of human life, not from the shock of its mortality. The closer the relationship, the stronger the void; we would all sooner cry upon the passing of a century-old grandparent than an infant we didn’t know.
Reflecting as such, bereavement is testimony to the supremacy of love. Losing a laptop is upsetting. Losing a job is distressing. Losing one’s health is indeed frightening. But losing a loved one is overwhelmingly painful; too penetrating to bear. Rare is an experience so devastatingly complex; waves of shock, confusion, anger, and depression crashing through chords of melancholy. Is there any other cause for such symphony? Not really. All you need is love, love; love is all you need.
“But it’s just so final, so incredibly final” cried my dad. His words were striking but his punctuation was theological. It’s unfortunate though that death tends to prompt spiritual questions. Life actually shouts them louder. Why are we more intrigued by the mystery of death than the sublimity of life? Why are birthday celebrations less passionate than funerals? Why is the martyr worshipped more than the doctor? Death is indeed foreign, unknown, and mysterious, but are our lives not evermore enigmatic?
Oh life; why don’t we let you loom?
You ever wonder about your own narrative? Human beings are complex. Our individual lives are never uniform nor coherent. We like to mark our story with checkpoints of school degrees, jobs, and alliances, and hide behind our proclaimed identities. We plan as if our lives unfold with progressing stages of cause and effect, action and reaction. Chapter 9 is New York City. Chapter 10 is marriage. But deep down we know our authentic selves transcend such borders. Who are we really behind these gates?
Eulogies are blasphemy in this sense. Despite the descriptions uttered at the podium, my uncle David wasn’t just, however wonderfully, intelligent, clever, truth-seeking, and a loving husband and teacher. He was a lot more complicated and intricate like the rest of us; an embodied whirlwind of life’s struggles of peace and conflict, love and hate, satisfaction and pursuits. He was - and oh how beautifully rare - an authentic human being.
Consider the Mona Lisa: children see colors, adults see beauty, and artists see brilliance. All are indeed true but none are fairly accurate. The painting’s full revelation can only emerge to the sophisticated eye; its expression hinging on the viewer’s appreciation.
There was no one more intimately appreciative of my uncle than my aunt. And consider her reaction to my uncle’s tributes and praise: “it’s so beautiful how the community chooses [emphasis mine] to remember him.” The community indeed lost a brilliant mind. His friends indeed lost a loving role-model. But my aunt lost her entire world, and her eulogy of him cannot exist in words, but rather only in the piercing void he left behind.
And how piercing it must be, as the English language does not even have a word for it:
Saudade (Galician, Portuguese): a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves….The love that remains after someone is gone and will never return….A feeling of emptiness when someone who should be there in a particular moment is missing.
Goodbye Uncle David. I will always remember you with a smile. You left us too soon, with “[your] eyes not dim, and [your] vigor not abate” (Deuteronomy 34:7). I pray that my life can reach your praise; I hope that my days echo your song. God must have indeed spoken to you that day, as “who can hear the Voice…and still live?” (Deuteronomy 5:22). Although none of us can say “I will live forever” (Deuteronomy 32:40), the beacon of your mind will forever shine, educating the cold Montreal sky.
My uncle was in middle of writing a book on Deuteronomy. But unlike my tears, his ink dried out too soon.
Aryeh Amsel is a financial analyst living in NYC, but sometimes Berkeley, CA. When he grows up, he plans to write philosophy and make wine.
comments powered by Disqus