The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 19


There comes a point at which the furnace begins to sputter. One seeks fuel, whereas once it was piled up everywhere. Just yesterday, it would seem, everything was aflame or imminently flammable.

Would I have committed myself to this writing project if my father’s death hadn’t been so unexpected and sudden? If I’d been more prepared?

At not yet eleven months old, my daughter once stayed overnight at the hospital to receive treatment for pneumonia. She was home the next day, her condition improved markedly. My father, on the other hand, succumbed to pneumonia on the day that mama brought him to the hospital. Before learning of his death, I remember thinking well… it’s pneumonia… right…?

I might never
have been
ready, regardless.

Some twenty-five years ago, I saved papa’s life off the shore of Belmar, New Jersey. We were scuba diving together, and I recall the urgent look in his eyes when he signaled that we needed to surface. A lifelong smoker (mostly on, sometimes off), his breathing was labored, and he was struggling to swim. Instinctively, I pulled him along the surface towards a jetty, lodging myself between the craggy rocks, he in my arms, bracing with my legs for life. As the waves burst over us, I shielded his mouth with my hand. Luckily, some passersby noticed us and we were pulled up onto the seawall. I was unpanicked because his death was obviously impossible. Later, standing by his hospital bed, I still couldn’t fathom any different outcome.

He was approximately twenty-five years old when his hearing was permanently impaired, leaving him entirely deaf in his right ear, with constant background noise reverberating in his damaged left. This was the side effect of being treated for meningitis with streptomycin for ten days in a Soviet hospital. He lay unconscious those ten days, and the doctors thought he wouldn’t make it. On the tenth day, he awoke. His constitution is incredibly robust, they said, few others would have survived this. That’s how I remember him – always strong and fit, entertaining friends by lifting heavy chairs with a single hand grasping the bottom of one front leg. For me,
his life went beyond
the human, his
death: unthinkable.

* * *

The 2016 book Kaddish, a series of essays written by scholars and rabbis, is lying before me. The third essay is ‘For a God Who Mourns’ by Rabbi Noah Farkas. I am struck by his sensitivity (p. 45):

I am always moved by the mourner’s ability to rise and declare God’s greatness in the face of death. It takes bravery to mourn, and it takes strength to mourn. Kaddish is recited as a memorial prayer, and it requires all of our courage to be singled out publicly as bereaved and to tell the story of those who died.

I recall forcing myself to drive to shul every day during the shiva in a community that was not my own. I recall returning to the shul that I had stopped attending several years earlier. I recall shuddering, my finger quivering over my mouse button as I clicked on ‘Submit for Review’ for the first and second times. Farkas’ acknowledgement is well taken; thank you, Rabbi,
but it fades.
It does.

With time, the bravery cools; strength steadies; courage gives way to commitment. I read and write and ‘submit’ these blog posts, but I am not so affected as I once was. My father is dead; what words can hurt me? Let all the world know that I’m grieving, I say. Deal with it or don’t, but I shall not sugarcoat my mourning.

I recently finished reading another book: Kaddish: Women’s Voices. It’s an easy read, technically. Not so easy, emotionally. On bus rides, while waiting for lunch dates, whenever a moment presented itself, I could read the women’s essays in this book, absorbing their recollections of and reflections on their experiences of loss and kaddish. My reading was impeded only by tears. Parents, children. The old, the young. Natural causes, accidents and suicide. Comparisons rendered absurd, pointless.

During my shloshim period (the first 30 days of mourning) it was almost unbearable for me to attend somebody else’s shiva. Of that experience, I wrote in the late summer [link]:

For four days I listened as strangers honored the memory of a rabbi that I’d never known, all the while grieving silently, alone by the wall, over the untimely death of my own father, but not saying a word because it wasn’t my shiva house.


It wasn’t fair of me, but I couldn’t help drawing comparisons.

Everything was about my pain then, and I could hardly feel beyond myself. Since, the shock has faded; I am more conscious of death and less surprised by it. I have again become able to hear others’ stories.

And this is the simple, stark truth of it:
There is no time for any of us but borrowed time.

In her TED Talk (below), the author Fawn Weaver dusts off the obvious, which too often slips by us. Heed, friends, for your loved ones yet living:

The love we share in this moment is the only love we are guaranteed to give. When we argue with those we love most, we make an unwise and presumptive decision. When we slam the door; hang up the phone on someone we love; when we spew hurtful words, we make an assumption: that they will later be there to allow us to apologize for our words, to make up for our nasty comments. We assume that they will be on the other side of the door when we decide to open it. Or that they will be on the receiving end of the phone when we decide to call again. But what a tragedy it is for those who never get that chance.

6 thoughts on “The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 19”

  1. I like the part about not sugarcoating your mourning for public consumption. As I write poems about my parents’ deaths, I find that many highlight negative experiences or emotions–hey, that’s how it is. Maybe others, reading our pieces, will feel more comfortable with their un-sugarcoated reactions.

  2. ‘I was unpanicked because his death was obviously impossible.’
    So true. The people we love can’t die, especially our parents, who have ALWAYS been there. Funny how the mind works.
    ‘My father is dead; what words can hurt me?’ This sentence poignantly captures all grief, David. True poetry.
    ‘Everything was about my pain then’ I think I wrote this before, but I’ll say it again because it applies here: when my mother-in-law died (she was the first of our four parents to go), I remember being surprised that it wasn’t mentioned on the news, my loss was so great. Similarly, when my parents died (eight years apart), I was consumed by my grief; everything related to it. If it didn’t relate, it was irrelevant.
    Fawn’s words are absolutely true. Just before my dad became ill (three weeks before he died), he had asked me several times to go out to lunch. I turned him down for various reasons; and then it was too late. I deeply regret my choices then.

    1. So true. The people we love can’t die, especially our parents, who have ALWAYS been there. Funny how the mind works.

      Yes, that’s it… and it’s especially true when we’re younger, I think…

      True poetry.

      Thank you… it was writing this series that got me into writing poetry, even though it wasn’t a series of poems, per se…

      I was consumed by my grief; everything related to it. If it didn’t relate, it was irrelevant.

      It was really hard for me to function as a father, husband, and employee for quite some time following my father’s death…

      I deeply regret my choices then.

      I also have regrets about how my relationship with my father ended… it’s quite sad, really.


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