Sitting in the Low Chair
For a baalas teshuva there is a first for everything. The first time you say no to a cheeseburger, the first time you don’t answer your phone on Shabbos, and the first time you pound your chest on Yom Kippur. Each of these first times is accompanied by a unique set of feelings and thoughts and is the end result of an ongoing growth process. I have been on the side of being menachem avel many times, but it took me twenty six years as an observant Jew before I was the person sitting in that low chair.
The mitzvah of comforting a mourner was always difficult for me. I assumed that when my turn came, I would opt for a quiet shiva. An introvert by nature, I believed that in my sadness or grief I would not want to open my home to just anyone. I thought that I would find my comfort exclusively among family and my closest friends. I couldn’t imagined ‘holding court’ and having to either ‘be on’ or endure awkward silences when I didn’t feel like talking. I didn’t think I would want to repeat the same thing over and over again all day long, nor could I imagine needing to. Mostly, I didn’t feel comfortable allowing myself to be the one who needed.
When my turn came and I told a friend about my reservations, she urged me to do it right – promising that when the seven days were up, I would be glad I had. Not completely convinced, during the twilight onen period between my father’s death and the burial, I wrestled with myself.
I reasoned with myself, thinking that because my father lived to ninety, and lived a long, productive, happy, life, my mourning was somehow less important. His death was “normal” – a sad, but ultimately expected part of the cycle of life. I thought of one shiva house I’d recently visited. The mourners were a young couple whose five-month-old baby had died tragically of SIDS. In that same week, a young husband and father in our community mourned the sudden loss of his wife. A few months prior, our city mourned a forty-something year old mother who’d succumbed to cancer, as well as the death of a young grandmother in a tragic car accident. Who was I to need comfort?
Then I overheard a close family member whisper that this “was not the time to be a martyr” and the words hit home. The words of Koheles echoed in my mind … a time to weep, a time to laugh, a time to wail, a time to dance. Although my father’s was not a tragic death, my sadness was great. I would miss him tremendously, and I needed to honor that. More importantly, my father deserved to be honored. Sitting shiva properly would allow me to do that. Though still apprehensive, I sent out the appropriate announcements, unlocked our front door, sat in my low chair, and waited. Like subjects coming to greet the queen, people came. Some stayed for only five minutes, others settled in for an hour —old friends, new friends, acquaintances, rabbis, teachers, children, the expected, and the totally unexpected. I was overwhelmed by the constant flow of people. I fell into a kind of rhythm where time melted away. I floated from sleep to eating to sitting in my low chair. My adult children took care of cooking and carpool and after they left, people in the community provided meals. What I had previously imagined as an overly indulgent and taxing process, proved itself to be the most incredible exhibit of kindness I have ever experienced.
My oldest daughter, for whom my shiva was also a first, spent much of the week with me. On the seventh day, after the last comforter had recited ‘Hamakom Yenachem…’ she turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, “I’ve never seen so much goodness.”
She is right. To carve out a piece of time from one’s busy life to visit a mourner is goodness at its core. It is not an exaggeration to say that being on the receiving end of mourning is to experience a week of Godliness. The divine nature of man that emerges in a shiva house is to experience people making a Kiddush Hashem at its best.
Acknowledging my anxiety as I began shiva the morning after my father’s burial, my husband pointed out that shiva is for “you, the mourner.” There was no right or wrong, he reiterated. Do what you feel like doing. And so I did. I talked about who my father was and what he meant to me. Our friends and acquaintances—some of whom had met members of my non-observant family and others who hadn’t —asked my mother and sisters questions, giving them a chance to talk and be comforted. My living room was lively with conversations whose subjects ranged from my father’s career, to how my parents met, to what a shame we all don’t know more about each other’s parents, to styles of parenting then and now.
Mostly, the talk was about our father of whom we were extremely super proud. He was a highly accomplished, published professor of Mathematics who conducted research that combined math with physics, computer science and bio medics. In the early years of his career he worked on rocket trajectories to Mars. Yes, he was a rocket scientist. We talked about how difficult it must have been to live in that brainy head of his, then switch gears to relate to the rest of us who, though intelligent and talented in many ways, did not share his mathematical genius. We discussed how he never flaunted his brilliance and the humility of that. Day turned to night and, as I lay in bed exhausted, I would replay the many conversations. I cried some more, realizing that what I had sometimes perceived as my father’s emotional distance was instead a product of a mind whose natural default mode was logic and calculation. High on logic – lower on emotion – his brilliance breeded impatience that to a sensitive daughter was sometimes hurtful. I had spent years being angry about this inability to give me the kind of emotional support I needed. During shiva I felt forgiveness and . I focused on how during the past few years of his life when battling his illness, my father had changed. Hugs, praise and kind words were much more forthcoming then they had ever been. In his own way, he’d been doing teshuva.
I have come to understand that this is part of the shiva process. The concentrated thinking, talking, and mourning allows us to reevaluate the person we have lost together with our own lives. It creates a space for the mourner to come to a deeper understanding of herself. My father came from the old school of ‘tough love’ and ‘it’s better to do it yourself’ – and as a child this was often difficult. I am only just beginning to understand that what I resented as a child, was in the long run, “for my own good” – just like my father had always claimed!
At the funeral speeches, we painted a picture of a brilliant, hardworking professor who was a loving, generous man, passionately devoted to his family. While this is certainly true, nobody is perfect. Nobody knew this better than my mother. A few of my visitors, upon flipping through my father’s published books, instantly understood the issue. “It must have been difficult living with him,” a very wise rabbi in our community said. How did he know? Another visitor, married to a brilliant doctor said, “Left-brain spouses are the most difficult. They constantly have to be reminded how to interact properly with people. It takes tremendous patience and understanding. Your mother must be an amazing person.” He got it! It was as if Hashem were sitting right next to me, orchestrating who came and giving me what I needed to hear. Shiva provided me with the opportunity to both honor my father’s greatness and better understand his imperfections.
Perhaps my father’s (and my mother’s) greatest accomplishment was their marriage. This past December, on my father’s 90th birthday, we presented him with a family photo album that traced his life from childhood to the present. The last page shows my parents as the elderly couple they’d become, sitting on a porch bench overlooking Big Bear Lake where our entire family vacationed each summer – Grandpa’s treat. The sun is gloriously setting. As my visitors reached the last page in this album, there was always a deep, wordless sigh. I imagined they were all thinking the same thing: The world has gotten so crazy. Broken marriages, broken families, broken lives. How many couples make it to the finish line still intact? How many people really do become that old sweet couple sitting together, watching the sunset?
My parents did not have a perfect marriage. There was plenty of arguing, disagreeing, bantering, and miscommunicating. However—and it’s a big however—they believed in marriage. They believed in working it out and sticking to it. They believed in the bigger picture of what they were building. In the end, they reaped a beautiful harvest. We are a family with many differences, but we get along. This is in no small part due to my father’s insistence that we be ‘one big happy family.’ We needed to learn tolerance. We needed to accept our differences. We needed to love one another because Daddy said so. This tolerance played out beautifully when planning my father’s burial and funeral. My halachic concerns were honored, and I, in turn, respected my sisters’ requests for other things. Dad would have been pr proud.
As the week of shiva wore on I sensed a theme emerging. People entered my home respectfully, expecting the heaviness that pervades a house of mourning. But when they sat and listened— and comforted us by their listening and the questions they asked— the heaviness lifted. With all of the tragedy my community has experienced in recent months, my father’s death was really a ray of hope: it affirmed that the normal cycles of life still exist. That people marry, raise children, get naches from their grandchildren, build, accomplish and then leave this world at a ripe old age, having lived a full and good life. What I learned from this is that shiva doesn’t just comfort the mourner. It comforts and inspires the comforter.
It was the last hour of Shabbos and the sixth day of my shiva week. Looking for my glasses, I walked into the living room, still set up for shiva, but quiet now. The blue yartzheit candle burned on the mantle. My father’s published math and physics books and photographs of his life lay scattered on the coffee table— books that spoke a language most of us would never understand. I let my eyes rest on a recent picture of him. The photograph captures the incredible sweetness in his smile and tenderness that had emerged in the last few years of his life. I turned to walk back to the dining room, but stopped because I was hit by a strong scent, like a man’s expensive cologne. It was a very pleasing smell and I called my husband over to see if I was only imagining it. No, I wasn’t; he smelled it, too. I looked around for stray articles of clothing with yesterday’s cologne, but found nothing. Nobody had been in the room but us. I felt a sudden strong sensation in my stomach, a fullness and tightness, but not unpleasant. My eyes began to tear. We were both thinking the same thing.
Almost involuntarily, I whispered, “Hi, Daddy.” The yartzheit candle flickered and my husband and I stood quietly, feeling a great peace. The moment passed and we moved to the dining room to bentch from Seudah Shlishi. Afterwards, we discussed it. The only scent my father ever wore was Old Spice, so what was that scent? I resolved to ask my mother if Dad had used any other cologne.
I went to bed feeling exhausted by the notion of one more day of shiva. Did I really need it? I was pleased when many in my extended family decided to join me again. I so wanted them to be a part of the process. As requested, my mother brought my father’s shaving cream, hand soap and body soap. None of the scents matched the distinct aroma we had experienced on Shabbos. Once again, I got tremendous satisfaction from the interest people took in my non-frum relatives, and I found that I’d been wrong about what I thought I needed. It amazed me that we all still wanted to talk about my father. I rode the ebb and flow of people coming and going, and when at nine o’clock, the last wave of visitors left, I sat quietly with my husband. In the back of my mind I was hoping that maybe the scent would come back. It did not.
In the morning, I took my place on the low chair for the last time as my husband stood over me and recited,“ Hamakov Yenachem….” Though I’d heard these words countless times in the past seven days, their power once again penetrated by soul. Fresh tears flowed. I have been thinking about that scent ever since, and the feeling that my father had really been in the room, if only for a few moments.
Gesher Hachaim by Rabbi Tuchazinski, a’h, delineates three levels of spirit:
“The Nefesh remains hovering over the grave, the Ruach ascends to the lower Gan Eden (and to the upper Gan Eden on Shabbos and Festivals) while the Neshamoh enters the upper Gan Eden, the source from whence it came. As long as the Neshomoh fails to ascend to its source the Ruach and Nefesh cannot come to rest.”
In the last days and hours of my father’s life I kept waiting for a sign that would tell me something about the next world. The hospice care had left us with some literature about death and dying and they’d used the word “crossing over.” It said that in a person’s final hours they have one foot in both worlds. Words are part of the physical world and the dying are so deeply entrenched in crossing over to the spiritual world, that words are difficult. My father’s breathing had become very strained an,d in his weakened state, words were few. But I kept thinking it was more. I kept thinking he was seeing the Olam haEmes. Even though he believed in a ‘divine power,’ as a mathematician and scientist he wasn’t able to take that leap of faith from believing in ‘a Creator’ to believing that this Creator expected him to separate milk and meat and to not drive on Saturdays. So I worried about his Neshamoh, and waited for some kind of sign.
I’d been discussing this with my older sister who was open to such ideas, and after my father died she said, “Dad was a quick study. Whatever there is ‘to get’ – he’ll get it fast.” As I now make my way through the shloshim, I see that being an aveles is an ongoing process of discovery. I find myself holding on to my sister’s words. I hope that my father did his calculations quickly, and that his Neshamoh was able to let go of the physical world easily so that his Nefesh and Ruach werer able to ascend.
I keep reliving the moments when I thought I felt my father’s presence on Shabbos. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but I’d like to think that maybe his Ruach had stopped by my home just before ascending. I’d like to think that the scent was a whiff of Gan Eden, left behind when the gates opened and my father’s spirit crossed over. I like to think that if he could have spoken he would have said: “Thank you for honoring me this week. Thank you for bringing Mom and your sisters here to sit in low chairs and be comforted by our great people. We truly are one people. Yenachem Eschem Bsoch Shear Avelei Zion v’Yerushalyim.”
Reprinted with permission of Mishpacha Magazine