Tuesday, February 27, 2018


The most surreal thing about death is how final it is.

Sounds a little obvious at first glance--of course it's final. It's death. That's the end. It's as final as final can get. But somehow your brain doesn't really want to accept that when it happens. As we're making arrangements to go to my grandfather's funeral and wrapping up his life, tucking in the edges you can't tie up yourself no matter how well-prepared you are, I've found myself wishing I could ask him what he would have wanted.

You can't go check with him, you know? I was asked to write my grandfather's obituary. Well, not so much "asked to"--my dad said it needed to be done and I said I would do it, because it makes sense for me to complete that task as the family's writer-type-person, and also as a person who isn't in a position to do much else. I wanted to ask my grandfather what he would have preferred--should I mention this? would you want that?--but I didn't have that option, so I turned to tradition. I looked up the format and tried to fashion something that would highlight his life for those of us who care, while also obeying the traditions that dictate what an obituary is supposed to do.

My grandfather was a pretty traditional guy, after all. He was a cantor--a religious singer, and our family's leader when it came to every ritual. First to start the song, always the one to naturally pave the way, showing us where the path was to follow in our ancestors' footsteps.

Tradition. To write an obituary I looked at what I'm told is "traditional" but doesn't feel familiar to me at all--because I've been blessed to have death be a very rare occurrence in my life. Tradition--I'm sure my father has had to become acquainted with similar unfamiliar traditions as he plans his father's funeral. Traditions--they often feel weird, don't they? Even though they're supposed to be the rituals of our people?

Who are we, the we doing this? Us, our family? Us, the Jewish people? Us, humans of the Earth? Whose traditions are these, if we have to look them up to find out what we're supposed to do?

Weddings feel weird too. They're joyous, but we look up what's traditional and then nod and grin and remind each other that this is "traditional," this symbolizes that, these are the motions we're going through and ascribing meaning to, and they are so meaningful partly because they're rare and partly because there is just-something-about that connection to our past. That connection to who we, as a people, whatever that is, who we used to be, and in a way, who we still are. That idea that we're following in the footsteps of generations who did what we're doing. 

The guy who used to lead us on that path has reached his destination, and now we glance around at each other to figure out what the traditions are to take care of him how he would want it.

The obituary is complete. It does what it's supposed to do and it's a fine description of who he was and who is left to feel his departure.

This is what's traditional--this is what you do. And you cry and you wear black and you talk about how wonderful he was. We'll do that too.

But there are also other traditions. Traditions we rarely recognize as traditions, or we barely think to call them that. We have birthdays and sing a song without asking anyone what we should do; of course we'll have a cake, of course we'll light candles, of course we'll sing and gather and give presents.

We don't have to look up the traditions of coming to the door, hearing that sonorous greeting, getting those hugs, having him tell us how good we look and how wonderful it is to have us there.

We don't have to look up the part where he'll tell some corny joke and we'll all groan or laugh or both. 

Or where there will be some reference to a play or a musical, usually with an impromptu musical demonstration, because music was the air he breathed. 

Or the soothing, even, loving tone of his voice whenever he spoke to his wife, and the tenderness he offered her in every interaction.

And we've certainly absorbed that awesome tradition of Grandpa teaching us by example how to get our colors.

There are plenty of more "traditional" things we did with him, of course. . . .

But so much more beyond typical tradition, our everyday rituals of how we talked, how we interacted, how we gave and took, how we shared our thoughts and our meals and our love. Those were traditions we needed no references for.

Those are what we'll remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment