La La How The Life Goes On

Emptiness

Posted on: February 3, 2014

“Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole’s emptiness that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the empty space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.”

san shi fu gong yi gu.
dang qi wu, you che zhi yong.
shan zhi yi wei qi.
dang qi wu you qi zhi yong.
zao hu you yi wei shi.
dang qi wu, you shi zhi yong.
gu you zhi yi wei li.
wu zhi yi wei yong.
– Pinyin transliteration, Chapter 11, Daodejing (Tao-Te Ching)

“I can’t stop writing about my dead father. He’s 60% of me, like water.” –Sherman Alexie.

My dad passed 8 years ago this month into those misty Scottish Highlands in the sky. “Eight (8) years ago,” he would have written. I could never figure out why he felt compelled to put the numeral in there. What–Was I going to think he’d written Bight years? Or Fight years? It seemed unnecessary. But that’s what he did. I keep a post-it note from him in my wallet. Not a real post-it note, mind you. Those would have cost money. This note is a freebie from my sister’s old accounting job, “Supervalu” taking up a full third of the sticky note’s writing area. In which he advises me that he loves my jokey letters to him, without which “ah’d go aff ma chump” (go crazy). He then draws a Kilroy-style pic of himself captioned “One (1) picture of me.Wot? No Whisky?” It sits stuffed next to a 1x 2 inch fake $100 bill that he has written on the back, “Sorry about this. I was going to give it to you to spend but your mum put it in the dryer and it shrunk.” I keep them both next to the pics of Dada and the girls and the pic of my Dad and Mom all gussied up circa 2003. Best photo of them ever, except for the selfie they took on their road trip to retire in Texas. Leaning up against one of those three-log farm gates, messy-haired and road weary, but clearly and palpably happy. My mom hates it because they both look a hot mess in the pic. But I framed it because the light in their eyes said more than the wind in their hair.

I’ve thought a lot about my Dad since he died. Dreamed that he was speaking to me. Imagined that he was guiding me. Pondered how he molded me. Wondered, Yentl-like, if he could hear me praying, anything I’m saying, Papa can you help me not be frightened? There are days, even these 96 months later, when I feel nothing but the giant, gaping hole in the universe where my father used to be. Such days catch me by surprise always, sadden me often, but depress me never. Because I realize that this is precisely the point of my life (and the life of anyone who has lost someone) going forward. As Lao Tzu said: the emptiness as a means to usefulness.

Things I’d have relied on my father to do, I now must do. Responsibilities that belonged to him now belong to me. Taking care of my mom (although let the record state that she is about to climb through the Internet and smack me for suggesting in any forum, public or private, that she needs taking care of at all–especially since.”I’m 70 and in better health than you! Ha!”), passing forward family legend and lore to the “grandweans,” being a thorn in the side of the nearest rabbi, inculcating a love for Scotland in all his descendants, figuring out how to fix any appliance, and furthering the cause of Noble Eccentricity wherever its flame might be in danger of being extinguished.

There is clearly much to be done. Some of which I delegate. For instance, this will come as news to him, but my BFF Carol’s husband is my New Dad of home repairs (the fact that we are of the same age is irrelevant). If something breaks, I’m pretty much calling him. Then I’ll know the answer for next time. My dad routinely would nonchalantly ask my guy friends stuff like, “hey–you want to help me move a fridge?” So it’s in this spirit of jolly imposition that I have designated my friend’s betrothed as my New Dad for Domestic Affairs.

In the area of rabbinical thornery, I confess to being slightly more concerned with the propriety of hassling clergy than my father was. Luckily, my 9 year old is an articulate, thoughtful atheist, and so I have designated her as the family’s resident Tester of Rabbinical Fortitude. She is, I’m awkwardly pleased to report, making him proud. Choice quote: “Any god who tells you to sacrifice your child and then sends someone else, even if it’s an angel, to say ‘never mind; jklol’ is the rudest god ever.” JP smiles down on this kind of chutzpah. Her Hebrew School teacher, I’m sure, considers binge drinking after every class. JP lives on.

Which is the whole point. The emptiness and what I do with it is precisely what illuminates the memory of the man who did exist and who used to fill that giant space in the universe. The emptiness is where the real potential for connecting with his legacy lies. Whenever I feel burdened by the emptiness of his absence, I try to fill that space with gratitude. I rarely cry about my Dad at this late date, but still cannot make it through a Mourner’s Kaddish without welling up.The prayer, contrary to popular belief, is not the “Jewish prayer for the dead.” It actually never mentions death or dying or your loved one at all. It simply praises God’s name and prays for peace, Tells you that life goes on, that the work continues:

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen  He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

I have WASPy origins, so while this prayer has comforted many a Jew, standing up in temple, surrounded by fellow mourners reciting how awesome God is, brings me no peace and just lays bare in the starkest terms that my father is gone. It is too public, too communal for me and for how I like to think of him. Rather, it is in the quiet moments and the empty spaces that I feel him the most. Sometimes to great joy and sometimes to great pain. But always to a sense of gratitude that he was mine to miss.

 *******************************************************************************************

He doesn’t realize it, but Seal wrote the best Kaddish ever. I think of my dad whenever I hear this song.

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