My grandfather passed away two weeks before my younger sister was born. For nine months he had been diagnosed with terminal, stage 4 brain cancer and for nine months my mom was expecting my baby sister. Life and death waved at each other from across the street during those two weeks in May.
My grandfather, as my mom says, was a larger than life figure. “If you’re not living on the edge,“ he used to say, “you’re taking up too much space.” He was a pioneering surgeon and a bestselling author. He was a storyteller, a captivator, a human encyclopedia. He introduced my parents and helped find our house in Mill Valley. My grandfather was the type of man who had three 70th birthday parties to accommodate all his different friends. We went to all three. He was the man who built a geodesic dome in his backyard with a hot tub in the middle. My grandfather was so full of life: it bubbled out of him… until it didn’t. He passed away on May 11th, 2009. At his funeral he arrived on a projection screen in a pre-recorded video in a white suit, standing amongst the clouds, proclaiming he missed us all from heaven. He managed the feat of being at his own funeral.
That was eight years ago.
It took a lot of cajoling to get my sister and I out of the house that lazy, Saturday morning one year ago. Reluctance bemoaned from our mouths. My mom had already laid out the familiar blue and white candle on the kitchen countertop. I blearily stared at it as I munched on my peanut butter toast.
“YAHRZEIT.” It was spelled out in bold, blue letters. To those unfamiliar with the term, let me explain. A yahrzeit is a death day, marking the day of a loved one, traditionally a parent’s passing. I think it is particular to Judaism that we celebrate the day of the death instead of the day of the birth: focusing on the life they lived, instead of when they were born.
When I was younger I believed a yahrzeit was an American thing: something everybody did. I also believed it to be spelled yardsite, as if to mark the place in the yard where one was buried. I imagined a white, picketed fence, impeccably cut, unnaturally green grass, and the perfect family of the 1950s looming over a small mark in the yard where the loved one was buried: postcard perfect Americana. As I stared at it again I realized I should have noticed the Hebrew letters gracing the side. My family gathered around the candle. My dad began reciting the Kaddish, the prayer for mourning, “V’git gadal, v’yit kadash…”
I joined in on the words that I remembered. The Kaddish is one of the most beautiful prayers in Judaism, it follows a thumping cadence that mirrors to me the beating of a broken heart becoming whole again. The same cadence spoken, cried, and anguished by millions of Jews for generations: the same cadence spoken at my grandfather’s funeral, the same cadence that will be spoken at my parents’ funeral and at my own funeral. The same prayer passed down from death to death, to life to life.
My dad wrapped his arm around my mom. My dad was close with my grandfather too. As the story goes by my grandfather’s retelling, a young man came up to him and offered to help unload books from his car for his book lecture. The man told him that he was inspired by my grandfather’s first book, his distinctly Jewish name and that he was a recently tenured professor at UC Berkeley. Jewish, check. Professor, check. And he loves my books! “Have you met my daughter?” my grandfather asked.
It was love at first sight.
My parents urged my sister and I into our winter coats and long pants. “C’mon,” my mom told us, “we’re going to his grave today.”
Then came our refutes. “Mom, we don’t want to spend our Saturday at the graveyard,” I kvetched. I pointed staunchly at the candle, “We’ve already celebrated his yahrzeit.”
“Yeah!” my sister added, her cheeks still rosy from sleep.
But my mom was persistent, “We’re going to see my daddy today.”
My grandfather was called many things. By his three children, Dad or Daddy. By us, my sister and I, Papa. By friends, Lenny. By patients, Doctor. And he knew exactly where he wanted to be buried: a gorgeous cemetery in Tennessee Valley that overlooks my mom’s childhood home.
By 10 or 11am we were all in the car, ready to go. It was a crisp, Mill Valley morning in May. The sun couldn’t seem to penetrate the heavy, cumbersome coldness in the air that sliced through our warm coats. The car crisscrossed up the shady, windy roads, past the majestic cemetery gates. My eyes were peeled on the shadows on the ground as they rippled with the leaves above. The shadows reminded me of spirits, elusive, intangible, not what they once were, but still there, watching.
We parked, a five minute walk from the peak of the hill. Here, a chill still remained, but sunlight embraced the yellow, grassy hill like a halo. My mom and I linked arms as we trudged up the hill. Our winter coats snugly intertwined. “What do you remember about Papa?” she asked, her eyes flicking up at the sky. She squeezed my arm. Among all the ghosts of the graveyard, every word seemed to have an audience.
I fell silent, looking the graves we were passing. I remember Papa vividly, but as the years went on, the definition of my memories became grainy. Monthly, he would take me out to the movies and we’d share a popcorn. We would giggle in the movie theater, because our hands would reach for the popcorn at the same time. Then he would take me to the toy store to pick out a toy, then for dinner and ice cream or for ice cream then dinner. I also remember weekly Monday dinners at his house, “Danke Shoen” gliding through the speakers. And holding his hand tightly as we stood against the crashing waves in Maui, the sand shifting beneath our toes. Sitting in the sticky metal chair, my knees up to my chest, as we feasted on mango, papaya, and passionfruit on the deck of his hotel room over the grassy decline. I remember him holding up a bagel, lox, and cream cheese, exclaiming, “This is heaven!”
I remember being five years old when Papa was diagnosed with cancer and being disappointed that our plans to go the circus were canceled. I remember his last day, sun streaming through the skylight onto his bed, my head resting on the sheets, looking out towards the bay. I remember deciding that I wanted to be a doctor and an author just like my Papa. I remember seeing my parents cry for the first time. I remember feeling helpless. But I didn’t say any of that.
“I remember his hugs,” I murmured.
She smiled, “Oh, he gave great hugs.” She squeezed my arm. Then standing on that gravel road, we found it: on the peak of that peaceful, halo hill. Wildflowers adorned the entire hillside and we could hear birds crooning in the trees. We inched down to his grave and stood stoically around his gravestone: Leonard Shlain 1937-2009. His headstone was an elegant, reddish rock lying on the ground. Unlike the larger headstones that stuck out of the grass, he asked that his stone be laid on the Earth.
“I wish I had met him,” my sister admitted. My mom’s face contorted, eyes swelled with tears. “He would have loved you. He so badly wanted to meet you.” She put her hand to her heart, “but he lives on in all of us.” My mom reached out to touch all of our hearts, “ in here.”
My family wandered around the hill, selecting flowers to place on his gravestone. I crouched by his grave, staring at the grass. “Papa,” I whispered, “did you know that sometimes in synagogue instead of praying to God, I pray to you.” I didn’t know where I was directing this information, the sky or the ground. I settled for placing my hand on my heart. “ I’m sorry I didn’t cry at your funeral. I tried, but I didn’t, I couldn’t understand what death meant yet. But I mourned you years later with clawed sobs while splayed on my bed staring up at the stars.” My tears tugged out of me like a tide as a suffocation of grief settled around my throat. “I miss you,” I added softly.
I have no structured beliefs on what happens when we die. In Judaism, it teaches us not to fear death because the alternative is not to have lived at all. However, there is no part of Judaism that touches upon an afterlife. Maybe our brain just shuts off, but for me, for humans, for our species that doesn’t seem to be enough. Papa said that we are the only species that knows that we’re going to die. Perhaps, that’s why we make such a big deal of it. I’m not sure if I believe in a Hell or a Heaven, but I can picture Papa perfectly in Heaven, nestled among the clouds watching over all of us. I can see him kvelling about his family to his new circle of friends who are drawn to the magnetic personality we knew and loved. One day, I know I’ll meet him in the movie theater in the sky and we’ll share some divine popcorn.