My father-in-law passed away a few months ago.
His death was not a tragedy in the usual sense of the word; he had
lived a full and active life for more than eighty years, leaving
behind a large family of children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
But a death is always an unanticipated tragedy. Though he had been
weak for the last few years, his sudden death was unexpected.
My children returned home from school just moments
after I had learned the news. My older children were very saddened,
flooded with memories of an active, kindly grandfather who had visited
us many times in Toronto. My oldest son and daughter remembered
how he had bought them their first real bicycles, a smaller red
one and a larger pink one. They remembered his patience in sharing
from his seemingly limitless store of stories about life in a different
era, his interest in their studies and, of course, his trail of
My younger children, on the other hand, only had
memories of our visits to my in-laws, seeing their Zaidy for just
a few moments, in his weakened state, before he became too exhausted
and needed to retire.
So I was a little taken aback by my youngest daughter's
response to the news. A flood of tears trickled down her soft cheeks.
For a long time now she had been reciting his chapter of Tehillim
(Psalms), and the finality of him being gone was a tragedy for her
young mind. It was hard for her to come to terms with never seeing
her Zaidy again. Even a weakened Zaidy whose memory was fading was
nevertheless a real Zaidy.
The next twenty-four hours passed in a blur of
rushed activity -- making arrangements to travel to Lakewood, New
Jersey where my husband had already arrived and where the funeral
and shivah would take place.
Over the next few days, we would hear many stories
about my husband's father -- from people whom he had helped in numerous
ways, favors he had done and projects that he had been instrumental
in launching. Many prominent rabbis and communal leaders spoke about
his lifelong devotion to building the famous Lakewood yeshivah,
of his activism in starting an organization devoted to providing
children in Israel with a Jewish education, and of his personal
self-sacrifice any time any project -- big or small -- was needed
for Jewish continuity. Many spoke of his idealism, his supreme honesty,
or his forgoing materialistic pursuits for the sake of spiritual
The stories, comments and perspectives were encouraging
for all of us to hear. I was especially gratified that my children
learned of their Zaidy's monumental and lasting contributions.
But one individual spoke of my father-in-law in
a way that touched me more than any of the others.
As my husband stood up before the large crowd,
he began emotionally: "I am trying to recall some of my earliest
childhood memories of my father. But my mind is blank. I have none.
I have no memories, because you, dear father, were never there."
He paused before the astonished crowd.
"You were never there, like so many other
fathers, to take us on trips to the zoo, or on family outings to
the park. There were no family games or short walks to get ice cream."
Again he paused, with the audience giving him their full attention.
"There were never these outings or trips because
you were too busy. You left in the early hours of the morning before
I awoke, and often returned late at night, long after I had gone
to asleep. You were always busy. Busy running to a Torah class...
Busy running to help begin a new organization concerned with the
plight of fellow Jews… Busy working non-stop to strengthen
the values of Torah. When Shabbat finally came, you were so exhausted
from your long, strenuous hours throughout the week...
"But though you may have been physically absent
much of the time in those early years, you taught us -- me and all
your children -- a powerful message. You taught us to value what
was really important in life. You were willing to forego the normal
pleasures of fatherhood -- what could be a greater pleasure for
a father than taking his children to the zoo? -- in order to help
another Jew, in order to strengthen Torah in this country. And by
doing so, you taught me so much more than any 'heart-to-heart' talk
could ever convey.
"You taught me values. You taught me priorities.
You taught me the need to reach out to other Jews and work tirelessly
for a better tomorrow."
My husband concluded by saying, "I know that
now, too, you will ignore your discomforts and push yourself. You
will push yourself up on High to beg, plead and demand from G-d
to end our exile, our suffering and hardships."
As my husband spoke, I realized that his message
was one that my youngest daughter seemed to have intuitively picked
up on. Earlier I had wondered why she grieved over the passing of
a man she barely knew. But there are times when even in our absence
and our silence -- and sometimes, through our absence and silence
-- we send a message that is stronger than any words can possibly
My daughter did not experience the hours of contact
and conversation with her grandfather that her older siblings had
been privileged to enjoy. Yet she had sensed, in our short, ten
minute visits, her Zaidy's message of love. Her Zaidy was her Zaidy
and he loved her -- and it was over this tragic loss that she cried
My husband's message would also bring comfort to
us and to the whole family in the ensuing days, months and years.
His father's life was continuing even in his absence. As the yahrtzeit
candle burns perpetually on our kitchen counter, it isn't only his
father's memory that we are keeping alive.
More importantly, the continuing message of his
life -- the principles and values that he cherished and imparted
to his children -- continue to live on.