January 18, 2020

Taking on What Others Leave Behind

This past summer at the funeral of my former father-in-law, I stood on the cemetery’s grassy hillside, looking at the family assembled. A late July heatwave had socked New York City, then radiated north into the leafy riverfront town where we now stood. The heat dripped from the trees, blanketing 100-year-old stones. 

An unbidden thought arose in my mind: It’s way too hot to be standing outside.

My former spouse, David, had just lost his dad. I’d flown in from L.A. with our 11-year-old son for the funeral. My father-in-law, Daniel Callahan, was a man I’d respected and loved for nearly 20 years. Yet, petty thoughts of personal discomfort circled in my brain. I felt abashed, appalled at my own shallowness. Then I remembered an idea I’d heard expressed by Rabbi Burt Aaron Siegel, founder of the Shul of New York: These are the kinds of things you get to do when you’re alive.

You get to be hot, to have your mind wander, to feel ashamed. You can only have inappropriate thoughts because you are alive.

Our son, pulsating with more life than I, had been irrepressibly excited about every aspect of our cross-country condolence call: He’d never been on a wide-body jet! The plane had two aisles! We got Indian food in the East Village at 10 p.m.! Even at the cemetery, he was giddy with life. He leaned over to whisper, “Afterward, can we go look for the oldest gravestone?”

David, had been traveling when his dad took a turn for the worse. Within a week, his father had gone on hospice, then to the hospital, then died. I’d spoken via phone to my former mother-in-law, Sidney, and to my niece, Perry. Finally, I reached David. He sounded somber yet philosophical. “My dad was going to be 89 in three days,” he said, perhaps trying to buoy himself. “He did everything he wanted to do in his life, at least as far as I know.”

“That’s true,” I said, aiming to support this positive-attitude approach to death. This was the first of our son’s grandparents to pass away. We have no agreed-upon family attitude — no philosophy or protocol around dying.

“There’s a lag time between a death and the emotional reality of it.”

After we hung up, I stood alone in my living room and cried. This half of my son’s family, the non-Jewish side, was not a side I’d been willing to lose in my divorce. I’d worked hard to stay connected, to visit, to call. I’d garnered praise for these efforts: “So great you’re staying on such good terms for your son.” In reality, our son gave me an excuse hang on to the family I’d married into — these in-laws I fully intended to keep. 

How do we go on without the people we love? David’s parents, like my parents, stand like a bulwark against change. His parents were married for 65 years, and when we’d visit, I always found them calmly reading in their living room overlooking the Hudson River. There was a promise in all that solidity, a reassurance: The world could not go too far astray on their watch.

Daniel always had been working on a new book. He had so much vital energy. Where does that life force go? Perhaps I could inherit some, I thought, wiping my face. I know my role as a former daughter-in-law makes me a questionable claimant on anything bequeathed but still, I felt in some mystical way that something of his was coming to me. Not money or property — those items we normally think of as heritable. I was going to inherit some of Daniel Callahan’s amazing focus, his self-belief, his ability to pursue lofty goals without getting derailed by self-doubt or over-attention to others’ needs.

Before flying to New York for the funeral, I’d visited my friend Shira, who’d just lost a brother the week before. Her brother, Rabbi Tzemach Cunin, was a father of five, the founder of the Chabad of Century City and a great promoter of laying tefillin. At 43, his death was a tragedy. At the end of our visit, Shira pressed two rolled-up dollars into my hand. Tzemach always brought tzedakah when he traveled, she said, a way to remind himself to do a mitzvah when he arrived, and a bid for safe passage; harboring the intention to do good perhaps warranted extra protection. She was taking on this habit for her brother. It’s a Jewish notion that those remaining should adopt some positive value or behavior of the deceased in that person’s merit, Shira said.

My son and I boarded the plane for New York with those two rolled-up bills in my purse. I loved that we were continuing a legacy of a friend’s family and that we were on a mission to do good. On our first full day in New York, I saw a man sitting on the sidewalk with a cup. I handed him my rolled-up dollar with an unusual ping of joy. “God bless you,” he said. That’s right, I thought.

Two days later, standing at the graveside in New York, the sounds of birds and cars felt more real than the loss of my relative. Perhaps this feeling is typical; there’s a lag time between a death and the emotional reality of it. In addition, Daniel had passed away in mid-July. The world was buzzing with life, heat, kudzu vines and cicadas.

Also, he was something of public figure; that reach engenders a certain eternality. Daniel Callahan, father of six, was a pioneer in the field of bioethics, co-founder of the research institute the Hastings Center, and the author or editor of 47 books. He had touched many. He still would, through his writings and his mentees, children and grandchildren. Maybe I felt all that.

This feeling of his presence lasted the entire visit. During the wake the day before, it seemed that surely he must be back home, sitting in the living room, reading a book. Later, at the house, surely he’d just turned in early, gone to bed. 

Standing on the hillside, I thought about his bigger-than-life life. He had the ability to envision something new or novel or difficult, to believe he could create it, and to hold fast to that belief long enough to make it real.

After the short burial, my son and former husband walked around, looking at tombstones. I trailed behind. Maybe we can’t exactly inherit someone else’s character strengths, I realized. Maybe we have to take them on ourselves, with effort.

Like Shira’s decision to travel with dollars in her pocket, maybe what I had to do was adopt, intentionally, some part of Daniel Callahan’s character. Take on some piece of his determination and self-discipline, future-focus and vital force. I would honor this man I’d known by being more like him.

Then, maybe, when I reach the end of my life, my son will turn to his spouse (or ex-spouse) and say, in our family way, “She really did do everything she wanted to do.”

Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.”