I'm getting ready to rally my family to make a Gratitude Tree. It's a Thanksgiving ritual that I started when my daughter Lucia was four years old. Now sixteen, she's not super into it but agreed to do it as a birthday gift to me. I schlepped the collage supplies up from the basement and they sit in wait on the dining room table. To make room for the Gratitude Tree, I will have to take down the Ofrenda I made for the Day of the Dead this year. I have on it photos of people who have died, people I loved who I miss and honor.
This morning as I sat at the dining room table drinking my coffee, I spent time looking at all of the images of those people. I've been thinking a lot about my dad's death. It's fresh in my mind because of the recent passing of my sister-in-law, mother to four wonderful children, the youngest of whom is just twelve. My brothers were just twelve and fourteen when my father died almost twenty-five years ago. I'm thinking a lot about them, wondering how Dad's death changed their lives.
My dad's death, and all of the deaths I've experienced in my life, affected me profoundly. When my Nana died, just a few months before my dad, I had my first understanding of what a soul means to me. Being raised in a secular household, we didn't talk about what happens after one dies, so I had to create my own understanding. After Nana died, I could still feel her. The memories and the visceral sense of love from her was still with me. And then when Dad died I felt it again. The longer they were gone, the stronger the sense became. I understood this internal sense to be the presence of their souls. In my ad-hoc, non-religious definition of what the soul is, I understood that the soul never dies. This gave me comfort then and it gives me comfort now.
When I look at the images of my grandmothers and grandfathers and my father and my Uncle John and my sister-in-law Shannon and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, I feel a sense of peaceful company. These beautiful souls are still with me. I wonder what they would have thought about this time we are in now. This Pandemic. This political mayhem. My Jewish dad used to have a large marble bust of one of the popes. On it he placed sunglasses and a scarf around his neck pinned with buttons from different lefty candidates and pro-choice campaigns. My dad would have been so outraged at the state of the world. My dad would have adored Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
I am grateful that my grandparents didn't have to live through this time stuck in their assisted living facilities or alone in their apartments with a nurse, no family able to visit. My memories of them are of swimming, the lake cottage, the fourteenth floor apartment on Lake Shore Drive, ice cold carrots in the square tupperware in the fridge and fresh picked corn on the cob in the summer. My memories of Uncle John are filled with laughter-- silly, borderline inappropriate jokes that only he could tell, and always a warm smile. The memories of Shannon are the most fresh, the ones that have got me thinking about my brothers. Shannon--a mother, filled with love and nurturing energy, buzzing around to make everyone happy. The missing is sharpest in the beginning. Maybe the soul hasn't quite settled, isn't yet available to the living.
I remember the sharpness after Dad and the others I loved died. It felt like an undigested meal, uncomfortable and irritating in my stomach. But over time, the sorrow broke down and found a home within me. The memories were no longer painful. They were nourishing and comforting, reminders of the presence of their beautiful souls.