The Empty Setting


This essay was originally posted on Boys, Dogs and Chaos But, with Passover almost here, I thought I’d share it again…

It’s always hard celebrating a holiday for the first time after a loved one passes away, but if that holiday is also the anniversary of when your loved one either died or fell ill, it’s doubly hard.  So, how do you keep the holidays joyful when there is a thread of sadness weaving its way through the festivities?  I have to say that I honestly don’t know, but hopefully by tomorrow night, I will have an answer for how I tackled that dilemma.

Passover starts at sundown tonight and brings with it not only matzo, wine and of course the Seders, but a memory of last year when my father’s health took a turn for the worse, leading to his death a week later.  Just a few weeks before, he was, while not perfect, better than anyone could have expected seven and a half months after suffering a stroke.  He had good color and looked fit and healthy, even if his mind was still somewhat cloudy. But, on the night of the first Seder what he assumed was heartburn from all of the greasy, oily food was actually a heart attack.

My father had always been a stubborn man when it came to his health, toughing out more things than he should have and refusing to go to the hospital until he was more than once literally on the floor.  And, that night was no different.  Added to his headstrong belief that he was ok, even when he wasn’t, was his compromised cognitive state – a disastrous combination that led him to just go to sleep, instead of going to the hospital when chest pains struck.

It took almost a week and a fainting spell until he went to the hospital; almost a week until that heart attack was diagnosed, giving it plenty of time to damage the heart muscles.  The doctors tried to fix him up with stents, but the day after he left the hospital six days after he entered, he told my mother that he loved her, dropped his coffee cup and was gone.  So, now Passover is laced with sadness and memories of sitting in the dingy hospital room in the waning days of the holiday eating macaroons and matzo sandwiches, waiting for news.  It’s laced with the memories of that night at the Seder, thinking that he just didn’t look right.

Of course, Passover is always laced with sadness – the bitter herbs evoke the bitterness of enslavement and the salt water evokes the tears of the slaves.  We are reminded that our ancestors were not as lucky as we are.  But, it is also a time of celebration – a time of rebirth; the rebirth of spring and of ourselves.  It celebrates the journey from slavery to freedom.  It even has a lesser known name: Z’man Cheiruteinu, meaning “The Time of Liberation.”  I learned that on the Passover for Dummies” website.  Even a secular website like that – probably meant for people new to the holiday, perhaps celebrating for the first time with a Jewish friend – mentions the combination of sadness and happiness.  It says that Passover is celebrated with “a groan.”

So, with all this juxtaposition of sadness and happiness, how is the holiday that different for my family than it is for others not mourning a loss? Well, for one thing the sadness is personal.  It’s kind of hard to get truly broken up about the tragedies that befell our ancestors thousands of years ago, but a tragedy as fresh as 11 months ago – that’s easy to feel bereft about.  Last night as my mother walked around with two of my kids searching for the hametz (bread) with a candle and a feather, my son, J, put his head on my shoulder and asked for a hug.

“Are you sad about Papa?” I whispered.

He shook his head yes.  “It’s ok. I am too,” I assured him.  I don’t think it made him feel better, but at least he knew that he’s not alone.

My father always sat at the head of the table at the Seder – it will be odd without him in that seat.  He also presided over the search for the afikomen and doled out $5 bills to all of the grandchildren – even the grown ones – with a smile.  I’m sure my son is wondering who will preside over the search this year; who will take his place.  Well, the answer is: no one can.  But, that’s ok.  The whole message of Passover is that life is a journey – we suffer setbacks, tragedies even, but as long as you keep moving forward, you’ll survive.  There’s sadness, to be sure, but there’s also rebirth.  No matter what has happened during the dark winter, come spring the flowers will bloom again, the grass will grow green and lush and the trees will shade us with their canopies of leaves.  Passover reminds us of this – the egg on the Seder plate represents rebirth.  It’s there to remind us that life goes on.

And, life does go on – it always does.  Perhaps it’s fitting that the anniversary of my father’s death is just weeks away.  It’s is a good time to liberate ourselves from the shackles of grief and simply remember the good times of Seders past with a smile.  I’m sure my father would have wanted it that way.


6 thoughts on “The Empty Setting

  1. Anonymous says:

    Poignant and elegantly written. Thanks for sharing; it gives me time to pause and reflect on what I have and had instead of focusing on the “burden” of preparing for the holiday.

  2. Jeannie Feldman says:

    Poignant and elegantly written. Thanks for sharing; it gives me time to pause and reflect on what I have and had instead of focusing on the “burden” of preparing for the holiday.

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