I said it on our deck, in the early morning, while the coffee maker hissed. I said it in a pocket park on West 56th Street in Manhattan. I said it while standing calf-deep in Atlantic surf, eyeing the gray seam where ocean was soldered to sky.
And this morning, I said Kaddish for my father for the 333rd time.
It's the Jewish custom, when someone very close to you dies, to say the mourners' prayer daily for eleven months, beginning at the burial. Then you stop, cold turkey, and recite the prayer again on the yahrzeit, the one-year anniversary of the death. You're supposed to say Kaddish in a minyan—that is, a group of at least ten Jewish adults—but when I voiced my reluctance to head for the nearest Conservative synagogue with a daily service, my rabbi suggested I could say Kaddish anywhere. "Let the trees be your minyan," she said.
I took her literally. In those first ragged days after my father died, I slipped outdoors each morning to murmur the prayer under the dogwood and lilac branches that arch over our deck. I needed a cheat sheet back then, a handy card from the funeral home that had the Hebrew on one side and a transliteration on the other: Yitgadal ve-yitkadash sh'mei raba …
I couldn't get through the prayer without sobbing.
The lilac buds uncorked into purplish blossoms, the dogwood flowers sprang open, lasted a lovely little while, then flecked the ground like confetti. The next-door neighbor told us she was pregnant. My daughter graduated from middle school, and we celebrated with a sushi lunch. An arborist's crew mixed up their work order and chopped down the dogwood tree; the stump wept sap for days. Every moment ached with my father's absence.
I kept saying Kaddish, a skein of words to steady me as I wobbled through weeks, months. After a while, I didn't need the little card anymore, and I whispered the prayer wherever I happened to be, at whatever time of day I thought about my dad: while braiding challah on a Friday afternoon; while running past cornfields near Canada's Lake St. Clair; while raking leaves and yanking out the wizened tomato vines. Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh l'alam u-l'almei almaya.
The birch leaves turned the color of lemon custard, and the Kaddish became my walking prayer, my swimming prayer, my scrubbing-caked-flour-off-the-cutting-board prayer, braided more and more into the weft of each day. Sometimes I forgot to say it until evening; I'd turn out the kitchen lights and stand at the back door, staring into darkness, unable to see where our yard ended and the neighbors' yards began.
I said Kaddish when winter licked frostily under the doors and my daughter bundled herself in my dad's gray cashmere turtleneck. I said it while cross-country skiing down the block after an epic January storm, and the next day, while shoveling crusty snow from the foot of the driveway.
And as winter yielded to a crazy-warm spring, I began to count backward: Twenty-one more days of saying Kaddish. Fifteen. Six. Three. One.
At college graduation, we toss our tassels from right to left, a gesture of finality and commencement. I remember the ultimate moment in my first apartment, giving one last, grateful glance to the 12'x17' room that had been my home for two years, and the metallic ting of the trunk on my red Nissan just before the old couple from Forest Grove drove it out of my sight.
But most of the time, last moments become "last" only in hindsight. I had a guitar lesson on a Monday night in February, and eight days later, my teacher dropped dead of heart failure. The night of the lesson I didn't know would be my last, I opened my teacher's unlocked front door, said hey to his dog and bumped my guitar downstairs to the grubby basement studio.
In retrospect, it all quivers with meaning—the Lucy Kaplansky song I was muddling through, with its chorus of, "Ohh ... it's time to go/It's a dirty trick/this growing old"; the way Richard scrounged for a pencil to chart the chords. I'm pretty sure I said goodbye—I hope I said "thank you," too—as I handed him the check.
My father has been gone nearly a year; my guitar teacher, less than two weeks. The lilac is in bud again, and the dogwood sapling the arborist planted to rectify his mistake is stretching its thin arms toward a seamless blue sky. The neighbors had their baby, a boy they call Ellison. This morning, I ran to the Wissahickon woods, two miles from our home, and said Kaddish for the last time amid the tik-tik of a woodpecker, the creek water sighing toward ocean.
In a story by Donald Barthelme, about a grade-school class that suffers a rash of calamities, including the deaths of class pets, parents and fellow students, the kids ask their teacher, "Is death that which gives meaning to life?" The teacher responds, "No, life is that which gives meaning to life."
Any moment could be—no, is—the last of its kind. You'll wash those dishes again in 24 hours, but you'll be a day older, altered minutely or profoundly in a world revised, ever so slightly, by your presence in it. Today is the last day you'll scrub the plate exactly like this, with the sun arrowing through the window so hard it hurts to squint into the morning-soaked back yard, in this kitchen where you once paced with your infant daughter footballed under your arm, where you twisted the cork from the chilled bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc your father had just carried into the room, where you sat on the tile floor while your partner cooked and played guitar for the sheer joy of it, as your teacher taught you, the only reason to take up music in middle age.
You know you can't live like this, seething and heartbroken and ecstatic and aware, so aware, that every passing second whispers farewell. One day, you'll notice and cherish; another, you'll buzz through and forget. And then something—a sip of wine, a word, a chord, a death—will pierce through and remind you.
When the rabbi suggested I could skirt daily service attendance by calling the trees my minyan, she wasn't telling me to make the prayer more expedient—just more expansive: Life is holy. Grief is everywhere. Love is always.
Oseh shalom bi-m'romav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol Yisrael, v'al kol Ishmael, v'al kol yoshvei tevel v'imru amen.