Is that how it’s going to be now? Life divided into before and after?
My father lifts his hand toward the branches of his towering silver menorah, setting up what will result in a week of oil spills and burnt wicks at its base. He’s the only one whose head rises above the top of the menorah, the rest of us well below his six-foot stature.
The menorah… the one Ima calls a monstrosity, which needs to be schlepped to the silver store for cleaning each year. Now it sits on its pedestal, the expanded windowsill behind the used-to-be-new green couch, staring into the open view of Carlyle Street.
Every year, a day before Chanukah, Abba clears away the picture frames, piles them up in a corner with 30 years’ worth of clutter, while Ima gasps with horror, and tries to ensure that her photo collection shouldn’t get ruined. One or two frames usually do.
We move the couch just a foot away from the windowsill so we can all squeeze behind it for hadlakah.
All year long the menorah sits in the breakfront, so I haven’t seen it in its true home in — how many years has it been? The last time I was back in this house for Chanukah was… well, it was before. Before Elchonon died.
Is that how it’s going to be now? Life divided into before and after? As though one week ago is light years away from where I’m standing today. And where he is now.
I’m exhausted; it’s been such a long week. Tuesday at seven a.m. we got the devastating news. By 11 a.m. I was on a plane to New York, and with the seven-hour time difference it was early evening when I made it to 665 Carlyle Street.
It was one of the longest car rides of my life, with Abba oscillating between silence and small talk. What was there to say? But it was so nice, after 12 hours of loneliness, to be with someone who didn’t need to say anything, and I didn’t need to explain anything. We both knew why I was here.
When the house came into view, I wasn’t ready to see it yet. Sometimes we all gathered here for Yomim Tovim, maybe a summer vacation, but never for Chanukah. I wasn’t supposed to be here. This year was different from all other years.
The levayah was Wednesday morning, and then came the visitors. Every day, until Shabbos, that blessed day when you rise to a different plane of existence, when the tears need to stay behind the closed windows of the soul, and we only speak of good times. Or at least we try to.
We made it to Sunday, after all of the ups and downs and meals and minyanim and the host of halachos I needed to learn but wanted to forget. Sunday night would be the first night of Chanukah, and my flight was in just a few hours. But I had to stay for lighting. It was cutting it close, but this was nonnegotiable: one night of lighting with my mother and father, my sister and my two brothers and their wives, before I returned to Eretz Yisrael to sit one more day of shivah and light with my own family.
My blank stare returns to reality, to see Abba placing the wicks. I fight the fatigue and force myself to keep my eyelids from falling because I want to soak in every ounce of this moment. Maybe it will never come again. Maybe we’ll never be standing here together again. Because the last time we lit with Elchonon, did we know it was the last time?
Abba’s ready to begin.
He lifts his hand again, now with a lit candle ready to set the wicks ablaze. And he begins: “Baruch Atah…”
My eyes are drowning. Abba, after all of the pain of this week, how are you blessing the One Who took your son? Abba, you’ve been through so much, pulled through the wringer time and time again, put to the test in ways the rest of us standing here can only begin to fathom. And yet, you say, “Baruch.”
I look around at my solemn, silent siblings. I don’t know what any of them are thinking, and yet I know we’re all thinking the same thing. We’re closer now than we’ve ever been, than we ever were at any time when Elchonon was still alive. We all have the same feelings and the same questions. We were on the same roller coaster this week. I now say that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who have sat in a shivah chair, and those who haven’t.
We sat together, and now we all stand together.
My flight is soon. My brother David’s wife will drive me to the airport when this is all over. I don’t want it to end, this closeness, this bond. Will plane rides and time differences tear us apart again? I’m not ready to leave yet. I don’t know what will happen at the end of that 6000-mile journey across the ocean.
I won’t be getting any gifts this Chanukah, because the hilchos aveilus sefer said so. It felt like this whole week was all about muttar and assur, even when my emotions weren’t on board. But Elchonon, in his usual way of getting around the rules, figured out how to give me the best gift of all: this family, this moment, this love.
He left us, but he left us with something. And it will now be our job to make sure it stays.
Abba gets to the finale of his brachos: Shehecheyanu v’kiyimanu v’ihigiyanu lazman hazeh. Thank you, Hashem, for bringing us to this moment in time. And with a full heart, I feel the words were never more true.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 770)
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