Thirty-one years later, I’m still searching for answers. My family, my friends, and my readers these last two decades know that Chanukah of 1989 shook me up and changed my life. That was when my father suddenly died, and in that instant so much just completely changed.
But that was a long time ago. I have a photograph on top of a bookcase in my office of my parents smiling into the camera at the bar mitzvah of one of my nephews. It was about four months before my father passed away.
I cannot say I study the photo every day; I don’t. On most days I see it and take note of the fact that I see it, as if just checking to make sure that it is still there. At other times, however, the picture catches my eye and I stare at it and study it and just keep looking. This can go on for a few minutes.
What am I thinking during these occasional nostalgic few minutes? Now that I am pondering the matter, I think it is this. I am looking at my father’s face and grappling with the following: Did I know this man? Is that the man I was so close to and knew so well?
It’s not a revelation of any kind but the gulf in time is so great, and I just have trouble grasping the idea or connecting the dots of time that has elapsed over all these years. I used to think that when he passed away, everything froze, in a sense; it was as if time suddenly came to a standstill. But as I can attest to now, it really didn’t stop, not for a single second.
There are several things going on that I tend to conjure up at this time of year. But first allow me to point out that I am not obsessed and I don’t think about these things most of the time. Weeks can go by before I glance over at my parents’ photo for a moment or two, and that’s it — I move forward and move on.
This is what I think I’m dealing with, and I’m sure many of you find yourself in the same situation. And that is the manner in which I need to reconcile how close we were and how close we still are in many ways, but also how distant we are in time and probably space as well.
My father, R’ Nison Gordon, passed away early on a Thursday morning after we lit the sixth wick of Chanukah. The phone rang on my night table at 3:50 a.m. Who calls at that hour unless it is a wrong number from a different time zone or a matter like this one?
I told my mom I’d be right over. We still lived in Brooklyn and it was about a 10-mile drive, which at that hour should have taken no more than 20 minutes. I quickly got dressed and got into my car for the drive up Ocean Avenue toward Crown Heights. It had snowed lightly earlier in the night but had since stopped.
I stopped at a light at Ocean Avenue and Parkside Avenue. There was a well-lit McDonald’s at that corner that looked like it was open all night. There were two men standing on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, and while I was waiting for the light to turn green I looked over at them, wondering what they were doing on the street at this ungodly hour. I knew what I was doing — going over to my parents’ home to deal with that which was still unknown to me. There were no cellphones yet, so I was alone with whatever I was thinking.
There was an ambulance as well as two Hatzalah cars in front of the house when I arrived. The door was unlocked, so I just stepped inside to my new reality. The miracle of Chanukah was shattered. The dream of the chag had suddenly turned into a nightmare.
I can clearly recall now that everything was calm, even serene. By the time I arrived, a local doctor who resided down the street was already sitting at the dining room table and started asking me questions so that he would be able to finish filling out the death certificate. My mother was milling around, my cousin who was a Hatzalah volunteer was there, everyone was composed and doing what needed to be done.
The next matter to deal with was that a long time prior to his passing, my father had chosen to be buried in Israel. His parents were interred in Queens, not far from the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s kever, the Ohel. My mother knew about it, and we, his children, knew about it, but not the rest of the family.
My aunt and uncle were in the house and they heard me say, “OK, we are going to Israel.” They looked at me, a bit puzzled and unsure of what I was talking about, but it was early in the morning. The process was put in motion, and we were on a plane to Israel at 4 p.m. that afternoon.
At that point I had not been in Israel for ten years. Work and young kids at home made it difficult to get away at that point in our lives. But this sudden trip changed all that going forward. After I had a chance to reflect on that experience I realized that this, too, was a manifestation of my father’s wisdom. I believe he thought that we needed a catalyst and a motivation to get us to include Eretz Yisrael in our lives, and this was it.
We arrived in Israel on the seventh day of Chanukah. It was a Friday morning in late December. The sun was shining brightly and the temperature was in the seventies. We said Kaddish that afternoon at Minchah at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. The next morning we were up very early, still stunned, but it was another beautiful summer-like day in midwinter, so we walked to the Kotel where we found a minyan and said Kaddish again.
All these years — decades — later, and I am still there in those moments that seem frozen in time. I suppose if other stunning things had not happened to us, like the passing of my son-in-law almost two years ago, I would still be dwelling almost exclusively on my father’s passing, only because we were young and I always thought that he had so much more to contribute.
But Moshe’s passing erased all that, and I felt foolish feeling sorry for myself. Still, of late, and in particular at this time of year, as Chanukah approaches, I think about what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a’h, who passed away a few weeks ago, said. He was the same age as my father at his death, 72. I mentioned it here a few weeks ago — that is Rabbi Sacks’s idea about why it is that bad things happen to good people and the frustrating desire to understand those things.
The rabbi said that not being able to understand why bad things happen to good people is a manifestation of G-d’s Will. It is His Will that we specifically not understand those things; our inability and frustration over this is a fulfillment of that Divine Desire.
The challenge is to accept those things, to be strengthened, and to keep the memory of those we love alive in our hearts forever.
Contact Larry Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.