This week marks 10 years since my dad died. On the eve of his death, I sat down and wrote this message to my family, friends, and community. I am sharing it with you in my dad’s memory and because I believe the message is just as important today as it was a decade ago:
Life, in part, is about letting go. And letting go is hard. It is not a bad thing, for in order to let go, you need to have had something that was worth letting go; something meaningful, something filled with love. When we truly love someone, we need to be prepared and able to let go. Throughout life we are confronted with times of transition when letting go is necessary. Sometimes it comes gently, sometimes in intense moments.
It is the eve of September and in the coming days and weeks I will be letting go of three very important people in my life. Two are leaving the “nest,” as they should, to begin their next exciting journey in life. One is embarking on a journey that ultimately, near its end, will have to be traveled alone.
My two sons are moving out in the next few weeks; off to college to branch out and pursue their dreams as they appropriately become more independent. The thought of them leaving fills me with sadness and my eyes with tears. But I recognize this as a good thing. It is recognition of our wonderful bonds and relationships. It represents wonderful childhood years and the joy of being their father and watching and helping them to grow. It is a reflection of all of the wonderful memories we have created together. So, the sadness and tears are all fulfilling. You see, I want them to go – they need to go and begin their lives, as I did when I left my parents’ home.
In many ways, I have been preparing for this for years. I have been letting go since they have been toddlers in order for them to individualize and embrace their lives. I let go when they went to preschool, kindergarten, high school, summers away, and when they began to drive (oy!). While always the advisor and coach, I have been letting go so that they could own the consequences of their decisions – good and not so good. Now they are ready – ready to stand on their own two feet – to embrace life.
The Torah guides me and gives me strength as I think of the Pasuk, “A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife so that they become one flesh.” It is meant to be this way, that our children leave us to make their way in the world.
I am sad because I will miss them. And I am content to be sad. The sadness that comes with their leaving is yet another reminder of my unending love for my two beautiful sons. I also know that they will be back and our relationships will continue to grow and develop into healthy adult relationships as they move forward in their lives.
My two sons are leaving and so is my father. My father is in home hospice at our house. Less than three years after my mother died, I am now letting go of my father too. Hospice is an unusual gift of time to be able to say goodbye in a loving, spiritual, and peaceful way. We talk, watch football together, and reminisce. My amazing wife takes gentle, loving care of him, and along with us, our four children are with him as well. I find myself staring at him, trying to take in as much as I can, and knowing it will soon end forever. Letting go of my dad represents the end of my status as a child of a living parent. I will be an adult, a father, an elder in my family. I look at him and I see my childhood. There are only good memories, warm feelings and love. My parents were about family, love, and support. All of my memories give me strength and peace. Even more, to have this blessing to be able to care for my father and to help him die peacefully, comfortably and surrounded by love, brings life, not death into full focus!
As we make decisions concerning my father, our Jewish tradition guides me, providing me with strength and peace. I am not only fulfilling the Mitzvah of honoring my father, but also, many other Mitzvot are involved as well. The Jewish context creates profound meaning and brings into full focus the power, the miracle and the awe of life. It also provides us with specific guidance. What does Judaism have to say about accelerating death vs. prolonging death or prolonging life? With an understanding of the Jewish way of death and dying, we are able to make decisions that are life affirming, compassionate and soundly grounded in Jewish wisdom. This provides a tremendous source of comfort. Thousands of years of wisdom help us to make good choices.
I look at my dad, and like my sons, I am filled with sadness and my eyes fill with tears. I am not ready to let go, but it is not my choice. This sadness, too, validates that while the letting go is hard, my heart is full and at peace. For me, the sadness of letting go, cushioned by the fullness of the heart, means that I was blessed to have someone really special in my life– a father who cared for me, loved me and touched me. I can only hope that I affected him in some meaningful and lasting way as well.
As the new school year begins, I pray that you will have the strength and understanding to let go of your children, little by little, so that they can individualize, fully embrace their lives, and be prepared to successfully leave your nest when the time comes. The difficulty in letting go is normal – but letting go is necessary. And as you perfect the art of letting go I hope that you recognize, as I have, that it is filled with meaning, selfless love, and more often than not, an affirmation of life!
As we approach the New Year, may each of you and your families go from strength to strength, guided by the profound wisdom and practices of our Jewish tradition!
PostScript: Both sons are now married, one lives in New York with his wife and the other in Birmingham with his wife and our grandson. We have a daughter who lives in Atlanta and our youngest daughter, who also lives in New York, will be married in January. My wife and I are truly blessed.