What is an anniversary?
Today at sundown I light a candle for my dad.
This weekend I ran into a friend I haven’t seen for almost a full year. I was excited to see her, but she seemed troubled. She has been distant for much of this year but I figured that was just life; I know I have been in personal crisis, but aren’t we all in ongoing crisis? I had tried not to take it personally. This friend was brave enough to be honest: I’d hurt her feelings last December and she’d felt I no longer wanted to continue our friendship. She was hurt. She wanted me to know. She cared enough that she wanted to see if we could repair.
I felt genuinely so sad that she had spent a year feeling this way. I felt embarrassed about my behavior, I felt grateful she had said something. I apologized. It was a sincere apology. And also.
“Babe, I have to be honest with you,” I said. “This isn’t an excuse, it’s just the truth. I haven’t really been able to show up for anyone this year. I have been a bad friend, a selfish friend, a not-present friend. I have just only had this one thought banging around my head every single day: My dad is dead. My dad is dead. My dad is dead. Fuck, my dad is still dead.”
She hugged me. I let her hold me. The thought kept banging.
My dad died in the early hours of January 1, but today at sundown is my Dad’s Yarzheit, the Jewish anniversary of his death.
The Jewish calendar is different than the Gregorian calendar, which is what we use in the United States. Because it moves on a slightly different schedule, the dates of when things happen in Judaism do not line up exactly with the dates most Americans are used to observing in our planners — that’s why Hanukkah sometimes falls directly after Thanksgiving and sometimes falls weeks later on the Winter Solstice, why the Jewish High Holy Days sometimes feel like they happen right at the end of summer and you’re not prepared at all and sometimes happen well into autumn and you’re like, oh my god, is it time to fast for Yom Kippur yet?!
My dad died on the Jewish day 17 Tevet 5781. The Jewish New Year happened in early September this year, so it has been 5782 for a few months now. And today, at sundown, it’s 17 Tevet again. So even though it has not yet been 365 days — the amount of time I personally use to mark a full year — if we are following along with the Jewish calendar, today is a year since my dad’s death. The tiny booklet the funeral home had printed informs me of the exact date on the Gregorian calendar that 17 Tevet falls on every year for the next 20 years, a useful gift for a non-observant Jew such as myself. It will not happen on December 20/December 21 again until 2040.
Yarzheit is specifically the anniversary of the death of a parent or a close family member. To honor the person you light a specific candle, called a Yarzheit candle, and leave it burning for 24 hours, and you say the mourner’s kaddish, a specific prayer for the dead. More observant Jews than I am may be reading this and thinking I’ve gotten things a little bit wrong, and you may be right — the truth is I am not a particularly religious Jew, and when faced with the choice of googling all this to provide an in depth explanation versus just telling it to you the way I understand it, I opted for the latter.
The point is today marks the beginning of what I have been thinking of as “anniversary time” for my dead dad. The point is, this really fucking sucks.
The joke is that tomorrow is my birthday.
“My dad’s Yarzheit falls on my birthday this year,” I’ve been telling friends for months, a set up and a punchline all in one sentence. It won’t happen again until 2040, it’s true, but it’s really something that the first Yarzheit I ever observe falls on my birthday, a day I historically love. I usually make an elaborate plan to celebrate, but I did not do that this year. I don’t know how I’ll feel. I’ll be 33 and my dad will be dead. That is all I know.
Last month, when I was home in Massachusetts for two weeks, I started to write a version of this essay. Here’s what I said:
I am praying for the end of this year. I am dreading the end of this year. When this year is over I will no longer be living the worst year of my life thus far. When this year is over I will no longer be existing in the first year without my dad on this planet. And also — when this year is over life will just keep going on. Soon it will be the second year without my dad on this planet. Then the third. What if I live past 64? Then I will not only be two years older than my father was when he died, I will be alive without my dad for the same amount of time I was alive with my dad. I don’t want any of that. I don’t have a choice, obviously. The days collect; the years will pass by. But I’m both filled with relief as this nightmare of a year comes to its conclusion and absolutely horrified. What will January 2 hold?
So what is an anniversary? I don’t mean technically (we could all google the definition of anniversary, lol) I just mean… what does it do? Today at sundown marks a year in the Jewish calendar since my dad died, but to me that doesn’t feel like the true year mark. Tomorrow is my birthday and I’ll turn 33 but I don’t think I’ll feel very much different than I do today at 32. On January 1, 2022 I will have officially survived one year on this planet without my dad and then… I’ll just have to go on living?
When my mom and I talked about our New Year’s Eve plans this year, which of course to us for the rest of our lives will mean our plans for the anniversary of my dad’s death, she said she wished she could just go to bed until January 2, then immediately acknowledged that it’s not as though things will be different then. Which is true. But also they will be.
After today I will never again celebrate the first Yarzheit for my dad. After this year I will never again acknowledge the first Father’s Day without him here, the first Dad’s Birthday without Dad. That’s comforting, I guess. I guess.
But the thing about living is it keeps happening, and the thing about death is the person who is gone doesn’t exist in your day to day life anymore. I can’t tell my dad about the agent I signed with this year, can’t hear that he’s proud of me for finishing the first draft of my book. I can’t cry to him about my breakup, can’t gush excitedly about a new date. I can’t let him know I’m finally looking for the right synagogue for me in Portland, can’t argue with him about all the things we disagreed on, can’t hear what he thinks about the reboot of Sex and the City (he loved Sex and the City), can’t call him just to hear his voice.
Is an anniversary a time to wallow in my own despair at the permanence of his goneness, or is an anniversary a time to commemorate the wild gift of his life, of his presence, of the way he loved me so much for 32 whole years, of the way he was a really good dad, of the way when he was alive he was so very much here?
I think it’s maybe the second option. I think my whole life I will be sad he is gone, but maybe on the death anniversaries I can be grateful that when he was here, he was really, really, really fucking here. Maybe that’s what an anniversary is. Maybe one day the thought in my head will change from the dull banging — my dad is dead — to a bright ring instead: My dad was alive! My dad was loved! My dad loved me! My dad was here!