Lighting a Yahrzeit Candle, And Cursing the Darkness


By Jenni Person

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
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‘Don’t forget you need to light the candle,” my mother responded when I asked her how she was planning on coping come Monday. I wanted to know what she was going to do, how she was going to spend the day. I was concerned about her — but I was also feeling completely at a loss myself. And the truth was, even as I planned a memorial reading of “Casey at the Bat,” I had forgotten about the candle.

I had been thinking for the last couple of months about how to mark the end of my year of mourning for my father. I thought about making donations, making art and gathering friends for some blessing, readings and cheesecake, my dad’s favorite food. But nothing got planned. I don’t want to let go. I don’t feel ready to move out of this phase. I’m not ready, just as I wasn’t ready to stand up from shiva, or to take off my torn garments at the end of the allotted 30 days. I remember worrying that if I didn’t remain an evident mourner I was somehow leaving behind my dad — and I wasn’t done with him. I’m not at all ready to leave him behind.

I wasn’t done with him November 1, 2003 when my mom called to let me know he had died. But more importantly I firmly believe he wasn’t done with him; he wasn’t done living. There was so much more he needed to love doing — from watching my daughter and my sister’s kids grow, to welcoming more grandbabies, to seeing bar mitzvah celebrations, college graduations, weddings….

How could he not survive to defeat his disease? To have a heart transplant and spend the next 15 to 20 years lecturing about it and lobbying for it, and setting up a foundation in the name of the person whose heart he had received and embracing that person’s family like he immediately declared he would when he found out he was a candidate? How could he miss me moving back to Miami, buying a house, starting a business?

How could he miss the Red Sox winning the World Series? He surely would have thought that brought pathos back to the game — the game he loved so dearly that he mourned the death of its integrity as players’ salaries mounted and winning teams got shuffled and bought and sold like baseball cards. Surely he would have been moved by that glorious win — even though outwardly he had given up on the game when the Dodgers left Brooklyn.

And how can I shift from mourner to civilian? How can life possibly ever be normal again? Or rather, how can I accept this — this fractured portrait of my world — as normal?

As I walked through the aisles of the Publix that I don’t like, wending my way to the kosher dry-goods section, I thought, “Who is this person buying a yahrzeit candle?” At first I was relieved when I thought there weren’t any stocked — phew, I could put it off some more. But then, there it was. Eighty-nine cents. Eighty-nine cents? How could this deed only be worth the amount of the parking change in my car?

I reached out and wrapped my fingers around the stout, cold, wax-filled glass. “The Promised Land,” declared the label. I don’t think so. As my hand grasped the glass and brought it off the shelf, I felt myself shift.

Twenty years ago, I decided my signs of adulthood were enjoying grapefruit, driving a manual transmission and wearing underwire bras. I couldn’t imagine those scenarios in my life. But two years later my dad bought me my first five-speed, and I never looked back as I sped around Florida in underwire bras unable to avoid the occasional grapefruit. But now I was someone who bought yahrzeit candles.

I felt like a freshman member of a really sad club as I tried to avoid looking at the candle in my hand. I even forgot it was there and almost dropped it reaching for something else before getting in line. This is not a club I want to be in although I know I am sadly grateful to be surrounded by some amazing friends — a few of whom are my age and have been in the club since my greatest fear was an underwire bra; and friends whose membership was dropped on their heads like an anvil from the top of Mount Everest around the same time as mine.

I walked through the Publix market I don’t like, with each step trying to fit into the shoes of that person who buys yahrzeit candles — but I don’t think I ever got into them. I wasn’t sure how to walk. I didn’t want to risk walking away and leaving my father behind, but I also knew that I was walking toward igniting the fire of his memory.

I was still breathing, much to my surprise, as I paid the cashier. I resisted telling the bagger not to bother putting it in a bag — like that would make it too separate from me. I took the bag like it contained the most fragile treasure in the universe, and I was full of fear of that responsibility.

And the ugliest part was, I had to spend 89 cents to admit he is really gone.

Jenni Person is a writer living in Miami.

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