Today and yesterday were not easy days—I cannot bring myself to comprehend that I will never again see his smiling face, that he will not be a part of my future. Yet, I cannot help but be grateful for the life he lived, the legacy he left. How can I reconcile my personal sadness with my thankfulness for having had the opportunity to know and love such a unique individual? Should my sense of loss be so great that I can feel nothing else? Somehow, I must be able to simultaneously experience both a profound, aching sadness for his absence--this tangible emptiness that fills me up--and a deep thankfulness for the ways in which he affected me, his entire family, and all those who were fortunate enough to meet him. Though his physical presence may be gone, he will live on in his children and grandchildren, in the things we learned from him and the things we will continue to learn from him as the years go by.
Why is it that we only think to write about people once they are gone? There is no way to really capture a person on paper, but it feels more solid than anything else we’ve got. Memories fade—I think that’s the most frightening thing in the world. Stranger yet, memories shift. Without an actual presence, a true reminder, we remake people to fit the things we want to believe about them. We review certain moments and discard others; we turn real people into characters created in our minds. Writing does that, too. But if we write while the person is still real, is still present, we are less likely to fabricate, to tend toward inadvertent steamrollering, converting a three-dimensional person into merely a few facts or anecdotes on a sheet of paper. If the person is still around, he can critique your writing, he can laugh at the deficiencies and quirks of your portrayal; you can add and subtract from it, allow it to develop, as people do. But when someone is gone, it is too late to be completely truthful.
In the fall of 2007, I (briefly) took a class in writing creative non-fiction. On the second day of class, the teacher offhandedly assigned an exercise that he forgot about by the following week, and never asked us to turn in. The task was: write a paragraph beginning, “My grandfather is…”, and proceed to list, with specific detail, items, moments, and ideas that you associate with your relative. Yesterday I dug through the annals of Microsoft Word to find the paragraph I wrote then. It is far from a specimen of my finest writing; it does not come anywhere near close to doing justice to any part of who my Zayde was (“Was”? Using the past tense in conjunction with my grandfather, always so bursting with life, still seems completely incongruous). Yet I feel compelled to share it, as it was (sadly) the only piece of writing I composed about him during his lifetime.
"My Zayde is a lover of life. He is a brilliant nuclear physicist demonstrating bottle rockets to his grandkids in the park, eyes alight. He is mischievous, leading his four sons, the fifth and most excited boy of them all. He is a hike with my father on a mountain, as the sunlight filters, greenish, through the trees. He is a hard worker, sitting for hours poring over equations and sources, singlemindedly focused on his labors, then resurfacing for lunch with the glow of one who has truly earned a break. He is an author, corralling anyone and everyone to read a draft of one of his complex chapters, or to hear about the source for pi he has found in the Torah. When he was young, he was almost an astronaut; he retains the excitement of one who has seen beyond the limits of this world. He is an explorer’s broad-brimmed tan hat with a string hanging down below his chin. He is a ladies man, 80 years old, with an eye for a pretty woman and a flock of devoted female fans. He is a raunchy joke and a hearty laugh. He is a head full of gray hair that grew back after a battle with leukemia that left him just a little thinner, a little weaker. He is two thin, tanned, upraised hands, blessing his sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren Friday night on the Sabbath. My Zayde is a warm hug, as he murmurs into my hair, like a prayer of thanksgiving, “Oh, my darling, darling granddaughter.”'