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A few years ago, my dad was hit and killed by an oncoming SUV as he was walking home. The accident happened less than a year after he moved to California to be closer to my brother and me. He suffered from bipolar disorder for my entire life, and was in good shape for the first time in a long time—we were just getting to know each other when I was forced to suddenly say goodbye.
The holidays were really special to my dad. He saw them as reminders of his childhood—a happier time before the height of his disorder.
One of the hardest parts was realizing that he would no longer be around for major life events. Specifically, the holidays were really special to my dad. He saw them as reminders of his childhood—a happier time before the height of his disorder. When my brother and I were younger, my dad always made a big effort for Hanukkah. He taught us the traditions of lighting the menorah, reciting prayers, making his favorite foods—latkes with applesauce and matzo ball soup—and giving us thoughtful gifts for each night. He would even wrap them carefully in Hanukkah-themed wrapping paper.
As we got older, we couldn’t always physically be together for holidays, so my dad would send handwritten cards to my brother and me. For every holiday—whether it be Valentine’s Day, Passover, Hanukkah, or New Year’s—we would get a card. They were a perfect example of how thoughtful my dad was. And I would send him cards, too.
I remember the first New Year’s Eve without my dad. My fiancé took me to a party. It was strange to be around so many people celebrating the new year when I didn’t want the year to end. For me, it signaled the passage of time. It would mean that a year had passed since I last hugged my dad. I worried that my memories of him would start to fade.
I’ve been lucky to find that during these hard times, my friends are there for me. I get texts from them saying, “I’m just checking in on you.” They don’t ask me how I am, but rather just acknowledge the loss and pain that I’m feeling. They also support me simply by remembering who my dad was. For instance, one year a family friend named the qualities she misses about my dad. She reminisced on how handsome, kind, and brilliant he was. That meant a lot. It showed me that other people remember my dad’s best qualities, too.
The tastes and smells of those holiday dishes bring to mind happy memories of the holidays with my dad and brother.
I’ve also found small ways to continue to make my dad a part of the holidays. Since he died, the Jewish holiday traditions are more important to me than ever before. When he was alive, I would only light the menorah on the first night of Hanukkah. But now I make it a custom to light the menorah on all eight nights, along with a yahrzeit candle. I do this in memory of the oil that burned for eight nights, and for my dad. I also try to eat all the traditional foods I used to share with my dad. The tastes and smells of those holiday dishes bring to mind happy memories of the holidays with my dad and brother. And though I don’t have kids of my own yet, when I’m around my friends’ kids, I give them a Hanukkah present each night. Finding other families to celebrate with reminds me of what it was like for my dad, my brother, and me when we were young.
Though I know this year will still be difficult, I have places to turn when things get rough. I’ll light the menorah, and I’ll make Hanukkah cookies and latkes with my best friend, Lillian, and her two children, Naomi and Margot. I’ll watch Woody Allen movies, because they were my dad’s favorite. And when I’m missing my dad the most, I’ll go through the cards he sent me over the years—I’ve kept every single one. The collection of cards is like a diary of our relationship. They give me comfort when I feel the most pain, and they remind me that for us, the holidays were never about material things—they were, and always will be, about family and love.
Image credit: Alissa Pagels