He sat in the last bed. My great grandfather reduced to skin and bones. He kept asking for his wife.
"Where's Mama? Where are the kinderlach?" he asked my grandmother.
And I stood by the hospital window looking out at the people rushing down the sidewalks and the cars honking at the intersection. I braced myself for those words that were repeated every week.
"Papa, she's not with us anymore," my grandmother said.
"Gitel, please," my great grandfather pleaded, as he suddenly recognized his eldest daughter. He used her Yiddish name as if he was suspended in time, transported back to the Lower East Side when all his children were tiny and life was so much simpler. The milkman, the iceman and the mailman came to your door each day.
Every time we visited my great grandfather I felt like crying. Every week he forgot that his wife had died. Every day he looked for her. And that raw, searing grief of loss washed over him when we visited. Some weeks he didn't believe my grandmother.
"Why won't Mama come? Doesn't she want to see me?" he asked, scrunching the sheets in his wrinkled hands.
"Papa, I told you. Mama died. She's not here." And for a moment his heart broke across his face.
"Where is she? Where is Mama? Where are my kinderlach?"
What is it like to live in a world without memory? What is it like to look at your children and forget their names? What it is like to take a walk around the block and forget where you live? I watched my grandmother's pain as her father fell into the deepest canyons of forgetfulness.
"My father was tough," my grandmother told me. "But I loved him anyway. Every daughter looks up to her father. Every daughter wants her father's approval."
Sometimes they think they have failed, but a glimmer of love did shoot through the air that Sunday afternoon.
I see these fathers sometimes, the ones who worked from dawn 'til night. The ones on the sidelines. The ones who wish they would have seen the beauty of their children when they were still young. They're the ones who forgot the sippy cup and the favorite teddy bear when they generously embarked on their "daddy is taking over today" journey. Sometimes they think they have failed, but a glimmer of love did shoot through the air that Sunday afternoon. And for a moment, their daughter knew that he loved her.
But there are other fathers. Fathers who serve their children dinner and bathe them, who coach "Little League" and teach their children how to work on a computer. There are fathers who will follow their children through hell: divorce, drugs, confusion, grief. They'll be there because they love their children with all of their heart, all of their soul, putting their whole life on the sidelines to be their cheerleader.
They will know the names of all of your teachers and all of your best friends. They know every team that you‘re on, and even if they're in the middle of a million dollar deal, they'll take your call.
That's my father. He coached my basket ball team even though he had never played. He taught me how to type and told me that I was smart. He brought me snacks when I studied for my SATS and took me and all my friends on a ski vacation when I did well. He flew in right away when his first granddaughter was born and told me to keep on writing. No matter what, I know he will always love me for who I am.
Fathers may forget how they gave that smile, the word of warmth, the extra minute spent before going back to work. But daughters never forget. They remember who first taught them how to believe in themselves. It is our fathers who give us the foundation to love.
Thinking about my great grandfather makes me appreciate that not only do I have my father in this world as a devoted and loving grandfather to my children, but I have all the memories of my life. It's a huge blessing to be able to remember the past and be grateful for the present.
I think about my great grandfather and how he lost his most precious memories. And then I think about my memories; sometimes they are hard and sometimes they are beautiful. But they are there. Like my father and like my Father in Heaven. Safe and true and protective.
Dedicated to my father who cares for his children and grandchildren in a way that no one else can. I thank you for my life, for my confidence, and for my ability to believe in the Almighty.