On Jan. 8, 2017, my older brother Jeremy let himself into my Berkeley apartment in the middle of the night and told me that my dad had died. “I have bad news,” he said, approaching my bed as I rubbed my eyes and propped myself up. “Really bad.” I waited.
After he told me, I wailed for what felt like an hour, but it was 10 minutes. I remember looking down at my watch and seeing the second hand move as if through molasses. Everything slow.
My dad had been healthy, funny, 66. The day before, he’d sent me a text: “Beautiful!” and a recent picture of me, close up, on my face. A few days before that: “Chloe joon, if convenient, bring along your old MacBook.” He’d wanted to take a look at it. “Hi Beauty, where are you?” he wrote, a couple days before that, trying to find me at the mall. We’d just eaten eggs around the table on New Year’s Day and talked politics.
I hadn’t considered my parents’ mortality much before this. At a newly minted 26, I thought myself much too young to do so. None of my friends’ parents had died, and my grandparents had passed in their 80s. Besides, planning for the worst rarely fell to me, as the youngest child of three. Growing up, the roles in my family ran strong. Oldest was oldest. Middle was middle. And baby, was, gratefully, baby. I can see my dad reading that line and clasping his hand on the back of my neck with an encouraging laugh: “Right on, joonie! I like your clarity!” No one took my posts on the list more seriously than my dad.
When I was 4, he’d bring me to a neighborhood café and, at my request, pretend we hadn’t come together, letting me order a pastry at the counter by myself, and then, after I had taken a seat alone in a booth, waltzing in and asking in a loud, performative voice, “Can I please join you, miss?” When I was 7, he delighted in buying doughnuts for the carpool on the way to school, thrilling neighborhood children and prompting countless protest calls from their mothers. At 13, when I arrived 45 minutes late to our pick-up spot after camp, he spoke sharply to me for the first time I can remember — until he saw my eyes widen in shock and revealed he’d just been faking it because he thought it was the “regular parent thing to do.” At age 17, I ran his car into the garage door, and he just took the keys and said he’d take care of it.
Even when my brother Jeremy broke ranks, flipping the parent-kid dynamic by serving as my dad’s business adviser, I delighted in staying the baby. Around my dad, I felt my littlest — protected, whole, swaddled in a bulletproof love.
The funeral was on top of a hill at Skylawn Cemetery in Half Moon Bay, a half-hour from my parents’ house in Woodside, Calif. My dad loved Half Moon Bay, loved speeding on the winding drive down I-96 through the eucalyptus forest, and past the succulent stores and horseback-riding joints, loved the ocean and bending down to wet his face with the salty water (“it’s so heathy, my garbunet!”), loved treating the Ritz like his office, sitting at the hotel café for hours with just a cup of coffee, then on to Barbara’s Shack, a little hole in the wall where he’d get a bucket of mussels for lunch and let me take the seat with the view.
I was wearing my favorite black dress — one of the many pieces he had lavished on me in high school, when, much to my mother’s dismay, he and I basically lived at Stanford Shopping Center. We used to hit up See’s Candies first, pretending to browse until they offered us our free sample, then on to La Baguette for an afternoon snack: almond croissant for him, chocolate éclair for me. “You scored big today! Got some good loot,” he’d smile, as I piled bags into his car. The dress was a little casual for a funeral, but I knew he wouldn’t mind.
We drove to the ceremony in my dad’s car — his dear friend Tom at the wheel, my mom in the front seat, and me and my older brothers Darius and Jeremy cramped in the back. Somehow I was surprised when Tom pulled off of I-96 onto an unfamiliar road headed towards a cemetery.
I watched the ceremony from the front row of the chapel, arms linked with Jeremy on my left and my mom on my right, as the rabbi recited psalms and Darius gave the eulogy in a strained tenor. In a vivid display of youngest behavior, I had suggested during the preparations that I give the final speech, promising to “bring down the house.” This sort of boastful gag was a favorite of my dad’s. “I’m baaaack!” I used to sing, walking in the door at the end of the day at elementary school. “You’re back!” he’d say. “The crowd can go wild! I like that approach!” He loved that I walked around the world like I owned the place.
He hadn’t grown up that way. His parents left their native Baghdad for Tehran before he was born, and he was the first in his family to immigrate to the States, a solo 16-year-old with a scholarship to an American high school. Eli Zelkha was an Arab Jew in Muslim Persia, and then an immigrant in the States. I was, thoroughly and simply, from Palo Alto, Calif. Upper-middle class, an “A” student and native to my environment. I had trusted life. He was thrilled on my behalf.
We walked to the place where they were to lower the coffin into the ground. It was wet, one of those foggy Half Moon Bay days, and my tears were mixed up with the cool, damp air below a vast gray sky. Two men cranked metal levers on either side of the rectangle hole, and the coffin descended. We could see it until it hit water — probably rain, from the morning. My mom, disturbed by the sound, grabbed my elbow. “Dad always liked the water,” I whispered in her ear.
After they lowered the coffin, mourners started stepping up one by one to ritually shovel dirt into the grave. The line-up included people younger than me — my teenage nephew, a cousin who had just graduated high school. It was all wrong, I thought. How dare they? Someone should stop them. My dad’s favorite people to protect were burying him. He’d be enraged. He’d call customer service. He’d ask for a complementary upgrade. He’d be sure to correct this error.
One afternoon when I was 10, I mistakenly broke a plate in the kitchen. I was balancing on a high stool and pulling the dish out of a wooden cabinet when it slipped out of my hands and shattered on the tile floor. A waterfall of fear rushed over me as I imagined telling my mom. It was from our everyday set, nothing special, but just the same, it rattled me. I was a goodie-two-shoes kind of kid, and hated making mistakes. My mom was a loving and generous parent, but she had an exacting presence, too.
I stumbled off the stool and rushed into the living room, where my dad was at his desk typing on his iMac. The desk was covered in stacks of paper and faced a wall with an aspirational image of his new entrepreneurial venture: Live Wall, a massive video-conferencing screen that would run along two public parks, one in Rio and one in San Francisco. The company wasn’t going so well. Next to it was another image, this one on poster board, a more DIY job. A pixelated black horse, galloping into the blank-white-page distance with a handwritten line underneath: I deserve to feel free. I deserve to make and keep commitments. My dad’s mantra for quitting cigarettes. He had quit years ago, but it was still up.
I put my hand on his knee to get his attention as tears spilled down my cheeks. “Dad! Dad! I broke a plate!” I tripped over my words trying to explain.
He was unperturbed. “No problem, my joonie. What happened? You broke a plate, that’s it? That’s the thing?” Joonie, Farsi for “darling,” one of the many things my dad called me. Now, piecing together the Farsi I know is like thumbing through a dictionary of affection: Coochooloo: little one. Nahzee: cuddle. Garbunet beram: I would sacrifice myself for you. Garbuna sheklet: I would sacrifice myself for your looks.
My dad looked down at my anxious face and put a firm hand around the base of my neck: “You little animal.”
He walked me into the kitchen, hoisted me onto the kitchen counter so that my legs dangled over the side and grabbed a plate from the cabinet. He looked right at me. “Want to know how much that matters to me?” he said, as he let it go. The sound of it smashing on the floor thrilled me. My jaw went slack. My eyes met his in conspiratorial joy.
“See how much I care about that?” he said. I grinned, disbelieving.
I nodded, hesitantly.
“You need me to do that again?”
I nodded again.
He reached for another plate and dropped it. I was laughing before it hit the floor.
A few years ago, I found myself breaking things again. After working for some time as a hospital chaplain, I was leading a weekend “grief retreat” at Urban Adamah for 40 young adults who had lost parents, siblings, partners and dear friends. One afternoon, we stood in a circle for a ritual, cinderblocks in front of us, sledgehammers in our hands, mad scientist goggles on our faces. “Ready … Set … Smash!” yelled the facilitator and smash we did. Pieces of cement flew into my sweaty hair, and I was exhilarated. When we were done, I looked into the wreckage and sighed in relief. “Finally,” I thought, “the insides match the outsides.” Everything broken.
The Jewish tradition is no stranger to rituals that center brokenness. When a couple gets engaged, their families gather for tenayim and break a plate to symbolize the loss of the old family structure. Grieving someone’s death, we practice kriyah, ripping our clothes or a black ribbon. As part of taharah, we lay shards of broken pottery on the eyes of the deceased. We stomp on a glass at the huppah, lifting up the brokenness in the world even in a moment of profound joy. And in an iconic moment in Torah, Moshe smashes the tablets in grief and rage at his fellow Israelites. “Grief is a breaking,” the tradition seems to say, “so instead of turning away from it, why not make it visible?” Why not break something that you can hold, wear, see?
What should we do with the broken pieces, then? The Talmud teaches that the shards of Moshe’s tablets get placed in the Ark that follows the Israelites through the desert (Bava Batra 14b). Far from being cast off, they are held close, treated as sacred objects. A midrash notes that when Moshe starts feeling guilty about his outburst, God explains that the second set of tablets will have not only the Ten Commandments, but also Halakhah, Midrash and Aggadah (Shemot Rabba 46:1).* Brokenness, that is, leads to wholeness. There was no way for Moshe to get the fullness of Torah without first smashing the tablets. There is no way out except through. Besides, as the Kotzker Rebbe famously taught, there’s nothing so whole as a broken heart.
The day after my dad died, I woke up with a kick-drum headache — eyes blurry, jaw stiff, throat mysteriously burning (reflux, I later learned). I remember looking in the mirror and not recognizing myself, feeling like my face had actually changed. The skin below my bottom lip was puffy, my chin was dimpled. A few weeks later, when I went to the dentist for a routine cleaning, she took one look inside my mouth and said, “Did you get punched in the face?” My temporomandibular joint had shifted off its axis. It was like my body was having an allergic reaction to grief. Everything breaking.
Previously, I might have gone about remedying my physical ailments calmly, sure in the knowledge they’d go away. But now I wasn’t so sure. He’d just died, I thought. I called every specialist. But they didn’t know, couldn’t solve it, and I didn’t trust them anyway.
When my dad was alive, the me he knew was young — young in the way you are before someone you think will never die goes ahead and dies anyway. In those weeks after he died, one of the thoughts that sent me quickest to tears was the idea that that ease in the world he loved in me had been irreparably punctured. That part of me dying with him — that would kill him, I thought. It was a triple grief: that he died, that the me he knew died with him, and that he’d grieve that me, too.
It’s been five years now. My body has mostly recovered, but there are battle wounds — occasional reflux, the quarterly headache, an offset jaw.
Four years ago, I got married. My husband and I stood under my dad’s favorite Afghan rug, strung up on wooden poles. I looked out at a sea of glowing eyes — and saw my mom in tears. But when a gust of wind blew the rug into the sky, straining it against the poles, she called out, “Hello, Eli!” and laughed. And when we stomped on the wine glass to close, I could almost hear him yell, “Mashallah!” He never worried about me breaking things.
These days, I know things can and do break. There’s something to that, being with things as they really are. In the holiest moments, I notice now, the wholeness and the brokenness interrupt each other and get to talking.
*With gratitude to my teacher and friend Adina Allen, for first introducing these texts to me.