Tonight, the Washington Nationals are playing in Game Six of the World Series. They will either achieve the championship or, at the very least, have had the historical achievement of playing in their first World Series.
And my father isn’t alive to see it—he died 38 days ago.
In April, at the very beginning of the baseball season, I went to a Nationals game in D.C., where I grew up and where Dad spent his adult life. I was with Dad, my sister, my husband, and our eight-year-old son.
To everything there is a season, and this was a season of Dad’s year of cancer treatment, when he was tolerating chemotherapy well and taking things as they came. It was a sparkling day. We were in such good spirits we didn’t even get annoyed when security rules we didn’t know about meant we had to throw away an old backpack because it wasn’t allowed into the stadium. Our pockets bulging with all our stuff, we clapped and cheered as the Nats won. We took so many pictures.
Despite that early victory, the Nationals’ season had a disastrous start—they had the worst record in baseball as late as mid-May. At the time, Dad’s chemotherapy stood in contrast to the team’s downward spiral. But the Nationals turned their record around. Dad’s health, sadly, remained on the opposite trajectory of his team’s.
Dad and I saw the beginning of the baseball season together. And I will watch its end—not alone, exactly, but without him.
Not unlike baseball, life can take wild, emotional turns at any moment. Judaism, famously structured and ritualized as it is throughout the first year of mourning, is perhaps uniquely qualified to meet this reality with a clear gaze. It’s a great strength of our tradition that we mourn in very concrete ways, with a menu of practices for the first seven days after death (shiva), the thirty days following burial (shloshim), and on to the first anniversary of the death (yahrzeit).
The transition from one of these categories of mourning to another can be jarring and surreal. It was especially so for me, as it turns out that when the High Holy Days occur during the shloshim, the rest of that period is annulled. So just like that, on the Friday night before the week the Washington Nationals started their first World Series, I found myself suddenly, bizarrely, outside the inner sanctum of deepest grief.
I was commanded to move on, to step into the next concentric circle away from the tender, aching center-point when my mother, sister, and I stood by Dad’s bedside as he exhaled and did not again inhale. Because you know, that’s what happened. It happened yesterday. Three days ago. Two weeks ago. Thirty-eight days ago. Five minutes ago.
“This is so strange,” I murmured to my rabbi from this maelstrom of time, as I asked her why Dad’s name was absent from the shloshim list. My feet suddenly felt heavy. The boundary between concentric circles threatened like quicksand.
“Yes, it is strange,” the rabbi said simply, patiently. Our tradition knows how to make space not only for mourning, but for grief, space to feel shaken by the unanticipated early absence of my dad’s name from the list I had just gotten used to seeing his name on. Grief comes not at mandated moments, but in micro-bursts that can materialize out of the slightest breeze.
We love sports in part for their symbolic power; they give us a shared cultural vocabulary for our emotional lives. Of course, as the Washington Nationals get ready to either win or lose their first World Series, I am hardly prepared to equate the loss of a game with the loss of a parent.
But the connection between the end of this baseball season and the end of my father’s life is tugging at me today, because both must do just that—end. If the Nationals lose, there will, for fans, be a structured and boundaried period of mourning. Many will even use that term to describe their disappointment But grief? Nope—that’s not the right word for something that will begin again next season.
Mourning is the social media meme and the sorrowful after-game beer. Grief is the incredulous realization that nothing I can do will enable me to pick up the phone and ask Dad, “You’re watching this, right?”
Dad was a pragmatic man, and he knew that a fact of life is that none of us will get to see how it turns out, the cosmic “it.” Those we love and leave behind will have to see it through, and the next time spring brightens the world, they will, we pray, usher in the next season, and many more after that.
So that’s what my son Ben will be doing as he watches the Nationals take the field tonight. He’ll be wearing my dad’s red cap with the stylized “W” on it, the one Dad was wearing in those pictures we took six months ago at that April game. Or was that five minutes ago?
At my side, in his Pops’ hat, he will be inhabiting the Jewish ideal that those we have lost survive in the world precisely because we find ways to remember them and live good lives.
But bedtime is bedtime, so Ben won’t get to see how the game ends. Someone will win, someone else will lose. We’ll tell him tomorrow, which will be the 39th day of my season of grief. What happens after that? I don’t know that any more than I know how the Nationals will look next season. Or how I’ll navigate this one.
What I do know is this—my father’s hat fits my son. Its soft red cloth cradles the hair my Dad so often tousled, reminding him—and me—that though all things must end, the important things in life will always survive, whether we win or lose.