A year ago, I didn’t know that Christmas would be the last time I would see my Dad alive.
A year ago, we sat around a humble dinner table decked out with Christmas finest and enjoyed a meal, a conversation, some laughs and some tears. He had come to the door wearing that dark checked flannel shirt, decked out in suspenders. My dad had begun shuffling a bit, which I didn’t think much of in spite of his being a tango instructor. I had caught his hand shaking ever so slightly at his birthday a few months prior. But again, I shelved any fears I had away.
The thing is, in the end, we want the people we love to stay with us.
I remember how gentle he’d been that evening. I remember the sound of his wife’s laughter and the ever-changing expressions that flit across his face and passed over his eyes that drove us to chuckle aloud. My mom arrived after work and the four of us lingered at the table talking late into the night. My dad was a night owl and somehow I always left too soon. He loved to draw out conversations. He loved company.
My mom does not love San Francisco in December. After one bad spell of sickness in a drafty house a few years prior, last Christmas she had refrained from visiting. This pushed my hand to make the trek down to celebrate and spend the holiday with the parents. What if…
It’s easy in retrospect to play the what-if game. What if I had gone home to visit when he originally got sick in March? What if we’d gotten a chance to talk one more time? What if… This line of questions is a circle of nothingness. Nothing gained from the asking. And so I’ve learned not to. Acceptance comes in small waves. Amazingly I never deleted the photos from Christmas 2009 off my SLR. We’ll call it laziness or perhaps premonition.
I dreaded Christmas Eve this year. Or to be more precise my body was bracing me for it. Tightness in my shoulders and back. Headaches that stretched from night to day. Lack of hunger. Sleeplessness. The list goes on. Beck is great at massage. At bringing the glass of water and Tylenol. At cooking. At wrapping me up in a safe haven of arms and legs. He’s become good at reading the signs. My boy is a fast responder.
The more time marches on, the farther I move away from my Dad. And yet… there are the sparks of epiphany.
Last weekend Beck’s mom and dad treated Olga and I to an afternoon at the symphony and dinner at the Slanted Door. We filed into the busy lobby and up the stairs, seating ourselves for an excursion into Handel’s Messiah. Olga had whispered to me earlier in the day that Handel’s brilliance in the Messiah was how the music patterned after the words. The chorus swelled, the soloists’ voices soared and the instruments swept through the hall. We neared the familiar Hallelujah chorus, and I stood along with all of the other attendees. This act jettisoned me into epiphany. I expected disdainful sentimentality and instead found sweetness. I closed my eyes and could see a heavenly chorus singing. I could hear my father’s strong bass voice. For that moment, I understood and could envision my Dad singing Hallelujah. It brought a clutch in my throat, my eyes laden with a few tears. But this time, I didn’t feel heaviness. This time, I felt buoyancy.
In grief support group, each of us lights a candle every time we meet followed by the name of the person we are representing. When we met as a formal group up until the end of September, the rabbi would close our weekly time together with the words, “May his memory be for blessing.”
I baked this cake last week for a friend in our grief support group. He was celebrating his birthday the next day and we both understood that searing peculiarity of a birthday in a death year. My dad loved chocolate and had an entire drawer dedicated to it in his bedside table. So this cake to me is a fitting tribute (and a darn good dessert for the season). It symbolizes 2010: bittersweet and tart with sweetness rounding out the bitter.
The group gobbled it up. My dad would have probably asked for a second helping. It is somehow the perfect Christmas cake. So may yours be Merry even if the road is long and the vacancy in your heart profound.
Bittersweet Chocolate Cake with Candied Cranberries
- 1 bag of fresh cranberries
- ½ cup sugar
Set oven to 375 degrees. Mix sugar and cranberries in a small bowl. Pour cranberries into pan and spread them so they are evenly coating the bottom of pan. Cook for 10 minutes. Remove and stir gently. Then cook for five more minutes. Let the candied cranberries cool. Then spoon them onto the chocolate cake.
Bittersweet Chocolate Cake
- 4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped up
- 1 stick unsalted butter, chopped up
- ¾ cup sugar
- ½ cup cocoa
- 3 eggs
Cut parchment to fit the bottom of a round cake pan. Swab the parchment with butter to ensure ease of removal from pan. Melt chocolate and butter in a double boiler over simmering water. Stir until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and then whisk in the sugar until combined. Next, whisk in the eggs. Add the cocoa powder and stir until just combined. Pour batter into pan and bake in center of oven, set at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or until it has a thin crust atop. Once finished, cool for five minutes and then flip the cake pan onto your cake stand.