what is a legacy?

to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda, “it’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”

(cw: death, absent parent, complicated feelings about grief)

A photograph of a beach during the sunset.
One of the beaches where I said Kaddish for my father while I was home.

I have not written on here for the last almost two months because February truly was the worst month of my entire life—so difficult on so many levels that I am still trying to process… most of it, to be honest. some of the things from the last seven weeks will continue to affect things as we move forward but, for now, I’m going to take some time to talk about my father.

my father died on the last day of January, on Shabbat. he was fifty-one years old and he walked himself into the ER with some shortness of breath—and then had a massive heart attack and keeled over. I got the call from my younger sister, who is twenty-seven, who had been called by my father’s widow. I didn’t understand what she said the first three times but, once I did, I switched into big sister mode and started trying to take care of her until the end of the call. I then called my mother and told her, and she hung up on me because she was so shocked, and then said she’d call my sister and figure out what had actually happened. I was at a Shabbat dinner with new people when my sister called—a group of lovely Jewish women of color—and they rallied around me and packed me a takeaway bag, got my stuff, called me an Uber, asked whether I needed them to book me a flight, hugged me, prayed over me… a really lovely moment where I saw how strangers can come together to care for one another. I then got in my Uber and cried on the way home, still a little shell-shocked.

to be perfectly honest, I was surprised by my response because my father and I have never been particularly close. my parents were never married, and my dad fathered six children with five different women, three of whom he married—so to say that our relationship was complicated is an understatement. but we wrestled with that relationship throughout my life, and he was still my father, and he was the glue between me and the rest of my family on that side. even when we were bitching about our relationship with him, many of my conversations with my siblings revolved around him and his antics. due to this, and the fact that I have lived thousands of miles away for more than a decade, I was deeply, deeply afraid that I would feel completely estranged from that side of the family upon my arrival. I was even afraid that people might reject me because of my Americanization or my religious choices, as my father’s family is devoutly Christian.

the first 48 hours were a blur of phone calls and travel arrangements and sudden moments of devastation and emptiness. by the time I was at the airport in Puerto Rico in the wee hours of Monday morning, I had gathered my bearings somewhat and was able to hug my mom and stepdad and sister and have some conversations with them. despite how contentious our relationship can be, my mom was an invaluable source of support. she rearranged her whole life to drive me to my dad’s hometown a few hours after my arrival so I could be at the funeral home by the time his chapel opened. she was there for hours, in the background, coming forward to dry my tears and take my bag and give me water—while I surrounded myself with my siblings.

I didn’t go into the chapel until my sister G, who is three years younger than me, arrived. we held hands with our brother N—three years younger than G and six years younger than me—and walked towards the front and tried to reconcile the image of our dad with the person we saw before us. we held each other. we held his widow, L, who reminds me of a coworker and who is my age and whom I’d only met once. we hugged my dad’s siblings. I clung to my sister’s husband. we hugged our younger sister J, only fourteen, when she arrived. we spoke to dozens of people we’d never met before, answering the same questions over and over—no, we’re not the only kids; yes, I’m the eldest and no I don’t live here; no, we don’t have the same mom, only G and N do; yes, we think he would’ve been glad to see us together. at one point, after our sister J had left with her mom, my sister G’s husband took us to get some food and get some fresh air. N and I sat in the backseat, huddled together, finding comfort in getting to really know each other for the first time.

later in the evening, my uncle S—who is nine years older than I am and who shares a first name with my father… and who is so much like N and I—came in. G and N’s mom and her partner came to hug us. my mom, who had left to pick up my little sister, showed up with a squad—my stepdad, my little sister M, my grandma, my eldest aunt, my godparents (who came together to support me even though they’re getting divorced)—whose entire job was to be there for me in a sea of strangers. there were so, so many tears… so many memories we’d buried came to the surface and so many questions and regrets followed suit. it was the most beautiful and heartbreaking thing I’ve ever experienced, to cling to these people with whom I share blood and whom I hardly knew until we faced this moment together. it was delightful to realize that, while I’ve always loved G and N—and had the strongest relationship with them due to our closeness in age—I actually also really, really like them as people. they’re funny and courageous and sweet; G is optimistic and amiable like our dad and N is sarcastic and introverted, like uncle S and I are.

on Tuesday we laid him to rest. four of his six children stood by his grave and held his little brother—our uncle S—and his widow. we threw our roses with our left hands, since he was left-handed. we held hands and sang one of his favorite church hymns… and some Bon Jovi. (my mom and I remain able to harmonize seamlessly for literally any song.) stepmom L and I laughed about how funny and awkward it is that we’re barely a month apart in age—and then put that aside to support each other as a family moving forward. we wept, we laughed, we told stories. some of us ended up getting food together after, where G and N’s mom laughed about how similar N and I turned out to be despite having very little contact growing up. we hugged and made plans and added each other to group chats on WhatApp, promising to be the glue for one another.

as my mom drove us home, I kept thinking about the person my dad was. he was sometimes mercurial, often absent, always funny. (and no, he wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t always easy to deal with our complicated relationship.) at the end of the day, though, my dad loved his children above all else except for God. he gave all six of us life and the connection to one another. and now it’s time for us to be there for one another, to keep his legacy alive because we, as his children, are his legacy. the way he loved us is his legacy. the way he brought us together is his legacy.

so, of course, now I’m thinking about what my legacy is and what lessons I can learn from this experience. every step that I have taken in the past seven weeks has been to bring me closer to the life that I want and deserve; closer to living a life I can be proud of and creating a legacy that will outlast me… because, when it’s my time to go, I want people to remember me as someone who fought to make the world a better place, as someone who was kind, as someone who spread joy and love even when we traveled through dark places.

so, how about you? what’s your legacy?

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