It’s the second night of Hanukkah and I’m waiting for my teen-aged daughter, Joey. Did she run out of gas? Heard that one. Phone dead? That, too. I straighten the candles on the menorah that sits on a table of my mother’s in my living room, and lower the front blind. It’s long past sunset. I stick a log on the fire, a CD in the changer, old songs, and listen to Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah:
And while we are playing
The candles are burning low
One for each night, they shed a sweet light
To remind us of days long ago
Days long ago stopped interesting Joey, and I struggle with what she needs from me.
A knock on the door. The roads were bad, she says. She takes off her boots, leaves her coat in her old room. A hug. She says they—the boyfriend she lives with—had to drive to Grand Rapids, a three-hour ride in the snow. I don’t want to ask what for, but nevertheless am about to when she blurts, “An abortion, Daddy.” All at once I fill with rage and pity and self-recrimination. My heart bleeds for my daughter. For what was inside her. Inside me. Happy Hanukkah to you, too, I think.
She complains of protesters who surrounded her car when they left the clinic, and seems more aggrieved by that. I go to the window and open the blind. Christmas decorations glow softly from a house at the dark end of the street. From where I can’t see someone’s wheels spin helplessly, the sound is sharp and close like a buzz saw. The whining comes and goes but in the sweep of headlights of an approaching car, there is only the falling snow.
“We were going to celebrate the holiday,” is all I say, turning to face her.
“I brought you something.” She hands me a small package, wrapped with care and tied with strands of blue and silver ribbon. I left her one gift in the kitchen, a book. Once we lived in a large house, had a larger income, and I bought her a present for each night of Hanukkah. Like my parents had, for me.
The music, stuck in an endless loop, plays on and days long ago lump in my throat. I think of all the candles I lit for my mother. The times she waited for the light to go on. For me to be a better student. To study law, or medicine. Be a macher. When I moved away, married a non-Jew and became a father, my mother soldiered on to the next worry: would her granddaughter be Jewish enough? She wouldn’t know her long, and held onto a flickering hope that Joey’s roots would be well nourished.
Joey and I cling to what hasn’t washed away. We light candles, and exchange gifts.
What I had wished for—that one morning she’d jump out of bed, huff down the stairs and ask, which way to synagogue?—was as likely to happen on its own as if I’d rubbed two sticks of wax together, looking for a spark. I wanted for her what I lacked myself, a willingness to join the congregation. Disaffection, however, seemed more her calling. Just as it was mine; religion wasn’t anything the two of us practiced. “What part of me is Jewish?” She once shouted to me and her church-going mother from the top of the monkey bars at the park, staring at her two fists, small and bright as pebbles in the afternoon sun. As if it was something she had been told, and forgot. As if one hand should be black, the other white. I wanted to give her more than a bucketful of doubts.
Now Joey reaches out to steady my hand with her own as I strike a match to light the shamash, the helper candle. Her hand is warm on mine, despite the cold she came in from. “It was a simple operation,” she says. “I’ll be alright.”
“I’m not sure I will,” I say. I struggle with what she did. I struggle on moral and religious grounds. And on no ground at all.
Together we hold the shamash and light the first two candles as I recite the blessing. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion. The thin wicks catch, almost as one; the candles will not stand upright by themselves, and must lean on one another. It’s always a mess of a holiday, any holiday, when I’m in charge. The ceramic Noah’s ark menorah that I bought when Joey was a toddler has tigers, giraffes, elephants, and bears as candleholders. A few years ago I dropped it on the hard kitchen floor, then glued it back together, piece by piece. Two by two. A tusk or paw is missing. Last night, alone, I failed to light a single candle and wonder how many Jewish laws I violated.
Joey knows the story of Hanukkah, The Festival of Lights, but I recount it anyway as we sit. A scant reservoir of oil lasting eight days and nights, lighting and sanctifying the Temple recaptured from the Greeks and Syrians. A miracle.
She laughs, then switches off the lamp hanging above the table.
“You used to believe.”
“In the tooth fairy, too, Dad.”
“The Bible stories I bought when you—”
“That was before.”
As in, before the divorce. Before she moved ten times in five years, shuttling from one rental to another. From parent to parent. Before the falling out she had with her mother over marijuana, abstinence and—for good measure—the virgin birth. Joey discarded the mixed bag of faith she was born into like yesterday’s fashion. Nothing fit.
Exposed, vulnerable. Beautiful. Stupid. And I want her to know she isn’t alone.
“I was 19.”
“Her name was Kristen and a friend drove her from Michigan to New York, where abortions were legal.”
“You never told me this.”
“I never wanted to.” I look away. “I thought of it like a tonsillectomy. Let someone else hold her hand. No one misses their tonsils.”
Joey is quiet. “Don’t tell my mother,” she finally says.
“I could never tell mine.”
“Can we not talk about this?” She asks.
So we stare at the candles, now burning low. Neither of us says a word. Animals couch and leap along the wall. Whatever appendages are missing, they look whole. Vigorous, even. Watching them, I think of the blessing and realize what enabled us to reach this occasion must have also, by the law of averages, disabled us, too. On occasion. And here we are. It’s clear to me this is what I can pass along to Joey: misgivings are as much a link in the chain that joins us as is the rising sun; the light will stay on. I feel very clever, and laugh out loud.
“I was thinking of miracles,” I smile at her. “Yours. From diapers to Barbies to blunts in a heartbeat—some 17 years, anyway—making plenty of stupid decisions that didn’t kill you. A miracle. Along with stupid decisions made for you. We’re each of us dumb, yet alive. Sucking in the same air, breathing out the same despair and unmitigated happiness both. No small miracle that, either.”
Joey rolls her eyes. And I think in spite of all the hurt I’ve done, I’ve known the love of a brother. Friends. A lover. A daughter. A miracle, that too. That love is always greater than the effort put forth to thwart it.
I think too of all the ways I’ve failed as a father, a teacher. Didn’t she learn anything?
Still, I want to forgive her. Forgive myself, as well. She’s followed no path, for the most part, I hadn’t taken first. This shadow, so close to the flame.