"I'm just not really into the whole Facebook thing," Estelle, my late father's girlfriend, told me over the phone, literally seconds after declining my friend request.
We chatted for a few minutes, got caught up in one another's lives, and then said our goodbyes.
I was stunned. Facebook, the social networking site where voyeurism reigns supreme, wasn't where I thought the last living link to my father would reject me. Was this the same woman who, on the day I watched my childhood home's contents be hauled away, sat me down with tea, cookies, and sweet stories about my father?
"Did I tell you that your father always carried a kippah in his pocket?" Estelle asked as she poured my tea.
An indescribable warmth filled my heart, and it wasn't because of the chamomile I sipped.
Since my father's sudden death a few months prior, Estelle had made sure to share with me many stories about him. I soaked them up, grateful to know my father better and to become closer to the woman he loved.
I had spent this particularly cold Chicago day reacquainting myself with my childhood home and then directing the junk removal service on what to take: ballet costumes, Hanukah gift wrapping paper my mother reused every year, rug samples circa 1980, the blackboard my mother used to teach me multiplication, the packing boxes my parents used to move into the house - in 1968. And also on what to leave: the J.L. Moller dining room table and chairs we sat at for every holiday dinner, played cards at in the sweltering heat of summer and for which we kept the room dark, so as not to discolor the wood; books I grew up reading, slides of my childhood I had never seen. It had been years since I had spent any length of time in the house, so to suddenly be reacquainted with old memories, some vague, some sharp, was a fast, furious and entirely overwhelming experience. I arrived at Estelle's running on empty and desperate for sustenance.
Estelle provided: stories about my dad's efforts to learn Hebrew despite his hearing difficulties, how he once came to the rescue of a friend's daughter, the young engineer he took under his wing, the plans he had for fixing up the house - I had seen the paint samples on the bedroom wall, hadn't I? I inhaled every detail; with each breath a new memory filled the gap in my soul, smothering the emptiness, lessening the pain of loss.
It wasn't just stories about my dad that Estelle shared, but also pictures of the two of them: at Chicago's Botanic Gardens, on a cruise, in Costa Rica, at weddings, birthdays. She gave me cards they had sent to each other, love emails, the personal items he stored at her house. I was both honored by these items Estelle entrusted to me and moved by the munificence with which she shared such intimate stories, so when she later rejects my Facebook friend request, I am crushed.
She, who had been the instigator in getting me and my dad talking after a long estrangement, was the first to let go. I went to my "Friends" page and clicked the "x" by Estelle's name. I didn't want Facebook to suggest her again.
There had been signs, of course. Fewer phone calls, emails. When she started dating again, just a few months after the funeral, I was forced to look at her grief and her needs without the shadow of my own taking precedence. Without meaning to, I had become selfish in my sorrow. A part of me expected her to remain Dad's girlfriend, regardless of whom she might date or marry, so I would always have my dad with me through her. But what I didn't understand was what I embodied for Estelle: she eased my mourning and helped me to move forward, but I did the exact opposite for her.
I thought she wanted me to know the man my father had become, the man she loved. And she did, but that task was finished. To do anymore was to be repetitive, stuck in time. By entrusting me with her memories and mementos, she was letting go. In this way she could move forward. Conversely, I wanted to go back in time; this reverse direction was how I grieved. Our needs were diametrically opposed.
After we finished our tea, she laid a plain black kippah on the table. Two bobby pins kept the skullcap neatly folded, to which a few of my dad's white hairs were attached. "He said he always wanted to be prepared in case we went to an Orthodox home. He was so thoughtful that way," she said, entrusting the kippah, and my father, back to me.