The Operating System

4th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 11 :: Sivan Butler-Rotholz on Li-Young Lee

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I am writing this on the third anniversary of my father’s death. In Judaism, we remember a lost parent not on their birthday, but on their yahrzeit; a memorial anniversary marked by the day they passed.
[articlequote]Tradition regards this day as commemorative of both the enormous tragedy of death and the abiding glory of the parental heritage.” [/articlequote]
When my father breathed his last, I lay by his side, holding his hand, there for him as he left this world as he had been there for me when I entered it. After he passed, I was the one to meet the men from the morgue, to handle the paperwork, to visit the mortuary and decide the details of his burial. I wrote his obituary. I planned his memorial. When a loved one dies, someone has to keep it together. When my father died, it was not my role to grieve.
When I returned home to New York, I was a pillar that needed to crumble. But after staying strong for so long, I did not know how to access my grief. At that critical moment a dear friend gave me her copy of Li-Young Lee’s Rose, the book that would be my salvation.
Before it all gets wiped away, let me say, 
there is wisdom in the slender hour 
which arrives between two shadows. 
It is not heavenly and it is not sweet. 
It is accompanied by steady human weeping, 
and twin furrows between the brows, 
but it is what I know, 
and so am able to tell.
So ends “Epistle,” the opening poem in Rose, a book—like the Jewish tradition of the yahrzeit—that commemorates both the tragedy of a father’s death and “the abiding glory of parental heritage.” As I read Rose cover to cover, for the first time since losing my father, I wept:
[articlequote] The rain came. And where there is rain
there is time, and memory, and sometimes sweetness.
Where there is a son there is a father.
And if there is love there is
no forgetting…
(From “Always a Rose.”) [/articlequote]
Passages like this not only allowed me to access my emotions, but to come to terms with my loss. To welcome the tears like rain, because with them came “memory, and sometimes sweetness.” Rose enabled me to access to the alchemical nature of grief, reminding me that “if there is love there is no forgetting.”
Truth is, I’ve not seen my father
since he died, and, no, the dead
do not walk arm in arm with me…
[But] what was far grows near,
and what is near grows more dear,
and all of my visions and interpretations
depend on what I see,
and between my eyes is always 
the rain, the migrant rain.
(From “Visions and Interpretations,” the final poem in Rose.)
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Dani Rotholz (1948-2012)
“From Blossoms” (quoted here), from Li-Young Lee’s Rose, inspired this memorial poem for my father, Dani Rotholz (1948-2012), pictured above:
If you are buried under a flamboyant tree, your soul is lifted up when it flowers.”
– Jean Rhys
It was February and the spring was early in her bloom.    That was what struck me.
How you could smell the white.   The color of the sun        the warmth       so early.
And yet life       comes up again                   from underground.
Later, on my balcony, I would speak to the trees—to their blossoms—and know
your soul   was lifted.
LI-YOUNG LEE is the author of four books of poetry, including, most recently, Behind My Eyes. His earlier collections are Book of My NightsRose, winner of the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award; The City in Which I Love You, the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and a memoir entitled The Winged Seed: A Remembrance, which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and will be reissued by BOA Editions in 2012. Lee’s honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Lannan Foundation, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, as well as grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]SIVAN BUTLER-ROTHOLZ is a writer and professor. You can read her personal essays—including those about losing her father—on iPinion, her feminist take on history at Reviving Herstory, and the Saturday Poetry Series she edits on As It Ought To Be.
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