Name: Jordana Jacobs
Tell me about the person who died:
My father, Armin Jacobs, was both far from me and close. He and I were from entirely different cultures—I was raised in a well-to-do suburb of Manhattan, and the wrong brand of juice or what-have-you thrown into the grocery cart was cause for pouting. My father was a Hungarian peasant whose family of eight, before being scattered or killed during the Holocaust, hunched around the kitchen table in their one-room shack, knitting caps for sale. He survived Bergen Belsen because of timing, adolescent strength, the will to live, and the protective love of an older brother. I frequently had to explain to him that I was still earning a salary at work, even when I took vacation or got sick. He called computers “confusers” and fancied the remark witty every single time. He thought nothing of bringing other diners’ leftovers home.
There was a wedge between us because he saw the world in simple, binary ways. Good and evil. Honest and dishonest. Any time I approached an issue with healthy skepticism, he seemed sorely disappointed. He would not hold different truths at the same time. When I wanted out of my abusive relationship with my mother, who divorced and sued him after having him arrested on a made-up claim of domestic violence, he pushed me to be a good daughter to the woman. Light and dark. Dutiful and neglectful.
But we were also close. He knew, innately and without any of the parenting books I depend on to raise my child, how to love. He accepted and delighted in me, he pushed me past my comfort zone in ways that engendered more gratitude than resentment, he always let me choose the radio station, even as he made fun of my music with exaggerated “oooh baby”s, and there was never any doubt that he would do and sacrifice anything for me.
He survived the camps, he survived a ceiling in a big Manhattan hotel collapsing on his head, he survived my mother, and he survived a stroke. He died in 2013 at age 85, with severe dementia and a cluster of problems, from diabetes to urinary tract infections, that dominoed into major organ failure. When he died, it was time to go. More of his time was spent suffering than living.
Tell me about something I can photograph that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
My dad was a roofer, and I was proud of the ladder affixed to the top of his station wagon. Parked in our driveway, it broadcast that a working-class man lived in that large colonial house on that affluent block in that affluent neighborhood. I am pretty sure that some of our neighbors considered it a blight. I delighted in that idea. To complicate things, my father’s blue-collar work did not pay the bulk of the bills that secured us in the upper middle class, and that was, to put it much too politely, a point of contention between my parents.
Sometimes, my dad would take me to roofing jobs in the lower parts of Manhattan and in Brooklyn. This was the seventies and early eighties so that world is largely gone now. It was mustier, more elderly, and the cityscape was washed over in graffiti. I loved entering those homes: my dad would introduce me, his eight-year-old daughter with two braids, as his assistant, and we’d go to the top of the roof where I would hold one end of a tape measure for him while he marked the other end with a special roofer’s yellow crayon.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?
Years before he died, I would cry at a whiff of a thought of losing my father. However, my father’s dementia prepared me for his death. I lost him years before his body shut down. And the loss did not have the clarity or finality of death.
Dementia crept up on him for years, undetected. As this insidious disease took hold, I mistakenly thought he was simple minded, unhygienic, and maddeningly stubborn. It was easy to be misguided: all of these traits, to a lesser extent, were present in the prime of his life, so I did not realize that he had dementia until it was very advanced. I insisted on reasoning with him; I argued with the poor man. I lost my temper. Once it was unmistakable that he had dementia, I could get along with him more easily while simultaneously letting him go. When he died, connected to a bag filled with his urine and in constant pain, it was a release.
How did people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
I was completely at peace with my father’s death. Nothing was left unsaid. No hug or kiss or declaration of love was withheld. Others, however, seemed to insist that I needed to mourn him differently and that added a murkiness to something that was really quite simple.
Near the end of my father’s life, my sister called me and told me that it was time for me to fly out to California to say goodbye to Dad. I did not understand her reasoning—my father had full-blown dementia and was so sick, he did not even notice who was or was not in the room. Also, I had seen my father a few months earlier, when he was cognizant of my visit, and I told him, to his song-bursting delight, that I was pregnant. I had said goodbye and it was joyful. I was sad to lose him before he could meet his grandson, but I was so happy and grateful that I was able to have shared the news with him. When my son Arno was born on my father’s birthday, it felt like a way of sharing the joy with my father beyond the grave.
At my father’s funeral, we were offered the opportunity to see my father’s body one last time as it lay in the coffin, but I had no desire to see it. My sisters insisted I go in to see him and I demurred, telling their incredulous faces that I really, truly, had closure. When my sister finished visiting with our father’s body, she said he looked good and that she’d hate to see me regret not taking this opportunity to say one final goodbye. I capitulated. I never reached the coffin. What I saw as I approached made me run away. His body was alarmingly bloated and was stained a deep yellow. His nose had a different shape. It was an exhibit of the cruelty of his passage to death. Here and there I find myself vigorously trying to shake this image off like a dog shakes water off its fur. It haunts me. It has nothing to do with my feelings about my father and our goodbye. It is the equivalent of tasting the blood my father shed in his last days or worse.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
Sitting shiva and sitting in a circle with my relatives, talking about my father, was wonderful. The stories were so consistent. He was a mensch. He’d give you the shirt off his back. Every story had the same theme.
Were there any personal or public rituals that helped you in your grief?
In the year after his death I would take out my cellphone every once in a while and pretend to talk to my father and imagine how the conversation would go. This was particularly poignant after Arno was born and I wanted to call my father and tell him about his baby grandson. It hurts that I cannot share this with my father, who, of everyone I have ever known, was unbridled and uninhibited in his expression of joy. He so loved children. I remember someone complaining about the noise of children and my father responded, “To me, it sounds like music.” I can only imagine how he would have been with Arno.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I then photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story. I’m looking for many more submissions and for a range of experiences, so please share widely! Learn more about the project and submit your story. - Mindy Stricke