Why I’m Lighting Yahrzeit Candles on Christmas – My Father’s Hands & Feet

Fine Art Photographer shares intimate moments from death

W. Eugene Smith said photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought. A writer writes about someone’s struggles as an act of compassion and caring.  Giving shape to something painful helps us to process our grief by sharing it. Sharing words and photos decreases the burden we are carrying. By sharing my feelings and photos, perhaps I reach another person who is or has carried the burden of grief. Just as I take refuge in travel, I find healing in sharing. Author Dorothy Allison said if you don’t break out in a sweat of fear of what you write, you have not gone far enough. This one made me sweat.

My father began to leave his physical body after only two nights in the hospital. His last request was a black bean burrito, no guacamole, from Poquito Mas. I brought it to him for lunch, not knowing that it would be his last meal. Watching my father die in a sterile hospital seemed like a privilege compared to how his entire family was killed at Auschwitz and Treblinka by gassing.I felt blessed I could have the opportunity to mourn my father in a way he never could mourn his family in Poland, because he never saw any of their bodies after they were killed.

I was witness to the process of his body shutting down. At any given moment, either one or more of my brothers was in the room or my sister or niece, nephew, and the endless stream of nurses with machines to keep checking him so billing could continue even after he was heading through the astral plane. My sister refused to leave because he asked her not to leave him alone. She slept in the bed next to his. I would go home to sleep and no matter when I returned, she was in the room.   As my sister held his hand, I was pained by the thinness of his skin. I kept caressing the paper-thin skin on his arm, as if my rubbing could keep his arm from bleeding more. I had one-way conversations with my father. I kept telling him it was okay for him to go to G-d. I knew he could hear me.

As I always did in life, I continued to make photos as his death was imminent. The process was exhausting and while some may view the photos as callous, for myself it was more that I wanted one last look at my father, the man who taught me to stand on my own two feet. From a higher perspective than judgment, these photos are about love.  I was attempting, in my humble way, to make sense of his departure from my world and his. By documenting my father’s death, I was reaching out for one last moment of immortality, trying to make sense of his journey back home to G-d.

© hannah kozak

I saw my father reach for someone that was not part of this world. In that moment, with that reach, my father showed me there is more than just this life. Photography is death of a moment.Death is the eidos of the photograph. According to Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, the book he wrote in 1979 hailed as the “subtle, most original, most sympathetic literary intelligence of the age” a photograph is a return of the dead.Death is the great equalizer.  We turn into energy and disappear. My father gave me a great gift before he left his physical body. I was on his left side, my sister was on his right. He reached out past me, towards the ceiling, the heavens. “Grab his hand, Hannah” my sister said. “He’s reaching for you.” “No I said” immediately and without hesitation. “He’s not reaching for me.”

My oldest brother and my sister were in the room with my father and I at the end. His hands and feet grew swollen as his skin both softened and wrinkled. On Christmas Eve, I watched his inhale become short and labored until there was barely an inhale left and mainly his exhale. Then, on Christmas morning, the final inhale that lasted too long, a labored gurgled exhale, which made my sister jump, and his soul left the space. Silence. The machine helping him breathe was still inhaling and exhaling for him. He was not. “What do we do” my brother asked to anyone who might have an answer. I said “Don’t call the nurses yet. I need a moment alone with him.”

© hannah kozak

© hannah kozak

It was an honor to be with him until the end. I experienced a surreal and grounding experience. Hospice nurse, Maggie Callanan has witnessed more than two thousand deaths and says “dying people have the uncanny ability to choose the moment of death, and it’s not uncommon for them to spare those they love the most or feel protective of by waiting until those people leave the room.”  I’ve heard so many stories of people waiting until their loved ones left the room before they die. Not my father, he really never liked being alone. Leaning into my father, I smelled decay. I gently removed his blue and white socks off his swollen feet and tucked them into my purse, where I found them ten days later, rolled up in a ball.  I feel sad, numb, but also relief that he isn’t suffering any more.
I made some photos of his hands as he was in the hospital, as well as over the years. I loved my father’s hands and feet.
© hannah kozak 24 April 2010
©hannah kozak
25 April 2010
25 April 2010
27 April 2012
© hannah kozak
19 May 2012
27 June 2012
27 June 2012
27 June 2012
27 June 2012
26 June 2012
26 June 2012
25 Sept 2012
25 Sept 2012

I often wondered about his hands. Those strong hands dug potatoes with two friends from the barracks in the hard, dirt ground, in the dark, as he was a prisoner who worked in eight Nazi camps. The next night he decided not to go out  when his friends started to leave. Not only were his friends caught but their punishment for stealing potatoes was death.  He told me about taking his hand and wiping the back of his neck, seeing it filled with crawling vermin from the filthy conditions in the forced labor camps he lived in.

His feet, I wondered about the towns he walked in Poland alone, after a year in the hospital, looking for his family after he was liberated from Dernau on May 8, 1945.  I can’t imagine what it felt like to know there wasn’t one family member or friend on the face of the earth who knew who he was. No one who remembered one of his birthdays, no one to recall a favorite story with, no one to share a “remember when we ditched school” laugh.

My photographs are the voice that continues after my father’s death. In some way, my photos keep him alive. They remind me of the strong wings he had to develop because he had to learn to fly solo. I feel honored my father choose me to walk with him to the end of his road on the earth plane and I found beauty in the midst of my grief. The shroud of death followed my father throughout his life but his strength and tenacity created rebirth and resurrection. There was no closure from the losses of his entire family during the war but his hope kept him moving forward until it was time for him to go back home, one more time. His death, a learning process and experience he left behind, for those who will follow someday.

©hannah kozak

(The opening lines of James Fenton’s A German Requiem)

A German Requiem – James Fenton

It is not what they built.

It is what they knocked down.

It is not the houses. It is the spaces in between the houses.

It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.

It is not your memories which haunt you.

It is not what you have written down.

It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.

What you must go on forgetting all your life.

And with any luck oblivion should discover a ritual.

You will find out that you are not alone in the enterprise.

Yesterday the very furniture seemed to reproach you.

Today you take your place in the Widow’s Shuttle.

“There are too many of us and we are all too far apart.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

Fine Art Photographer shares intimate moments from death

Clarence the grey, brave cub is running with the wind.

My  intuitive healer and friend Brauna came to my house yesterday after being out of town for a few weeks. She walked in, took one look at Clarence and said he was tired, he couldn’t do it anymore. She had been receiving messages about him for awhile. It’s not that I was in denial. Or maybe I was. Ignoring portentous signs is easier than reality.  I was doing everything I thought would help and to save my grey, brave cub.  Between the western vet and the holistic vet, I was giving Clarence medicine for constipation and anti-biotics for elevated white blood cells and Anemia.  I had been giving Clarence ocean plasma for six days. In front of Brauna, he literally cried out when I gave him his final shot.  No more. I put my head down on the counter and cried that the injection made him cry out. He cried, then she cried and I cried. These photos were taken of him last night and this morning, before he left us.

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Yesterday Brauna drove us to the first vet to have an enema administered since it had been days for Clarence.  We were told Clarence needed a scan because something else was wrong. She said to call Roger Valentine; the holistic vet. Across Topanga Canyon we went, this time with Clarence in my arms as Brauna drove.  He was calm and moved very little. It was a relief to not be driving alone with Clarence as my emotions were heavy. Brauna was familiar with me crashing my car once before when I drive with upset. She wasn’t taking any chances. She understands my fragility.

Roger inserted a large needle into Clarence’s swollen belly. Nothing. Flipping him over, he cried out in pain. The unwanted fluid seeped out which would enable Roger to find out the problem immediately instead of having to wait for a scan. Roger was shocked at how much Clarence’s belly had protruded in a week. He had rarely seen it progress this quickly.

Clarence had a tumor, his liver was mottled and had grown in size. It’s no wonder he was so hungry, thirsty and having troubles going to the bathroom.  My eyes filled with tears as I listened to him tell me it’s time to let him go. “A tumor”? I kept repeating in my mind. “I thought he’d have another year”. It wasn’t sinking in fast enough. “The fluid will come back tomorrow” Roger said.  He rubbed a little marijuana paste on my jupiter finger to rub on Clarence’s gums so he would settle back home. He wasn’t sure Clarence would make the night. Brauna and I both knew he would.

Clarence had more turkey breast and cold filtered water back at home.  We opened up two more cans of canned tuna and salmon. We stayed up with him for hours until it was time to try to sleep. It was a fitful night with no rest for either of us. All the useless thoughts going through my mind of if only I had known he had a tumor two weeks ago and how sorry I was that the last shot caused him to cry out. It’s as if Clarence went along for two weeks with all I was doing out of love and care. He knew I was trying to help him. He knew I wasn’t ready for him to leave me. When Brauna walked through our front door, he was relieved to see her and he cried “no more”.

She texted me in the middle of the night “Ask Michael Jackson to step back into the light when it’s time and sweep Clarence up in his arms”.  She came back in the morning after we each had an hour of sleep. More tuna, salmon and unquenchable thirst. My boy cub wasn’t getting nutrition because the cancerous tumor was shutting down his functions.

In the front door at seven thirty in the morning before she went to work, Victoria brought him ahi tuna, which he tore to shreds. She lit a special candle with a painting of a horse, bull, sheep, lion bear and tiger to guide his way. She’s known him since the day he came home sixteen years, six months ago. Her goodbye to him was filled with anguish as my sister knocked at the front door with hugs, love and support.

I walked slowly down the hallway to my bedroom with Clarence in my arms as if walking slower would give me just a moment longer with him. Brauna was right beside me as I walked, taking on my suffering.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”. I began to pray in my bedroom with Clarence in my arms to which Brauna joined in. I have been saying St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer every night for years. I didn’t know she said it daily. Together we continued “where there is darkness, light” and “for it is in giving that we receive, for it is in dying, that we are born to eternal life”

Roger, Brauna and I were in my bedroom where we layed him in front of the fireplace on the pink towel I used to wrap him in for vet visits with the burning animal candle on the mantle. One injection into his leg to anesthesize him. His green eyes were wide open, his heart rate slowing down and I couldn’t contain my sadness and grief.

“Run with the wind my brave cub” I told him gently as I kissed him over and over on his face near his left ear. Brauna held the space for me, for him and for us. Her presence soothed me and Clarence felt that. He knows we love each other. I held onto Clarence, with my left hand, I held onto her foot with my right hand as she held him with her right hand and we were all connected.  She’s done this transition work for so many people and cherished pets. Her compassion, empathy and assurance of him going to a place where he was no longer in pain helped me to allow him his transition. Roger okayed the final shot with me. “It’s the last shot Clarence ” I promised him with a whisper into his ear. As the final needle was placed in Clarence, I felt searing pain throughout every part of me. Clarence’s breath was even slower. Roger left the three of us in the space alone. When he returned Brauna, sitting on the floor, looked up at Roger and said “he still has a heart beat”. Once again Roger repeats “I have rarely seen this”. Clarence wasn’t fully letting go.”I’ll be okay, Clarence”. I assured him. “Let go”.  I know he sensed my difficulty. He finally let go. I finally let go.

Brauna stayed and helped me remove his self-contained village, his litter box, food and medicines. Even The Lion King mat I bought for him over ten years ago was thrown out. His energy was everywhere in the house. “It is important to let the material reminders go” she gently reminded me.

Where I used to hear his familiar cry asking for running water in the bathroom or more au juice from the wet mushy canned tuna, there is not a peep. He loved Fatburger’s hamburger with cheese medium rare and sour cream.What I wouldn’t give to find a trail of cat litter that he used to leave behind only in the last year. I’ve never felt alone in this home when he was here. His presence was powerful. He held the space with love.

Clarence was a love machine. He never tired of the love I gave him and that he gave back.  He shined it right back to me.The silence in my house is shattering but I am feeling a sense of relief knowing my grey, brave cub isn’t putting up a gutsy show anymore. My grief is in stages where it overwhelms me.

Brauna said “Clarence is helping me. I’m trying to be more human. I spent a lifetime trying to be spiritual.” I suffered from a childhood of lack of safety. There wasn’t a childhood of constant loving. She continued “This soul of Clarence 24/7 did nothing but love and accept you. He was a constant source of loving. To lose that right now, which is all we have is right now, is big.” Brauna reminded me we have to go through this because steps of grief are how you can climb in peaks of joy.  Clarence said to me “I’m here to love you. Let’s have at it.” He was my greatest teacher. Clarence didn’t judge. He let me be who I am which is sometimes a bottomless pit of need and love.

I keep looking for him. I feel like he’s going to pop his head around the corner and ask for a Party Mix tuna treat. Brauna said he’s resting with the angels before he goes on his next adventure. Now I understand why I gave him the grey, brave cub endearment the day I met him sixteen years ago. We’ll never forget a moment of unbelievable clarity- “I’m done.”