Gellman: What I Learned from My Dad's Death

Dad was an architect, and he possessed an amazing skill rare even among architects. Dad could draw upside down. That way the client would see the drawing face on without Dad having to turn the paper around. I always thought it was a terrific achievement that I would never master. Now I am convinced that dad did indeed teach me how to draw upside down.

Drawing upside down is really just taking into account how other people are seeing things. It is the ability to put yourself not into their shoes, but into their eyes and their minds. I am a rabbi, a teacher, and I try to teach people upside down, just like my dad. Many of my teachers were stunningly brilliant. Many of them had mastered a kind of synthetic knowledge that spanned many intellectual disciplines and different ages of human thought. However, some of them could only teach me right side up. The worst of them merely displayed their brilliance, but did not care how I or my fellow students were seeing their word pictures. They just allowed us to watch as they scorched the heavens with their eloquence and intellectual superiority. I left in awe of them, but I did not leave educated by them. Fortunately, I had other teachers, like Dad. They knew more than I knew, but they held back and adjusted their perspectives so that I could begin to see what they saw—so that I could begin to learn what they already knew.

Drawing upside down is a skill we can all possess. It just requires learning and love. When we help our children not to just follow the rules we set for them but to understand the wisdom of those rules, we are drawing upside down. When we encourage our employees or those we supervise to stop us and ask us to explain something until they understand it fully, we are drawing upside down. When we try to understand how our words might be heard by those we love, we are drawing upside down. When we try to see the world through the eyes of those of a different race, culture or religion we are drawing upside down. The great test we face is not to figure out how we can learn, but how we can teach; not how we can acquire more but how we can share more; not how we can increase our power but how we can increase the power of the powerless. I learned this from my dad, who was the person who taught me how to draw upside down just like him.

The most important thing I learned after my dad's death is the immense importance of expressing your condolences to those who mourn. In the past I have of course sent notes and cards. I have called those in grief, some because of the requirements of my work as a rabbi and some because of the requirements of my soul, but until my dad died I truly had no idea how deeply comforting even a store-bought condolence card with a brief handwritten note can be to a broken heart. Each note I received was an embrace, each call and card a message that I was not alone or forgotten or ignored. I am late with this column because I resolved to write a handwritten note to all those who had sent me a note. I wanted to try to tell each of them that this simple act of compassion and kindness had touched my heart and helped to heal my family and me during a broken and lonely time. I should have known all this, because, after all, I am a professional comforter, but I did not know this deep enough until Dad died and the comforter was in need of comforting.

I tell you this because you also may not fully comprehend the importance of condolence cards, Mass cards, e-mail notes, phone calls, even green bean casseroles with the fried onions sprinkled on top. The fabric of civilized society is gossamer thin, and its warp and woof are comprised of threads such as these woven into our hearts in times of grief. Mother Teresa was right when she said that God did not put us here to do great things. God put us here to do little things with great love. Right now there is probably someone you know who is in mourning whom you have not yet contacted. Call them today, or better yet, get a card or write a note with your own hand and your own heart (forget the green bean casseroles).

I have heard that when an elephant dies the whole herd comes to the body and touches it with their trunks. They then touch each other before moving on. I think they do this because they cannot write, but we can, and we must touch each other before moving on into the jungle.

May God receive the soul of my father. He is probably drawing something upside down for the angels.