In My 18th Year, I Learned to Embrace the Full Meaning of the Jewish Term Chai

Part of my learning in the past year was that life includes death.

My mom and I were at the gas station when she got a text. Instantly, she turned to me and said, “Your Zeide died.” It was quite possibly the most anticlimactic way in which to receive the news. My friend was texting me about some tidbit of gossip, the gas meter was beeping and “Cruel Summer” by Taylor Swift was playing on the radio. All I could do was hug my mom.

Chai, which means “life” in Hebrew, has a numerical value of 18. In Judaism, chai takes on great importance — we say “l’chaim,” or “to life,” when we cheers to a toast or celebrate a milestone. So when I turned 18, I told everyone I was going to get ‘chai.’ Very few people got that joke. But aside from making jokes, I decided to honor the importance of this number in my religion by making a list of everything that happened to me in this 18th year as I went along. I anticipated everything on my list to embody life (or more accurately, living) — graduating high school, moving across the country for university, going to the Eras Tour. These events were all framed around the idea of chai, as I was finally getting to experience life after many years of feeling at a standstill due to having dreams that needed to wait until I finished school.

The last thing I expected to add to my list of life was my Zeide passing away.

His death was my first experience with someone who was present in my life passing away. When I moved away from my family, I didn’t feel fearful of death; I never even anticipated it. We don’t know what to fear before it happens to us. I was lucky to be home with my family when we got the news, but now I worry about going away, because everything feels unpredictable. Nothing embodies chai like the unpredictable, but some surprises are better than others.

My Zeide personified life. He lived to 90, so he lived a long, long life. He lived in Argentina, Costa Rica and Canada and formed robust lives in all places. He lived to make jokes and tell stories, and he loved music and food and cats. He really lived, surrounding himself with lively things he loved; if he hadn’t died, I never would have reflected on how rich his life was, and I wouldn’t be inspired to truly live, as he did.

My Zeide and I were never close, but in my mind, we were always connected because of the Tree of Life. Although he may not have shaped my life in specific momentous ways, he did impact my mother’s life, which in turn impacts me and my brother. That’s how family, how generations of living, works. My Zeide’s love of music and food and cats is something my entire family holds dear. The Tree of Life, the true embodiment of chai, is one of the few ways I can remain connected to him.

When I look back on the list I made for my 18th year, I see 365 days that embodied so much life, but sometimes I fear that this one experience with death overshadowed it all. I’m 19 now, and I’m making a new list to continue memorializing all the wonderful, messy things that encompass this phase of my life. I still get sad looking back on my list from age 18 when I reach that one bullet point, but as sad as it is, his death was expected. We never knew when it would come; we only knew that it would. And it’s simply a part of life, I guess. I have such sweet memories of my Zeide — the one camping misadventure story he would tell over and over, and the box of toys he kept for visits from his grandchildren — and though I won’t get to rehear his stories, I’m glad I have those bittersweet memories in the first place. If his death taught me anything, it’s that life becomes so much more precious when you experience grief.

Eighteen was a year of life, and part of my learning in the past year was that life includes death. And life includes mourning. But upon reflecting on my Zeide’s death, I also know that life includes… well, life, and that I want to strive to live as fully as him, in honor of my grief. So maybe my grief isn’t such a burden, if it reminds me of someone who embodied chai so completely.

Tamara Doiny

Tamara Doiny (she/her) is a first-year Book and Media Studies student at the University of Toronto, and is originally from Calgary. She is a 2023-2024 Hey Alma College Writing Fellow and an assistant editor at several university publications.

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