The Colors of Life

The Death of My Dad Helped Me Realize the True Colors of Our Country

Judith Cabelli
5 min readAug 19, 2021
A picture of the Delaware Bay from Lewes Beach at sunset as two birds swoop over the bay.
By Judith Cabelli

The breeze calmly swept off the steel blue bay into the beach house’s screened-in porch as I answered a call from my mother six years ago. I felt a flutter in my heart and goose bumps on my arms as I saw her name on the caller ID. The timing was off, I presumed this was not a routine phone call. My mom wasted no time in confirming my suspicions. I temporarily saw black. Five days before my daughter started kindergarten, she lost her Pop Pop. Five days before my daughter started elementary school, I unexpectedly lost my dad.

As my daughter set foot on the big yellow school bus for the first time, my dad’s body lay on a bed in a stark white room one penultimate time awaiting the start of his Jewish burial rituals. That same day, I was unable to share my daughter’s major life milestone with my dad for the first time.

For me, the loss of my dad will forever be intertwined with the start of this milestone. It is impossible to dissociate the memory of shoveling brown dirt over my dad’s grave with that of my daughter sitting in a sunny new classroom, in a new school, learning new rules, meeting new friends and beginning a monumental new stage of her life. The juxtaposition of saying goodbye to the person who gave me life, while my daughter embarked on an exciting chapter in hers, was a defining moment in mine.

The breeze washes over me as I sit on this same screen-in porch experiencing one final vacation before my daughter begins sixth grade, her last year in elementary school. The beginning of yet another milestone. Another new beginning. This clear blue sky welcomes joy that continues no matter who is with us in person. Sitting on this porch simultaneously brings my family great relaxation and happiness, yet still conjures personal memories of that fateful phone call six years passed. Forever dabbing a little pain into the pleasure our vacation paints into the color of life.

As unfathomable as it sometimes feels, my children continue to grow, thrive and experience the milestones of life. I watch in awe as they develop into strong, confident, curious people. Their lives have colored in, regardless of who has been present in their lives. Whether it is absence due to death or physical distancing due to the global pandemic, I realize absence also shapes them. It shapes all of us.

When it comes to death, my children learned of it far earlier than most. When my children were just toddlers we lost my uncle, a neighbor and then my dad. Each man was decades too young when the color went out of him. Sadly, my children learned what death meant out of necessity. They learned of it when it took from them people they loved.

Perhaps as a way of sharing his newly acquired knowledge of death, my then three-year-old told his preschool class around July 4 that America was so old, it was going to die soon. After I got over the shock and embarrassment that came from his statement, I was struck by the profundity of the sentiment.

I find it obvious that our American democracy has been on life support. This wildly conservative America too frequently colors our lives with the pervasiveness of racial inequities, selfishness and greed. People take political stands, rather than focus on the collective good. People favor their individual desires too often over what is better for the community at-large. While this has always been part of the fabric of our America, the greyness of the Country gasping for breath has been brought into the forefront in so many ways. The picture this paints for me is dark and bleak.

In truth, some days I find it hard to see through the darkness of it all. The very foundation of the Country is so broken, I wish I could take luminous, happy colors and paint over it in thick brush strokes to hide the ugliness. But I know, deep in my heart, we cannot hide what is broken any longer. It needs delicate, intentional brush strokes to repaint it anew. It needs to be painted collectively. It needs small and large changes to recolor our communities and our world for a brighter future.

My daughter turns eleven next month. At this point, she has been without her grandfather in her life longer than he was in it. Every day, his presence and influence becomes a smaller fraction of her life — my daughter, an intellectually curious, voracious reader. Traits my dad shared, but she will never know firsthand. As a lover of realistic fiction, I am still coming to grips with having two kids who love fantasy books. Yet, sometimes I, too, wish I could escape reality into the colors of entirely new worlds. No matter how I consider it, I am proud to see a love of language, stories and truth burns strong in this next generation with my children.

It was a different time in our history when my father died. We had our first black president, a man who was morally conscious and shaping the country in a direction in which we could together work to dismantle racism. The colors of that time were brilliant, followed by four years of increasing darkness. The colors are now slowly glistening brighter with hope. As the colors begin to shine, we need to work together to break down barriers, to dismantle inequities and rebuild our systems to repaint our Country into one filled with equity. I’d like to harness the colors of that earlier hope-filled time to paint us toward a shimmering, more collective future.

This gives me an extra push to ensure my kids and I are aware of the current state of our Country. To ensure we comprehend the factual and ugly history of our Country. To continue to educate myself and my children so we continue to choose to work toward equity every day. I know it is up to us to understand the true colors of life. Importantly, it is up to us to paint life in the colors we want to see.

Seeing and appreciating the beautiful colors of the world is essential. Harnessing the power of the written word, honoring our civic duty and ensuring equity is paramount. I will continue to teach these values bestowed upon me to my children. In this, I can only hope my dad’s memory will always be for a blessing.

Judith Cabelli is a passionate leader committed to advancing housing affordability, social justice and racial equity. She is motivated by fairness and equity for all and the belief that access to food, housing and health care are human rights. She is a voracious reader and an aspiring writer. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia with her husband, daughter, son and their crazy dog Lila.



Judith Cabelli

A passionate leader committed to housing affordability, social justice and racial equity.