April 14, 2020
When I left yeshiva in 1982 to start Aish LA, I was two years short of completing the studies for my rabbinical ordination. I certainly did not need it to be a manager and a fund-raiser. But when I learned that my mother’s cancer had metastasized, I decided it was time to finally get smicha, knowing how thrilled she would be.
All those years, while her friends boasted of “my son, the doctor,” and “my son, the lawyer,” my poor mom had to bite her lip. If she couldn’t have a son who was a doctor or a lawyer, “my son, the rabbi” would be the next best thing. I knew it would mean a lot to her, and it would also help me in my work in LA. Thus I embarked on an 18-month crash course, studying alone from 5-9 every morning, as well as with a tutor in the evenings, and making frequent intensive-study trips to Israel.
Finally, I was ordained, and my parents flew to Israel for the ceremony.
I noticed then that my mother had trouble with stairs, that she was often short of breath and at times seemed in pain. I didn’t realize just how sick she really was, because she hid it so well. In retrospect, I realize that she was keeping herself alive for the ordination. She had already married off her three sons and had seen grandchildren from them all, and this was the next thing she wanted to see.
After she returned home to Montreal, she quickly disintegrated. I did not know then that she only had nine months left to live.
I was living in LA. Each morning, I would bundle the four oldest kids (they were ages 6-9 then) and drive them to school. On the way, I’d call my mom and put her on the speakerphone so all of us could chat with her. They would yell, “Hi Bubbie, we’re going to school with Tattie,” and invariably fight over who got to speak first. It kept us all connected, even though we were 2,500 miles apart. I also hoped to show my children the respect and love I felt for my parents so that one day when I became old and infirm, they would also show it to me. I heard it said that your children will treat you in your old age the same way they saw you treat your parents. So if you ship your parents off to an old age home because they are too much of a burden, you might as well reserve a bed there for yourself too.
THE LOCKED DOOR
Every two weeks, on Thursday evening, I would fly to Montreal and spend Shabbat with my mom (who was usually in the hospital) then fly back to LA on Sunday evening.
On one of those visits, I was sitting by her bed as she moved in and out of consciousness following an operation which determined that all hope was gone. I held her hand, caressed her forehead. Suddenly her hand jerked up into the air and started making small circles, round and round. She was working at something, trying to do accomplish a task but I had no idea what. After a while, her hand relaxed and dropped to her side.
She slept. I sat.
Then she awoke and looked up at me. She looked scared and sad. I asked her what happened – what was she trying to do. By then we had made it a habit of talking openly about her life and her approaching death.
She said, “I was trying to open the door. It wouldn’t open. I didn’t seem to have the right key.”
I asked, “What door? To where?”
“The next world. My mother and father were there and my sister also.”
She said they told her to come to them, but she could not figure out how to open the door and she was frustrated by this.
I told her it was okay. I held her hand tight and told her that when she was ready she would figure it out.
I didn’t want her to figure it out though. I didn’t want to let go of her hand. I was afraid she would reach for the right key this time. Perhaps if I just stayed there, never letting go of her hand, I could hold onto her forever.
My intellectual self knew I could not, but my emotional self simply refused to accept it.
JOY IN THE SNOW
When I made the trip to Montreal, I would often take two of the kids with me.
One trip during the cold weather months stands out especially. I had taken the two oldest boys, AY age 8 and Yakov age 7. Having been born and raised in LA, my kids had little experience with snow, and they were looking forward to this special treat.
We arrived at the hospital – Jewish General — Thursday night; we would sleep there in order to spend all Shabbat with my mom. During the day Friday, the hoped-for snow arrived in abundance, and we watched it out of her seventh floor window, accumulating down below. The boys, bored already by sitting around, were itching to make a snowman.
I suggested they go outside and play below my mom’s window, out in front of the hospital where the main driveway snaked around a large island piled high with snow. Thrilled, they bundled up in their borrowed snowsuits and rushed outside, promising to play in the designated area only.
Meanwhile, I set up a chair by the window for my mom, so she could watch the kids frolic. They rolled in the snow and made angels with their hands and feet. All the while they kept their eyes on us, waving every few minutes, and attempting to throw us a snow ball. Invariably it would arc upwards and fall back on their head, provoking much laughter. Then they had a snow ball fight, and when they tired of that, they started making a four-foot tall snowman. Their snowman was eventually complete, and they added some candies from their pockets for eyes and licorice for its mouth. They were so happy with the final result. They jumped up and down and danced with joy.
Their innocence and playfulness were very touching for me and my mom to see. We sat there with tears in our eyes — tears of joy, tears of gratitude for God’s blessings to us, tears of knowing we would never sit together again, watching my children and her grandchildren frolic in the snow. A bond was created between us in that moment that still binds us today – thirteen years after her death, I remember and the tears flow anew. If it was not for her illness, we would never have experienced that moment when we marveled together at the wonder of life captured in the snow.
I feel the pain of her loss now as if it was fresh. Fresh as that falling snow. The pain is as cold and stark. The pain envelops me in totality now as the snow filled the world of Montreal on that day. Falling nonstop, blanketing everything, bringing me to confront reality:
We are all going to die. We all know it. Yet we seem to need to be close to death to really face that fact. In Judaism, we are taught that only when we come to terms with death can we truly live. Why is this so? Because only death brings with it the awareness of just how special every moment of life is. Without that awareness, we miss so much of life as it whizzes past us; without that awareness we miss the simple joys all around us, infusing each second of existence.
A MOMENT IN TIME
I remember another moment with my mom. I had rolled her wheelchair onto the balcony of my parent’s home. We sat there together and a little blue jay flew by and landed on a tree. My mother, who was then in great pain and in the last days of her life said, “Look at the bird. It is beautiful!”
She smiled even though pain coursed through her dying body. I truly felt her words. She had become wise. I felt that in that one phrase she had captured the awesomeness of existence. It was a simple phrase but she said it with such conviction that I knew it meant a lot more.
The snow falling, the snowman, the kids in the snow, the bird on the branch. Life. Death. One. It is all there is and it is what we must grasp somehow. If only we weren’t so busy with our plans and worries, we would see it all the time. My mother saw it. At the end of her life she lived with full awareness of those special little moments, and I was lucky enough to share that awareness with her. Her parting gift to me was a richer understanding of what unites us in life – the oneness of God: “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!
And yet and yet … I do not understand why the pain at her loss is as fresh today as it was at the time of her death. I think the most painful moment in my life was the first time I said Kaddish for her – the prayer in mourning, which is, in fact, a song of praise to God.
After the funeral, when I stood up to lead the prayer service, the reality sunk in. She was gone. At that moment, I thought I would die from the pain. It just hurt so much. What is that pain? Is it her loss? Is it the realization that I too will die? That those kids who were making a snowman will one day be saying Kaddish for me? Is it knowing that I cannot sustain that keen awareness and am missing so many moments in my own life?
It is all that and more.
And on the simplest of human levels: I miss my mom. I used to call her every time something exciting happened. And now she just isn’t there to call anymore.