Mom playing Broadway tunes.
Today is the last day of my year of saying Kaddish for my mother.
In Jewish tradition, Kaddish, a prayer whose Aramaic text mentions nothing of death but instead offers words of praise to God, is recited for eleven months by the adult child who has lost a parent or other close relative. One of the purposes of reciting Kaddish is to elevate to God’s side the soul of the deceased. A Kaddish year actually only lasts eleven months, the philosophy being no one is so lacking that his or her soul needs intervention for a full year.
Viewed from the outside, reciting Kaddish can seem like an enormous burden. The mourner is commanded to attend synagogue twice daily, morning and evening. In the course of these two daily services (three actually, unless the afternoon and evening services are folded into one another as is done in my community), the mourner rises to recite the Kaddish prayer. Those present echo their responses and amens at the proper time. The presence of ten Jewish adults is a requirement for the Mourner’s Kaddish to be said. No ten, no Kaddish.
When my rabbi asked me, before my mother died, if I planned on reciting Kaddish for her, I recoiled. Mine had been a Jekyll-Hyde mother for so much of my life, the last four years being especially searing. Was she entitled to another year of my life and my psyche? Why not just cut my losses and move on? Did I really need to hang on?
In my heart of hearts, I knew that the rabbis who created our Jewish mourning rituals were a hell of a lot wiser than I was. I would participate to the best of my ability, maybe not daily but surely several times a week. As I have done with other Jewish rituals that are now a part of my life, I gave myself over to reciting Kaddish and found comfort and wisdom in its practices. The Children of Israel accepted the Torah with the phrase We will do and [thus] we will hear [understand.] (Exodus 19:8) So, too with Kaddish.
Mom and me, Miami, 1957
There is no word in the English for what transpired between my mother and me the last years of her life. Illness, unemployment, poor decisions, age, lifelong mentally fragility, and more came together, unraveling her life as she had lived it. I found an independent-living apartment situation that was ideal. She was grateful for my research and moved in with the help of one of my sisters. She made a good life for herself there, more active and socially engaged than she had been for years.
But before she moved in, she turned on me. She had played this dynamic before, not infrequently, and for much less reason. Whether it was buyer’s remorse, the impending loss of certain freedoms, the inevitability of her illness, or maybe just the irrational need to blame someone for the upheaval, I became the target for her atomic fury. She would have nothing to do with me, threatened me with a restraining order if I called or wrote, and with one volley that I doubt even Faulkner could have penned, told me she couldn’t wait to die so she didn’t have to know I was on this earth. I ceased and desisted.
Abandoned. Exiled. Threw me out. None of those words described my mother’s refusal to acknowledge me during those final years. A friend suggested amputated. That fit perfectly, for amputation’s intimation of violence, for its truth of irrevocable loss, for its reality of phantom pain—feeling and mourning the severed limb of my mother’s love and delight, her presence and our deep connection despite all the rest.
No one gets out of life unscathed; this was simply my refining fire. We grow the most from the experiences that devastate us, that force us to go deep within to face our truths, challenging us to emerge stronger, wiser, more resilient. Teachers come in many guises. My mother was a magnificent teacher and I mean it when I say that I am grateful for the lessons learned. Ultimately we found our way back to one another. The anger never left her, but her volleys became less frequent and vicious. Better still, I ceased to allow them to land. When her final day came, my sister held the phone to her ear so I could say my goodbyes. I expressed my love for her and my gratitude. “Go, Mommy, be at peace with God.” My sister said a shadow of a smile crossed her lips when I began to speak.
I waver sharing even this much, lest I be judged as petulant, unforgiving, an unrepentant daughter determined to sully the memory of a loved one who can no longer defend herself. None of that is my truth. Those of us raised by Jekyll-Hyde parenting belong to a singular club. If you’re not a member, it’s hard to fathom. A fellow member told me that when someone would say to her I can’t believe this she would simply reply Be thankful you cannot.
* * *
Today is the last day of my year of saying Kaddish for my mother. In these last forty days, I have moved from several times a week to daily attendance. Like Noah I have ridden out this storm of grief and will soon walk upon new land. By nightfall my identity as a mourner will be nullified. When the minyan leader calls, “all those in mourning or observing a yahrzeit please rise” I will remain seated. My presence will now enable others to stand.
I am grateful for this wise and healing ritual. In Jewish tradition, another name for God is HaMakom, The Place. Minyan became where I placed my grief within God’s care. In place of the love and presence I so wanted give my mother during her final years, I have offered daily respect for her memory, reawakened appreciation for all she gave me, and attained a wiser love for her and the good times we shared. Rest well, Mom. Rest and be comforted that you are remembered.
The text of the Kaddish prayer:
May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will. May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.
May his great name be blessed, forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored elevated and lauded be the Name of the holy one, Blessed is he — above and beyond any blessings and hymns, Praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen. May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and say Amen.