I don’t know where to put Mom. Not Mom in actuality, but her portrait. Mom passed away roughly three months ago, and my conundrum is where to hang a wonderful painting of her as a 21-year-old. The portrait had been languishing in my parents’ basement in a rotting frame, and after her demise I rescued it (because I couldn’t rescue her) and had it remounted and reframed.
It’s not that I have a dearth of available wall space in my house, it’s that I have no idea where would be most appropriate. How often do I want to see this painting and how prominent a place do I want to accord it?
It’s not as though Mom isn’t in my heart and mind enough already. I miss her terribly—and have been missing her not just since she passed, but also for the last year and a half of her life, when she was afflicted with a serious case of dementia that in many ways stole her away from all of us long before she drew her last breath.
Grief is palpable, like a thick fog redolent with mist and oppressive humidity. It weighs on you by day and by night. King David, author of many of the Psalms, wrote in Psalm 6, “I am wearied with my sigh, every night I drench my bed, with my tears I soak my couch.” My grief for Mom typically washes over me (and then exits) in a few 30-to-90-second tsunami-like waves of intense sadness and despair in the mornings and evenings (when I’m not working) and in all kinds of nightmares that pop me out of bed at 3:30 a.m.
There is no escape from the Angel of Death; we will all meet up with him eventually. The sons of Korach, authors of many outstanding Psalms, put it bluntly in Psalm 49: “Shall he then live forever, shall he never see the grave?” and “Like sheep they are destined for the grave.” And so it was for my mother; notwithstanding her ferocious will to live, the L‑rd had other plans for her soul.
• • •
Left behind, in addition to her children and grandchildren, is her spouse of more than five decades (no small accomplishment in this highly disposable modern world), Dad. Unlike many in my generation, Dad has never lived alone before. He went from his mother’s house to my mother’s house. Dad loved my mother and he fought tooth and nail to keep her alive, but no man, no matter how determined and no matter how many resources he brings to bear, can ultimately stay the hand of eternity.
Being a card-carrying member of The Greatest Generation, Dad may be heartbroken but he is not bent. He is resolutely steadfast, stoic, and determined to still be a lion, even in winter, because he’s the patriarch of the family, a role he takes seriously. Recent angioplasty? Handled with aplomb. Figuring out meals? No problem. Contemplating the acquisition of a new car and a significant other? Looking forward. Wallow in grief? Not his style. Got to keep on keeping on, even at 87.
Me? I’m not made of my Dad’s kind of tough stuff. My personality is more like my late mother’s—for the good and for the bad (our parents are just human beings, they have their strengths and weaknesses like everybody else), which makes me a bit more sensitive to loss and the ramifications from it.
The Brothers Gibb once queried musically, “How can you mend a broken heart?” In Psalm 147, King David asserts that G‑d “is the healer of the brokenhearted and the one who binds up their sorrows,” which is one reason why religiously observant Jews say the Mourner’s Kaddish for 11 months after a parent has gone on to the next world. Kaddish is all about the mending.
This Kaddish, recited at services three times a day, every day, is not really so much a prayer for the dead or for the benefit of the deceased. It is rather a prayer in praise of G‑d and a reaffirmation of the faith for the mourner who recites it—in a sense it’s a prayer for the living, for those left behind. It’s like an Eastern mantra (because it is repeated so often even within a given service) in that its purpose is to impart a measure of transcendental calm for someone who is anything but.
We also say Kaddish to honor the departed in the eyes of the living, as a sign of respect for their lives and the love they gave us, which is one key reason we stand while reciting it.
Until about four and a half years ago, I was what could be called a “Shabbat Orthodox Jew”—my Judaism was primarily about Friday night and Saturday. The rest of the week, not so much. Services every day? Seriously? A huge percentage of my friends were and are still like this, as is a large percentage of my shul, so it’s not like I was alone in this lifestyle. I wasn’t even putting on tefillin in the mornings. As it is for many Jews, this changes when confronted with tragedy.
It is said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. The Modern Orthodox extrapolation of that are increases in prayer and observance when dropped into that aforementioned foxhole. And dropped I was, big-time. Concurrent with the then impending collapse of my business due to the recession and all its attendant personal financial challenges, my former wife decided to leave our home and file for divorce—a divorce I absolutely didn’t want. This threw me into two years of steady grief and intense anxiety, owing to feeling as though I had part of my very soul ripped out and wondering how I’d put my life back together. It was so bad for a time that my friends and family were seriously worried about me. The stress of it all triggered a raft of serious health issues as well (which thank G‑d are now mostly behind me). Confronted with these disasters, I took to donning tefillin in the mornings and praying at home for the good L‑rd’s mercy and salvation.
Just as things started to ease up for me after a couple of years and I had a few months of relative tranquillity, just then my mother started her two-year steady descent into death by dementia, which put me back into daily high-anxiety mode, meaning I essentially just spent a combined total of more than four years in a perfect purgatory culminating in my mother’s demise, which brings me to Kaddish.
To say the Mourner’s Kaddish, you have to be a part of a minyan, and where there’s a minyan, there’s a service, and in these services it is most often the obligation of a mourner to lead the prayers, particularly on weekdays. That’s going to get you into shul every day.
For me, Kaddish works as a grief mitigator. In the minyan, there are folks just like you, who, in the words of Bill Clinton, “feel your pain,” because they’re going through it themselves. It’s a Hebrew and Aramaic language support group with the people there also imploring the Al‑mighty to prop you up. By forcing the mourners to lead the services, it propels the mourner to publicly overcome his grief and acts as a catharsis of sorts as the barrage of Hebrew psalms and prayers wash over you and move through you. (I wish there were shivah and Kaddish for divorce, as it probably would have helped at the time.)
I remember that when I was a kid in sleepaway camp, at Shabbat services (this wasn’t a religious camp, so what limited services we had were sandwiched in between a steady diet of sports) we kids would all look on in fascination at who might be saying the Mourner’s Kaddish, as the notion of this kind of loss was unimaginable to a 10- or 12-year-old. Now I’m the guy standing for Kaddish at Shabbat services. In the very large shul I attend, somehow even though there are many mourners at the daily services, on many a Shabbat I seem to be the only person in a room with more than 400 people that needs to say Kaddish, so there I am often on Saturday mornings as the solo point person intoning the ancient Aramaic of the Mourner’s Kaddish to a hushed hall. Cycle of life.
No longer being married (or anywhere near close to it) and not having had kids, I sometimes wonder who will be there to say Kaddish for me. I’m sure my brothers will, but that’s not the same thing.
On my way from shul a couple of Saturdays ago, I ran into an acquaintance from the neighborhood who had also recently lost his mother. I asked him how he was doing and he asked me back, “How is the 11-month prison sentence going for you?”
“Yeah, all that Kaddish for a year.”
He was viewing it as something of a punishment. I told him that it’s actually been helpful for me, but, most significantly, I said, “My mother was always there for me—always. For sure I can be there for her for 11 months. It’s the least I can do.”
And so, in line with that, I have to find a place in my home to hang that painting of her, because that and Kaddish publicly demonstrate what I felt for her and my gratitude for all she did for me. ϖ