Today is my mother’s yahrtzeit, the anniversary of her death. 20 Shevat. Nine years, it’s been.
That was lifetimes ago, it feels like. I don’t remember what the time before it felt like this was the defining moment of my life was like–after my sophomore year of college, my mother was either dying (for six months) or she had died four days after I turned twenty-one. I had run her hospice. The mark was indelible. Anna Quindlen writes beautifully about this feeling, and is quoted in Motherless Daughters:
“My mother died when I was nineteen,” Quindlen wrote. “For a long time, it was all you needed to know about me, a kind of vest-pocket description of my emotional complexion: ‘Meet you in the lobby in ten minutes – I have long brown hair, am on the short side, have on a red coat, and my mother died when I was nineteen.'”
Totally. For a long time afterwards, I wrote and published essays (multiple) about it. I wrote a novel about it. Every year on her yahrtzeit it would be A Day. For a couple of years I took on an old, no-longer-observed stringency of fasting for part of the day. I’d lead services (halakhically, the person with the yahtzeit has the greatest obligation to do so), and say the El Male Rachamim prayer (which one says for a person on their yahrtzeit) with so much juice and emotion that it would stop the place silent for a couple of minutes afterward.
But I guess everything shifts eventually. I went to minyan this morning, said Kaddish, said the El Male, but emotionally, there just isn’t the same turbulence and grief there once was. Some of that’s about time passing. Some of it’s about where I am generally in my life. And I don’t feel anymore like there’s no way to tell my story or reveal who I am without telling that piece of it. It’s part of my story, but it’s only a part. I mean, I still miss my mother, on some level I always will. She was an extraordinary human being, and there’s no question that my life would have been much better and richer for having her in it. I believe that she would have been proud of me, of who I’ve become, and I think we would have become close (we were just starting to when she got sick, the residue of the rocky teenage years had started to wear off a bit.) I do miss her. But I no longer feel sick from it the way I used to, sick from missing her or sick from the pain of losing her, of the suffering she went through at the end, of the great tragedy that I long considered the story of her life to be. I’m sad, it’s her yahrtzeit, but maybe for the first time this year I don’t feel either dragged down by it or like I’m supposed to feel dragged down by it. I’m where I am, she’s where she is, wherever that is (someone once asked a Zen master what happens after death. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I thought you were a Zen master.” “I am. Just not a dead Zen master.”) and it’s OK. Of course it’s OK. It has to be. It is, simply, what is.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t think we shouldn’t be outraged by the fact that the Bush administration appointed a Monsanto executive to the EPA, has gotten itself exempted from an international ban on toxic pesticides, is considering lifting a moritorium on recycling radioactive waste for consumer consumption and much more. Whatever peace I can make with my own story, I refuse to let that mean that it’s OK for our government to poison other people. Did you know that some of the companies (Monsanto, Monsanto, Monsanto!) that make some of the most toxic pollutants in our world also make chemotherapies? So they profit twice–once in giving people cancer and once in helping them get rid of it. It’s disgusting. It’s not conspiracy theory, either–the more I learn about this stuff, the scarier it is.
Cancer is not an “epidemic” because it just suddenly is. There are people doing things that are changing the landscape (literally). And the damage being done now is likely to affect all of us, possibly for many generations to come.
Yeah, it’s easier to make this be about private pain, individual loss. And it is. But it’s also not. I wonder if I should make a new tradition for observing this day that involves getting involved, somehow–donating money to an environmental org, spending time on a campaign, something like that. Something to help someone else not to have to have a day that they mark as a death-anniversary? Hmm.
I have a couple of pictures of my mother on my walls–one from when she was in her 20’s, probably, on a bike, in a city park, short sleeves pushed up onto her shoulders, wearing striped pedal pushers and her hair pulled back. You can’t see her feet in the photo, but–and this is the part that says it all–her shoes are sitting in the basket on the front of the bike.
The other one is from fairly late in her life (3-4 years before she died) at a family bat mitzvah. It’s clear that she had been dancing, hard, and running around and having fun, when they called all the family members together for the group photo. She has this sweet, satisfied, cocky look on her face, like, “Hi, yes it’s me! It’s wonderful to be here! Can we go dance again, now?”
That’s mi madre.
Janie Mae Brill, Sima Mayta bat Shalom, your memory will always be a blessing. Thanks for everything. I love you.
And now, I have to get on with my day, because life, after all, is meant to be busy for the living.
Thank you for sharing this. That sounds totally corny, but I mean it honestly.
What you said about your mothers’ death being for so long an essential part of your story, like in that Quindlen quote, really resonated for me. I wonder how many of us have college-age traumas (deaths, losses) which marks us in that way? I, too, have finally reached a place where I no longer feel compelled to tell the story that hurt the most; it’s a part of who I am, but not one I have to tell in order to feel that I’m making myself known. I’m not sure what shifted there, other than the passage of time and the healing it eventually brings.
I also love the descriptions of the photographs of your mother. She sounds pretty remarkable. No real surprise, there, given you. 🙂