November 1, 2007
Mom’s last day
I viewed this injunction as admirable but unrealistic, even uncompassionate, as it places the mourner in an emotionally tenuous position. But you just can't know, of course, what you will feel until the moment arrives.
My mother, Dorothy, first noticed discomfort in May. In June, she was diagnosed with stage-four cancer of the liver. On average, the specialist told us, patients on her chemotherapy regimen last eight to 10 months, some longer. But after a relatively healthy month, she began a quick decline that caught us off guard every day.
My fiancee, Jody, and I had planned a 2008 wedding. We thought about moving the date forward, but I was needed in my parents' home, and we did not want to start married life living apart. Instead, we created an engagement ceremony and invited some 80 family members and friends to celebrate with us on the day after Yom Kippur.
But the day before Yom Kippur, a feeding tube was surgically implanted to nourish mom. We spent Yom Kippur learning how to use it. It didn't help. She took her first pain medication that night.
We cancelled our party and moved the engagement ceremony to my parents' living room. By the afternoon, however, mom couldn't even sit up in her bed, let alone move down the stairs. Some 20 family members and friends gathered around her bed. The rabbi, Shefa Gold, asked us to remember that while mom's body was failing, her soul was thrilled that her chronically bachelor son had found his beloved.
Jody and I cried our way through the ceremony. Our impromptu congregation sang verses from Song of Songs to us before I placed Jody's engagement ring on her finger. Mom couldn't speak, but she moved her body to signal her joy, and a huge smile graced her lips.
We invited our extended family to join us after the ceremony. Though no longer a celebration, we wanted to comfort each other and visit with mom.
At first, she didn't have the strength to see even her siblings. But as the sun set, mom perked up. In small groups, four generations of the family made pilgrimages to her bedside, speaking words of love and appreciation. To some, my mother replied, "I love you." When words failed her, she took their hands and brought them to her lips.
That night, my sister, Felicia, rose at 3 a.m. to help the new caretaker feed mom through the tube. Unable to sleep afterward, she kept mom company and told the caretaker all about her: that in her 30s, she started backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with her husband and three kids; that she was the peacemaker of the extended family and hosted the annual Chanukah party that kept us together; that she volunteered extensively for the Jewish community; that she was an insatiable romantic and optimist who never dwelled in the past; that she was a talented artist (her paintings are currently on display at the Creative Arts Center Gallery in Burbank).
A few minutes after Felicia left to sleep, the caretaker called her back. While I was calling 911, mom breathed her last breaths in Felicia's arms.
In hindsight, it is clear to me that my mother was meant to pass on Yom Kippur, when the gates of righteousness are open widest. But as Felicia put it, she willed herself to live one last day, and what a day it was.
We were soon lost in the awkwardness of filling out forms with the paramedics and arranging for the mortuary to collect mom's body. No one knew what to say, yet we talked incessantly.
Eventually, I came to my rabbinic senses and shooed everyone out of the bedroom. I did as the tradition instructs; I recited psalms. Later, I began to chant Rabbi Gold's melody to v'chayai olam nata b'tocheynu ("God implanted eternal life within us," from the blessing after the reading of the Torah).
One by one, my father and siblings entered the room and joined in. Then we each spent time with mom alone, saying whatever had been left unsaid. We chanted together again until the mortuary people arrived.
My parents' bedroom commands a sweeping view of the San Fernando Valley, facing east. As we sang, the sky turned pink and red and purple, the colors our family of wilderness trekkers had seen so often together, the colors of her paintings. The sunrise moved us like never before. For us now, dawn will always be mom's time. She passed in deepest night, but as we said goodbye, she once again gave us the gifts of color and light.
At 72, healthy and vibrant, Dorothy died well before her time. I suffered lethargy and other symptoms of depression before my mother died. The shock and then the gradual loss of the woman I knew sent me into the grieving process while she was still alive. But her equanimity made it easier on all of us. Shortly after her diagnosis, she assured me that she had no regrets. Her life had been blessed and full; nothing was missing.
These last few weeks, I have not been in a state of grief as much as a state of awe. I feel saturated with her spirit.
There is such a thing as a blessed death, and it lends one the deep joy that only comes from living in truth. For me that means accepting-not in my head but in my heart-that life and death are flip sides of the same coin, and though the price of life is death, it is worth paying. That we cannot control when the coin is flipped does not destroy the gifts of a life well-lived. Rather, death reveals, in its fierce and unforgiving way, just how precious life is. Baruch dayan emet.
And when a blessed life is sealed with a blessed death -- when I think about how much goodness and love Dorothy gifted me over the course of my life -- gratitude wells up with the tears. Baruch haTov v'haMeitiv.
Rabbi Mike Comins is author of "A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism" (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2007) and founder of TorahTrek Spiritual Wilderness Adventures.