September 19, 2012
The Meaning of Memory: A Yizkor Reflection
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We’d talk in the taxi on the way to my hotel, “Tell me about your hotel room. Is it nice? What are you going to talk about tonight?” And then the wrap-up calls. “So nu? How did it go? What did you talk about? Was it well received? How was the crowd?” She enjoyed these wrap-up calls so much that I found myself telling little white lies:
“How was the crowd?”
She’d say, “Standing room only?”
I’d say, “Yes, Mom, standing room only!”
“Were you a hit?”
“Yes Mom, a big hit!”
“Was it a wow?”
“Yes, a definite wow.”
A couple of years ago, I taught at a retreat for rabbis. They asked me to come and teach them about prayer. At the end of the session, I said, “I want to teach you how to bless each other.” I said, “We rabbis spend our lives blessing other people, but who blesses us?” They said, “What are you talking about? How do we bless each other?” I said, “Me and mom do it every single night.” I told them, “You can do this.” And you should have seen these grown men put their hands on each other’s heads and melt into puddles of tears.
Afterward, my mom called for the reviews. “So, nu? How did it go with the rabbis? Were you well received? Was it a wow? Standing room only?”
And then she was dying. The truth is, for a woman who was so intimately involved in the details of her kids’ lives, her grandchildren’s lives, her friends’ lives, I don’t know how she found the courage to let us go. I said to her, “Mom, bless me.” And she said, “Nomeleh, you’ve already been given the formula, all you have to do is live it.” And then I blessed her. I said, “Mom, everything you needed to give, you’ve already given. You can go now.” And I stroked her hair, and I said, “I bless you with peace, I bless you with sleep.” And I sang her a lullaby. And after she slipped into unconsciousness, I whispered to myself, “Call me when you get through security.”
You wake up on Yom Kippur morning, and as a reflex you reach to pour yourself a glass of water or you reach to make yourself a cup of coffee, and you have to remind yourself, you have to catch yourself, “No, it’s Yom Kippur today. I can’t do that.”
When someone you love dies, there are so many reflexes to retrain. You set the table for three, and then you forget, “Oh, there’s only two settings now.” And for me, it was training myself to stop reaching for the phone. Ten times a day, I’d reach out to call my mom, and then I’d have to remind myself, “Oh, I can’t call.” I’d think of something I needed to tell her, and then I’d have to sit on my hands. I’d have a Nashuva service and I’d find myself asking her questions to myself, “So, nu? How did it go? Was it a wow? Standing room only?”
With time, you stop reaching. When my mother first died, a rabbinic mentor of mine said to me, “Naomi, the Kaddish that you say in April, it isn’t the same Kaddish you say in November.” A friend of mine overheard this, and she asked me, “Are there really two different Kaddishes for different months?” I said, “No, same Kaddish, but you’re in a different place.” At first it’s a Kaddish of anguish, of an open wound and an empty ache, and with each passing month it takes on a different tone and color. Some days I said Kaddish like a robot, some days I felt a tug, some days I felt such a sweet feeling, sitting in the morning prayer service wrapped in my mother’s tallit, the one she wore at her bat mitzvah, saying Kaddish for her.
When someone close to you dies, the world says, “Get back to normal.” But we all know better. “No, you’re not normal. You need time to heal, take it.”
Time does heal. And somehow you learn to stop relying on those you lost for wisdom and comfort. You learn to stand on your own two feet. We learn to take care of ourselves. We learn to channel them: “What would he have said?” “What would she have told me to do?” But Yizkor, the service for remembrance, comes and old wounds reopen. We miss someone who should be with us, who should be sitting with us at our holiday table.
The world may expect us to be strong, but we don’t have to be strong all the time. You don’t always have to stand on your own two feet. There are days when we need to give ourselves permission to reach out and to feel that tug and to remember sweet memories. We don’t need to contain ourselves; we don’t need to refrain from reaching out. We can just let go and feel whatever it is that we need to feel. We can say what we need to say, hear what we need to hear.
Yizkor is a time for sweet memories. For remembering those who cared for us, loved us, touched us, taught us. They all come to us, those we’ve loved and lost, whose spirit and memory and light will never leave us. This Yom Kippur, take a few moments to just to close your eyes and welcome them all. Try to picture him beside you. Look into her eyes. Can you see his smile? Breath in. See if you can remember her smell. Take his hand, and just sit in silence. Remember a sweet moment you shared together. When you’re ready, ask for your blessing. And now, offer your blessing.
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