A Woman’s Voice
My friend Jane and I met for dinner last week andhad a good laugh about death. California’s political campaign season is just commencing, and we were discussing, in an off hand way, what my husband, an attorney, might have made of an upcoming ballot proposition were he still among us.
“It’s amazing that he’s still dead,” I said,without quite knowing what I meant. Simultaneously, Jane and I let out a roar, a “yipes!” of astonishment, as people do when they touch something hot, or come too close to the sitra atra, what kabbalists call “the other side.”
“It’s a bore, isn’t it!” Jane said, rising to the occasion. “Still dead, after all this time.”
Jane’s father, Harold, is still dead, too. He died years ago of a painful illness. He was a large, strapping former football player who exuded robust physicality and wisdom. One ofthose men who add extra wattage to the earth’s light.
“It’s impossible that he’s really gone,” she said.”I want to say to my father: ‘Enough already. I’ve learned to live without you. I’m not mourning anymore. It’s safe for you to comeback.'”
It’s yet another yahrtzeit, this one No. 11. And strangely, I, too, feel safe. The brutal purple blossoms of the jacaranda tree no longer assault my eye sight as they did years ago after the funeral. Our daughter, Samantha, has burst out of childhood and is almost ready to drive a car. The icicles of loss don’t shiver down my grieving back anymore.
And Burton himself is ancient history: He died before the advent of fax and modem (though he was among the first to own a car phone) or self-stick postage stamps. We are living in two different worlds, he and I, the Before and the After. The dead don’t grow or expand their horizons, you know.
But they do call to us, in their own time. And each May, at yahrtzeit, death comes for a visit, bringing its own pots and pans to prepare its own food, much like my grandfather, who kept kosher, long ago. Death drinks its schnapps out of a yahrtzeitglass and sits down at the table to talk for the 24 hours or so untilt he candle of memory is consumed. And I, like a character in a Kafka short story, wait on death and clear the crumbs of its wisdom off the tablecloth, trying to glean a message from this force beyond my control. As a temporary visitor, death has its charms, afterall.
By an accident of the Jewish calendar, Burton’s yahrtzeit always falls around Mother’s Day. The conjoining of the twoby now seems right to me, though it is hardly the sappy vision of suburban complacency that the makers of Hallmark cards had in mind. Each year, I try to choose which to honor, birth or death. Butinevitably, the two come together, in the mixed bag that is life.
That last Mother’s Day, Burt called our cousinWillie from the hospital and had her buy me a necklace of tourmaline hearts. I sat with him on his narrow bed, the hearts stared upthreateningly to me. Two days later, Burton was gone, and my life as a single mother began.
But death has always been present at my family’s Mother’s Day. When I was a child, my mother spent the day in a kind of mournful haze, recalling her own mother who had died when Mom was12. She felt cheated, and there was nothing I could do to make up for it. Death sat at our breakfast table, where my brother and I served our mother homemade pancakes. She was appreciative, but distant. Dead, my mother was thinking. Still dead.
Eventually, and far too young, I learned about the perils of love and the cost of personal connection that is the true human dilemma. We spend a lifetime building a network of comfort and stability with parents, siblings, children, doomed to fervid mourning when they’re gone. The reward for loving well is grieving well. The cost of weaving is in the tear. We live in the here and now, but the sitra atra is always close by.
As we studied last week’s Torah portion, Tazria, the laws of child birth, the rabbi asked for a show of hands: Who among us in the sanctuary had never suffered miscarriages, abortions, infertility? Who among the rest had not yet lost a parent or a sibling? We are all experienced in the litany of grief. We stand in the shadow of those who are still, still dead.
Our modern world, of course, is notoriously uncomfortable about death. Not for us — the washing of the body, the sitting with the corpse, the acknowledgment that this end will beours. All we’ve done is suppress the truth. It comes out obsessively, ridiculously, inopportunely. Why do we endlessly watch the funerals of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa? Why do we cry at the death of Paul McCartney’s wife, Linda? It’s easier to hurt for the grieving Beatle than to serve the memory of our own.
I prefer the Chassidic way, and the tales that give death the power and the majesty it is due.
Here, for example, is the 19th-century story of Rabbi Loew, who tried to subvert the Angel of Death. One day, the Angel of Death came into Rabbi Loew’s town near Yom Kippur. He carried with him a long scroll on which was inscribed the names of those synagogue members who were to die by plague in the coming year.The rabbi confronted the Angel of Death and ripped from his hands the scroll. He tore off the list, throwing the parchment into the fire.Almost every one was saved; but one name was left on the scroll, and it was his own.
I like this guy: He knew what the odds were. But at least he went out fighting.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist at The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Beginning onMay 16, she will teach “Writing and Reading for Heart and Soul” at the Skirball Cultural Center.