November 17, 2018

ON THE ELEVEN MONTHS

It worked the way it was supposed to work. Really. When my dad died, after those first shakey few days, saying Kaddish got easy. My dad’s life was full and meaningful and he had accomplished much. He had struggled with cancer for a year and had become so frail that it was clearly time for his life to end when it did. And so, for me, reciting Kaddish was not so emotionally difficult. It was a celebration of a wonderful life. My voice was loud and clear.

And that's why I wasn't prepared for how those eleven months ended. The date got closer. Odd things started to happen. One son was leaving for a year abroad and I spent the week before he left as clingy to him as an eight month old is to mother when the babysitter comes. He had gone off for a year before and I had barely noticed. This time I stayed home during the day, just in case he might need me for something. I went in to work at odd hours, only when I knew he had plans that wouldn't include me. I was very short with people at meetings. I got irrationally ungrateful about an unwanted gift my mother-in-law sent me. Friends just clucked knowlingly and said, “Of course you're feeling like this. Isn't it almost 'The Anniversary'?” I ran into a friend whose mom died a few weeks after my dad. We traded stories of depression and odd behavior. Only a few months before we had discussed being grateful that the struggles of nursing an aging and suffering parent were far behind us, feeling like we had once again joined the normal world. Now we were no longer acting like ourselves. My husband, who has little sense of Jewish life cycle, asked me why I was so grumpy. I thought that to use the end of saying Kaddish as an excuse would be like a woman who chalks up any negative behavior to hormonal changes. Instead I shrugged my shoulders and said nothing.

And then the last Shabbat came. The day I had marked on my calendar. There was a sweet Bar Mitzvah. At the end I stood up for Kaddish like I had for 48 weeks. But the words that had been so strong all that time only came out in a whisper. The tears that had never accompanied the Kaddish before wouldn't stop. I sat down and eased my way across two empty chairs to sit next to a good friend. “That was the last one,” I managed to say. She understood and kept her arm around me until the end of the service. I never knew that the official end of the period of mourning would be tough, just like the beginning. I never thought that I would react to the Kaddish being taken from me, just like I had reacted to my father’s death. It was in a way a sort of post-partum feeling of emptiness, not only for the person no longer here, but for the sing song words that had had their own rhythmic comfort. The next day there was a shiva minyan at work for a staff member who had just experienced a loss. Shortly before it began my office filled with people who needed my attention and I had an excuse to miss the minyan, grateful that I could postpone the first time I would be hearing someone else say Kaddish and not be able to join in.

A few weeks before my period of mourning ended, I had been asked to be gabbai and to lead a Torah study session for dates that would fall in the two weeks after my last recitation of Kaddish. I didn't accept. Why should I obligate myself to being in shul when I no longer had a halachic reason to be there? I mentioned that feeling to the rabbi. Two hours later he called to invite me to Shabbat lunch on my first “free” Shabbat. A friend sent an e-mail about a baby naming as part of the same Shabbat service. I guess that during my first Shabbat of non-obligation, I'd be back in my community anyway. The end of that service came. Others stood for Kaddish. I didn't. I felt okay. It worked the way it was supposed to work. Really.

Diane Bernbaum was the Director of Midrasha, a supplementary community Hebrew High School in Berkeley, California from 1981 until 2014. Before that she taught in various Jewish and public schools. Born in Milwaukee, she holds a B.A. in History and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Harvard University. She has lived with her husband in Berkeley since 1976 and is the mother of two adult sons.

 

  


 

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