I am not afraid of flying, but, especially since 9/11, I increasingly dread the pre-boarding ritual.
Similarly, after my mom died on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 2 1/2 years ago, I was dreading sitting shiva. We sat two nights, and after the first, I was less worried about the second. But the second night was bad.
Every culture has its own grief rituals. I will not assume that everyone here is familiar with those of the Jews – I am not that familiar with them, myself, and I am Jewish, more or less. At least, I was raised Jewish, although I have long been an atheist. The essential idea of shiva (which is derived from the Hebrew word for seven, and the same root as Sabbath) is to have a weeklong period of intense grieving. If you are Orthodox, there are a great many rituals associated with it, but if you are reform, as we are, it’s basically a night or two of people gathering to talk about the bereaved, share condolences and so on.
(A Jewish friend explained it to her Catholic brother-in-law as “just like a wake, but with eating instead of drinking”)
Why was I dreading this?
My mother and I had a complex relationship, defined by both powerful bonds and powerful antipathies. Sad to say, if she were not my mother, I do not think she is the sort of person I would like. Yet, there are also powerful bonds. Everyone who knew her knew she was proud of me and her other children, and knew she loved us. We didn’t know, ourselves.
This is a woman who never told any of her three children “I love you”.
When I was five, a psychologist told my parents I would never go to college. I graduated when I was 20. In large part, this is because, rather than accept this verdict on my future, my mother did things. She found the best educator in the then-infant field of learning disabilities, and, together, they started a school. My mother did everything that wasn’t education.
She reminded me, in public, of how much trouble I was, and how much she gave up for me.
She followed my interests well enough that, right to the end, she would clip newspaper articles and send them to me.
Now, she is gone. The end was expected, and, at the end, a good thing. She had had five different cancers over the last fifteen years, and had decided to no longer seek any of the invasive or repulsive therapies – neither radiation nor surgery, and so, she knew she would die. She was 83, survived by a husband, three kids, six grandchildren, and one two-week old great-grandchild.
She had, my brother said “a good run”….too bad some of us got run over.
And so, I dreaded shiva. The barely-remembered people coming up to me to say how wonderful she was. The closer friends sharing more intimate, but even-less true-seeming remarks. “She made everyone feel taller” – no, not everyone, not me. “I am sure she told you often how proud she was” – no, not often. Not ever.
I remember, at age 10, lying in bed, thinking, and deciding that I didn’t have to compete with my father or agree with what my mother said.
And, just before she died, I was talking with my brother and we were both somewhat startled by how un-sad we were. Not happy, surely. But not sad. Not torn up with grief, not crying, not unable to concentrate. Not sad.
It is, to me, both disturbing and sad that I am not much more sad that I am. In a way, this continues to feed my anger at her, that she was not able to relate to me in such a way that her loss meant more to me; and that she raised me in an atmosphere that encouraged this lack of closeness. Nature or nurture, she was half of one and more than half of the other….It is hard not to blame my failings on her, especially when those failings relate to her.
But we must not think ill of the dead.
And we must love our mothers.
Thanks for reading