Yom Kippur: Come... and Prepare to Go

YK-header-2

A few days before my mother died, I sat by her bedside with my phone in my hand. It had been a tough morning. Even with the oxygen cannula in her nose she had struggled to breathe. She was anxious and she was clearly suffering, and she kept asking, "when will the pain stop?" We gave her morphine, and we gave her morphine again, and eventually she drifted into sleep.

For about two years I'd been working on editing a volume for mourners called Beside Still Waters. We were almost ready to go to press. I had the manuscript on my phone, and while my mother slept I pulled up the section of viduim, confessional prayers to recite before death. I whispered, in Hebrew and in English, words of deathbed confession on her behalf:

"Grant me and the beloveds of my heart, whose souls are bound with mine, the grace to accept this turning of the wheel of life. Before You, God of Mercy and Grace who pardons iniquity and does not destroy, I forgive all who harmed me in my life. May their hearts be at ease, as I release all anger and pain from them into the dust of the earth. As I have forgiven, so may You forgive me all my shortcomings. By this merit, preserve my soul in peace..."1

And when I was finished with the words on my screen, I sat there for a while just praying the same thing over and over: please God let it be gentle.

Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. Some of us wear white, symbol of purity, like the white shrouds in which all Jewish dead are buried. Some of us fast from food and drink and sex, life's temporary pleasures that the dead no longer enjoy. Some of us eschew leather shoes -- a custom also practiced during shiva -- because stiff leather shoes represent what protects our tender hearts from the world, and at Yom Kippur and during shiva alike, our hearts are meant to be soft and open.

On Yom Kippur we all recite a vidui prayer. We recite it evening and morning and afternoon and again before nightfall, affirming together that we know we have fallen short, alphabetizing a list of our missings-of-the-mark. On Yom Kippur we recite the vidui in the plural: we have sinned, we seek forgiveness. Before death, the vidui is recited in the singular.  I have fallen short... And from the awareness that I have missed the mark comes the next step, so necessary before leaving this life: I forgive. I ask forgiveness.

Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. It's also a day of recognizing our losses: today is one of the four times of the year when we say Yizkor, the memorial prayers, reconnecting with the memory of those who have died. It's a day of facing mortality, not only our own but everyone's. And despite all of these, it's meant to be a day of profound joy. Because this day is the culmination of the season's journey of inner work, and by the close of this day we're supposed to know ourselves to be forgiven.

How do we square that circle? How can today be a day of preparing for death, bracing for loss, and also a day of exultation and joy?

My answer to that question this year comes from my mother, of blessed memory, and what she taught me in her final days of life.

A few days before my mother died, I was sitting with her in her room and I seized the moment. We were alone together, and I didn't know if I would get another chance to speak with her without my dad or my child or another family member in the room. So I knelt next to her wheelchair and I said something like: Mom, I'm so glad that you were my mother. And if you're tired and you're ready to go, it's okay -- we'll be okay.

She got weepy for a minute. (We both did.) She said "I should be thanking you!" And then she straightened in her chair and said, "Let's go downstairs, it's cocktail hour."

That was my mom. She texted her children when she entered hospice, reminding us not to be maudlin. She didn't want us to be sad; she wanted us to celebrate.

I can laugh about it now, "it's cocktail hour," "don't be maudlin," but my mom was teaching me something. On that last Friday of her life, the day that began with her struggling to breathe and needing morphine again and again -- the day when I whispered the deathbed vidui on her behalf, afraid she might not be verbal again -- she rallied in the early evening.

To everyone's surprise, she came downstairs, where all five of her children and one of her grandchildren were gathered for Shabbat dinner. With the oxygen cannula in her nose she drank wine, and she ate steak, and she visibly enjoyed being with us.

That night, as she lay back on her pillows, she murmured, "It's been too short, but it's been sweet." My son and I were leaving early the next morning, and I thought: maybe she means our visit... and maybe she means the last 83 years. I didn't ask. I told her I loved her one more time, I kissed her goodnight, and I went downstairs. We left Texas at the blessed crack of dawn. Four days later, we returned for her funeral.

I learned from my mother in her last days to "make hay while the sun shines." To enjoy what life gives me to enjoy while I am here to enjoy it. To be grateful for what's good, and to let go of what's not. Because no matter how long we live, life is too short to do otherwise.

Ten years ago when my son was an infant, my mother came with me to a rabbinic school residency to take care of the baby while I was in class. She befriended some people, because that was Mom: always interested in, and curious about, those around her. And one evening she said to me, with an air of amazement, "Rachel, I think everyone here is a spiritual seeker!"

I said, "Of course they are, Mom. They're in rabbinical school."

And she said, "I don't think I've ever searched for anything my whole life!"

I don't actually believe that, for the record. I think that for a variety of reasons she was invested in seeing herself as an ordinary person, not "spiritual" or "a seeker" or "on a journey." But I think she was all of those things. I think we all are.

Come, come, whoever you are; wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving...

We're all wanderers. Arami oved avi, "My father was a wandering Aramean" -- so says Torah, and the traditional haggadah begins our fundamental story of liberation there, with the wandering that led to our enslavement in Egypt. My mother was a literal wanderer, from her birth in Prague to a lifetime in the United States. But even those of us who never leave our hometowns are on a journey of growth and becoming and discovery. That's what spiritual life is. That's what life is, if we're paying attention. And oh, today is a day for paying attention.

We're all worshipers: in Hebrew, mitpallelim. The Hebrew l'hitpallel, "to pray," literally means "to discern oneself." We pray in order to discern who we most deeply are. Each day, or each week, or even if it's only once a year: we speak the words of our liturgy, words of awe and gratitude, words of supplication and hope, and we see how the words feel in our mouths and how the words feel in our hearts. Maybe we've changed since last time we spoke these words. And maybe in some ways we haven't changed at all.

And we're all lovers of leaving. Or, at least, we all leave -- like it or not, ready or not, we will all die, someday. We all enter this life, and we will all leave this life. In between... well, what we do in between birth and death is up to us, isn't it?

Jewish tradition instructs us to make teshuvah, to repent and return and turn ourselves around and do our inner work, the night before we die. Of course, none of us knows when we will die... so there's a custom of making teshuvah every night before bed. Pausing every night before bed to think back on the day, on who we've been and what we've done. Making amends for the places where we missed the mark. Forgiving those who harmed us, and asking for forgiveness from whose whom we've harmed. In this way, if we should die before we wake, we've done what we can do.

I learned that from studying texts of our tradition. And from studying the text of my mother's living and my mother's dying, I learned the wisdom of looking back on a life and choosing to see the good in it. She could have focused on life's disappointments and hurts -- I know for a fact that her life included them, as every life does. But she chose to uplift what had been good, and let go of the rest. From Mom's last days, I learned the wisdom of trusting that we're forgiven, and the wisdom of actively seeking joy and connection until the end.

Today, on this Yom Kippur, I invite all of us to practice what I learned from my mother's dying.

What would happen if we looked back on the last year and choose to see the good in what we've done and who we've become? What would happen if we allowed ourselves to trust that we can be forgiven -- indeed, that when it comes to God, we always already are forgiven, no matter what? What would happen if we approached this day with a sense of joy in our connections that can't be broken -- with those whom we've loved (even if they've left this life) -- with our own souls -- with our Source?

I think that's how we get from sorrow at our mortality, and our imperfections, and rehearsal for our death, to the joy that today is meant to hold. It's not an either/or: it's a both/and. Today we prepare to die, and we also rejoice that we've lived. Today we face our shortcomings, and we also affirm that we can be better. Today we hold on to what's important, and we let go of all the rest.

Today when we say the Yizkor prayers, I'll say the memorial prayer for a parent, which is still new on my tongue. And then I'll go under my tallit, and I'll talk to Mom, wherever she is now. I'll thank her for teaching me, both in how she lived and in how she died.

May this Yom Kippur journey of wandering, and worshipping, and preparing ourselves for leaving, bring us closer to our Source and closer to who we're meant to become.

 

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours is not a caravan of despair.

 

It doesn't matter if you've broken your vows

A thousand times before: and yet again,

Come again, come, and yet again...

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

 

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים

אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב - בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב ...

 


1. These words come from an interpretation of the deathbed vidui by R' David Markus, published in Beside Still Waters.


Fragments: digital ghosts, gratitude, and grief

Ripple

1. Digital ghosts

Modern life is full of digital ghosts. Like the google cal popup that appears on my laptop screen to helpfully remind me of "our anniversary!" My ex-husband or I must have input that into google, and for reasons I don't understand, I can't make it go away. As though I could ever forget the date, what it was, what it meant. I didn't need my calendar to poke me in that bruise.

Or the first time I shared a photo of my mother on Facebook after she died. The algorithm startled me by recognizing her face and tagging her in the post. "With Liana Barenblat," the post proclaimed, and the words took my breath away. Facebook thought I was "with" my mother. I will never be "with" my mother again -- not in body, not in life. That preposition made me cry.

 

2. With and without you

I try to experience these automated algorithmic responses as a gift from the universe, a reminder of connections that have shaped me, even when relationships or lives are over. Still, sometimes being surprised by these reminders feels like a gift, and sometimes it feels like a wound is re-opened. Grief is a scar that sometimes unexpectedly becomes an open wound again.

Our online spaces can connect us in profound ways, but they can also isolate us, or activate us, or evoke our grief. So often we perform happiness in digital / social media spaces: look how beautiful my life is! As a result, we're sharing a skewed vision of who we really are. We're erasing or eliding the people who are missing. The aches of divorces and deaths and endings.

 

3. Making waves

I understand the appeal of the carefully-curated digital footprint. It allows us to share the life we wish we had, a life of only sweetness. I try hard to cultivate gratitude, for this recipe or that sunset, that moment or this friend. I like sharing glimpses of those kinds of things, in part because doing so helps me cultivate mindfulness and a heightened capacity for gratitude.

But I also want to be real. I don't want to pretend that life is picture-perfect, and I don't want to use spiritual practices as a crutch to help me in that pretense (or any pretense). Life is beautiful, and life is painful -- both of those are always simultaneously true. And grief is not a linear journey. Sometimes a stone gets tossed into the heart's pond, and makes waves.

 

4. Its own reward

So how can I react to these digital ghosts and the griefs they awaken: online reminders of my wedding, or of my mother who has died, or of friendships that evaporated or hopes that didn't come to pass? The only answer I have is to feel whatever I feel -- the sorrow, the wistfulness, the regret -- and to thank my heart for its capacity to feel both the bitter and the sweet.

And I can choose to be real, even in digital spaces. Even when what's real is a hurt or an ache, a memory or a sorrow. Because I think being real with ourselves and one another is what we're here for in this life. Because I think spiritual life asks our authenticity. Because life is too short for pretense. Because being real comes with its own blessings, its own reward.


Dance class

Parent observation night
at the dance school.

I caught my son with my camera
in an idle moment

running his hands through his hair.
He looked like a teenager.

When I was nine
I still threw my arms

around your neck, but by fourteen
I kept my distance.

We no longer spoke
the same language. Maybe

I'll be spared that: we're not
mother and daughter, he and I.

(As far as I know. Yes, Mom,
his gender expression is up to him.

Don't roll your eyes. Like God
he's becoming who he's becoming.)

But if he grows
to mistrust me, I hope

I live long enough
to make it to the other side

as you and I made it
to the other side

even though I know
you'd be relieved to know

he's not the only boy
in his dance class this year.

 


Trivia

The envelopes would arrive at random:
filled with clippings, sometimes

highlighted in yellow, with a Post-It
reading "Trivia From Mom." Dear Mom:

here's some trivia from the living.
I refilled a prescription today, and

picked up the dry cleaning. I've been
wearing your cashmere shawl

on cold days -- believe it or not
we still have those. My son

practices the Four Questions nightly
before bed, earnest and sweet.

Do you remember typing them
on your IBM Selectric for me,

transliterated -- one of my brothers
must have sung them to you --

so I could sing them before I knew
Hebrew? You'd be proud of him.

For a while I was afraid
we'd left one of his dress shoes

in Texas at your funeral, but
it turned up at his father's house.

I can go hours at a time, forgetting
that it hurts that you're gone.


Request

There's a lot of death
in those poems, you say to me.
How about something
a little brighter?

Isn't it spring yet where you live?
Talk to me about tulips
like the ones that nod
in bright even rows down Fifth Avenue.

Talk to me about
department store windows,
or that lime-green bag
you took from my closet.

Your friend who's divorcing:
what's her new house like?
Tell me about the red buds
on the tips of the maple

or my grandson's new haircut
that makes him look thirteen.
Tell me something about the world
that will make me miss being alive.


Jetlag

When I come home from the cemetery --
tradition says put a pitcher and basin
outside, so when the mourners return

they can wash themselves clean. It's not
about the dirt. It's emotional, it's
spiritual, like washing that man

right out of your hair. When I came home
from burying you, those first hours were
like jetlag: what day is it? where am I

again? I remember the silver pitcher
we placed outside dad's front door (your
front door, but not yours any longer.)

But when I come home from the cemetery
not as a mourner but as the rabbi
I take the hottest shower I can stand.

I anoint myself with honey and lavender,
breathing deep. This is being alive, scent
and sensation. I let go everything

I've been carrying. It's still
a kind of jetlag: the soul catching up
with where the body has already been.

I wonder how long it took for your soul
to release from your body, that empty
shell we buried in the Texas earth.

When you wake in olam haba and finally
feel you've arrived, is it like
the first morning a new time zone is home?

 


Reminds me

2019: the year I did back to back funerals after we buried you.
How long will it be before those words stop feeling strange?

This time the day was wet and raw, like your funeral was.
This time there were two daughters grieving, but I wasn’t

one of them. Except I still am, sometimes. It depends
on what song comes on the radio, what phase the moon.

Today when we read psalm 23 aloud I remembered my sister
leaning over to whisper, "'my cup runneth over,' Mom used to

say that all the time!" It made me smile. You
make me smile, even at a funeral that reminds

me of yours, reminds me — everything reminds me —
of you.

 


New friend

Today I thought of you
as I listened to two women
tell stories about their mother,

a tiny woman
with a spine of steel
who was always "put-together."

I imagine the two of you
meeting at a mixer
for newly-arrived souls.

In my vision you're both
young again, glamorous,
coiffed and manicured.

You're both carrying copies
of the handbook to the afterlife
but you'd rather sip vodka tonic

and make a new friend
than read it. That's okay:
you'll both learn the ropes.

How to be "there" (it isn't
a place exactly) while also
keeping an eye on here.

How to visit our dreams
and tell us everything
you couldn't say in life

or maybe it was we
who couldn't hear, but
Mom, we're listening now.

 


Birthing

Four days before the end.
Morphine under your tongue.

You kept asking,
"When will it stop hurting?"

Reminded me of labor:
how the contractions kept coming.

I pleaded, "I can't do this."
When the epidural brought relief

I apologized to the nurses
for being boring.

How we learn to say sorry
for what's not ours to carry...

But Mom, I still carry this:
I'm sorry I said no

to your presence
when my son was born.

I wanted it to be intimate,
"just the two of us."

I understand now how it hurts
to be far away

when someone you love
this much is suffering.

You could have
witnessed the moment

when they placed him
wide-eyed on my chest.

Your pain is over now
but when I remember

shutting you out
I ache.

 


Challah, Take Two

It started during winter break.
A snowy day, with nightfall too soon

and no playdate in sight: I said
let's bake challah!

Can you make it round
like Rosh Hashanah? he asked.

Instead I tried a six-branched spiral
meant to evoke the returning sun

(though my son saw a star
of David there instead.)

When it emerged from the oven
golden and gleaming

he gasped, and after motzi
proclaimed it so much better

than what we buy at the store,
and that sealed it:

the next Friday I found a way
to start the dough

when I poured his cereal,
to knead it while he watched

YouTube before school, to pop
home at lunchtime to shape...

I would have told you this story
that last Shabbat of your life

but that morning was a fog
of morphine and anxiety

and when you emerged that evening
miraculous in your wheelchair

it wasn't the right time.
I should have known

there wouldn't be another.
But I can tell you now

that even in weeks when grief
is more than I can bear

there is comfort in kneading
this silky egg dough,

singing healing songs for all
who will eat, for all who ache.

 


Goldfinch

Mom, I bought a new piece of art
I wish I could show you.
There's a goldfinch, encircled
by crocheted six-pointed stars.

It makes me think of home,
of nest, of tradition's weave
that comforts me. I wonder
if you'd note the bird's alone.

Yes, I feel alone in grieving.
Maybe we all do, in the end --
even when a crowd gathers
for a memorial like yours.

Surely as Pesach approaches
everyone in the family feels
your absence, like the empty space
surrounding this one little bird.

There's a lot of empty space
surrounding this one little bird.

 

with gratitude to Heather Robinson

 


Dirty laundry

When I'm chastised
for not focusing

on happy things
as you instructed

shame swamps me,
a sunken rowboat.

Failing you again:
airing in public

the dirty laundry
that is my heart.

Why persist in
feeling so many

feelings, especially all
the ugly ones --

grief that lasts
for hours, leaving

me gasping, spent
on a rocky shore?

Wouldn't everyone be
happier if I

stopped?

 


Kintsugi

Today a giant cardboard box arrived.
Ceramic plates that once were yours,
adorned with hand-drawn faces --

service for six, in theory.
But inside the bubble-wrap,
one plate's in pieces.

You'd shrug and throw it away, but
it's such an obvious metaphor.
I look on eBay but there's no replacement.

There's a space in my china cabinet
where a pair of women's faces should be
in conversation. I try to glue it

though my son rolls his eyes: "Mom, you know
there's no repairing a broken heart."
He's right. It can't be what it used to be.

What can I do but paint broken places
gold? I can't hide my cracks.
All I can do is make them gleam.


 

kintsugi is the Japanese art of adorning broken pottery with gold. I've written about it before. (See also Everything breaks. It's what we do with the pieces that matters at The Wisdom Daily.)


Beauty

At Olmos Beauty Parlor 
I made a dragon from foam curlers

(from big red to small purple)
while you tipped your head back

in the shampoo chair, relaxing
into the scalp massage.

You went platinum blonde
in the sixties. Hair like that

needs maintenance. Not to mention
your nails, which were never bare.

Even the week you died
they were sleek, cream-colored.

Mom, you'd be pleased: in my 40s
I've finally found a stylist.

You'd like her: she knows
everyone in town, she's got panache.

After your funeral, one of my brothers
gave up shaving for 30 days

(I'll bet you can guess which.)
And I went without a haircut

until the door of that first month
was closed behind me. Today

my stylist gave my hair shape
and trimmed my cuticles

and gave one nail a little sparkle
in memory of you. I emerged

with new hands, ready
to build something beautiful

in the world, ready
to hold my head up high.

 


Empty

My phone buzzes: a text
from a sibling, a photo
from the last Shabbat.

A wave of heat passes through,
blood rushing to my face
and hot tears

you were still there
you were alive
it's unbearable again.

How can I make dinner
when you died
when dad's going to die

when someday I will need
to bury all of my siblings
the way we buried you?

The agony passes
but I can feel the hole
where your presence used to be

alongside echoes
of all the empty places
that are to come.

 


Texts from the hearse

When you have a rabbi for a daughter
sometimes you get texts from the hearse.
You must have known what I was doing:
reminding myself that I still had a mother,
bracing against -- well, now: not being able
to reach you to talk about purses or friends
as the cemetery's energy slowly drained.

Dear Mom, I'm wearing the same black suit
I wore to your funeral. As for purses
I'm carrying the one you gave me last year,
bright yellow like the forsythia flowers
that are curled now in hidden potential,
waiting for the time to bloom.
I wish you still had time to bloom.


Uncomplicated bereavement

At the doctor's office
a questionnaire
about sadness.

I answer honestly, then
backpedal: my mother died.
This is just grief.

Later a friend gives me
the medical billing lingo:
"uncomplicated bereavement."

I almost laugh. Find me
a daughter mourning her mother
without complication.

I think of the photo
on your bathroom mirror
from what you called

the best days:
"when Dad was thin, and we
were rich, and Rachel was easy."

For years I was convinced
you wanted a different daughter,
one who stayed

in Texas, pledged
the right sorority,
married up.

We got better
at being mother
and daughter by the end.

But I hate the fear
you might have thought
I wanted a mom who wasn't you.

 


Four weeks

Dear Mom: it's been four weeks
since we sat in flimsy folding chairs
beside a gaping rectangular hole.
The morning was raw, too cold

for my son's summer-weight suit.
Someone gave him a navy-blue blanket
-- the funeral home? the limo driver? --
and he curled up in it, half in my lap.

At the end, when most people returned
to their cars, he wanted to stay
and keep shoveling earth onto the box.
He brought the blanket home on the plane

and sleeps with it every night.
Maybe it feels like a last hug from you.
I haven't asked: he doesn't want
to talk about the sad things now.

You'd applaud that, but I don't know
how to live without looking back.
At the end of shiva I wrapped myself
in your monogrammed sable stole

and walked around my neighborhood,
blinking like a mole bewildered by sun.
Like my child, still wrapping himself
in the plush blanket from your funeral

carrying you with him from bedroom
to living room sofa and back again.
As I prepare to leave this first month
I'm still learning how to carry you.

 

 

 


Manicure

No haircuts during shloshim: once you died
I called the shop to say postpone my trim.

I don't know the rules on manicures, but
it felt right to leave my nails unkempt.

This winter I came down after you fell
and called the beauty shop for both of us.

You said sure, but when time came to go
just getting yourself dressed had wearied you.

You rallied, pushed your walker to the door
turned down the visor mirror and then frowned

"How can I go to the beauty shop like this?"
I tried to turn it then into a joke:

we go when we don't yet feel beautiful?
When we arrived at Holly's, the bombshell:

the pedicure chairs were up a flight of stairs.
You hadn't gone up stairs in years. You made it

step by awful step and then collapsed
into a chair and closed your eyes. Your calves

were bruised, your tiny ankles swollen tight.
They were so gentle when they washed your feet

I thought despite myself of taharah,
the way we wash the bodies of the dead...

Before you died I got a goodbye manicure
but now my nails are chipped, my cuticles

as ragged as my heart. Soon I'll let
my stylist bring repair, rejoin the world

still feeling strange without you there to see
my nails that look like yours again at last.

 


 

shloshim - literally "thirty," the first 30 days of mourning

taharah - literally "purification," the holy work of washing, blessing, and dressing the bodies of those who have died (see Facing Impermanence, 2005)


Fine

Dear Mom, today I was fine
until my son played piano

and crowed "make a video, send it
to Nonni" and then his face fell.

When hospice began you told us
to stop moping. You'd tell me now

to make hay while the sun shines,
suggest that I hire a sitter

and go out with friends --
just dab a little concealer

so no one can see I've been crying.
Mom, I'm trying. But nothing

feels real without you here to see it
and I just sang my son

the lullaby I sang to you
as you were dying.