For me

At the start of the dream
I float down the Guadalupe
but the current goes backwards.
I emerge into a house
from 1985, and inside

there you are: hair pulled back
into a casual ponytail,
white terrycloth coverup
as though you've just come
from a tennis game or a swim.

You've made dinner. I tell you
about my divorce, but
don't mention the pandemic:
why intrude on your afterlife
with something so terrible?

I wake to more headlines
(the world is dust and ashes) but
for a moment I almost felt
that loss isn't forever, that
the world was created for me.


 

A story tells of Rabbi Simcha Bunim who held two slips of paper in his pockets at all time, to remind him to balance two fundamental truths. In one pocket the paper said "I am dust and ashes," and in the other pocket the paper said "the world was created for me."

On the last day of Pesach we recite Yizkor / memorial prayers. Last year's Pesach Yizkor was the first time I said those prayers since Mom died. She had been gone for only a couple of months and the loss was raw. This year I am grateful for how the passage of time has smoothed over those rough places.

May comfort come to all who mourn.


Remembering on two calendars

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My mother died during a leap year. I don't mean a Gregorian leap year, where we get one extra day in February. Jewishly speaking, a leap year happens seven years out of every nineteen. When it's a Jewish leap year, we get an extra month. The month of Adar happens twice.

Because Mom died during a leap year, the disjoint between her secular death-anniversary and her Jewish death-anniversary this year is profound. Maybe the disjoint is always profound, but this first anniversary feels especially so. I live by two calendars. I have two death-anniversaries to feel.

I knew that on February 26, Facebook would remind me of the photo montage I posted last year when she died. (I had been selecting favorite photos during the days of her dying, reliving memories of when she was vibrant and alive.) I've been bracing myself for that cheery FB reminder.

Honestly, even if FB didn't remind me, I would remember anyway. Significant dates stay in my memory -- a first kiss, a last Shabbat together -- and when they roll around again, I feel their echoes. Their imprints. They are stones cast into the heart's pond, and these are their slow ripples.

As Mom's yahrzeit begins on 21st Adar / March 16 I'll light a 24-hour candle. I'll say kaddish in community. I will learn and teach and dedicate my study that day to her soul's ascent. But what might I do to mark February 26, the secular anniversary of her departure from this life?

I put the question to Twitter, and was moved by the responses I received. Some mark a secular death-anniversary with a visit to running water -- or go out for a special meal -- or give tzedakah in their names -- or do something creative -- or keep the day open so there is space to feel...

Before today arrived, I thought about how I might mark the day. I wondered whether I would be brave enough to watch a clip of her playing the piano, or listen to a recording of her voice. I hadn't tried either since she died, knowing that hearing her voice or her music would sharpen the ache of missing her.

I also know that it is an ache I am fortunate to feel. Because it means she is a person worth mourning, and this is a relationship worth mourning. There is a bittersweetness there. And the ache has shifted over this first year. It has a different quality now than it did when her death was new.

The days leading up to the anniversary felt poignant too. During last year's February break from school, my son and I went to Texas to tell Mom goodbye. (She died three days after we returned home.) This year at that time I spent a few days in New York with a friend and our sons.

I brought one of my mother's jackets to the city with me. It is plush, deep red, and adorned with lines and colorful squares. Mom loved Manhattan. I remember her wearing that jacket in the city when I was a kid. So I wore it there in her memory. A way of bringing her with me.

I remember her especially on this day that marks one year since she died. But there is an intimacy now that wasn't present when she lived. I carry her with me wherever I go, in a way I didn't need to do (and maybe couldn't do) while she lived.  That's what I hope she knows, wherever she is. 

 


A reason to celebrate

Chanel-red-boucle-44-skirt-suit-size-10-m-0-1-960-960There was a photo on your desk. A group of your friends, maybe twenty or more, all wearing pink and red: dresses and suits, tailored and chic, high heels and handbags to match. You were right there in the front row, with your platinum hair and bright lipstick, beaming. Someone in your circle used to hold a Valentine's Day ladies' luncheon, and that's how everyone dressed for it. I think I remember that the party favors one year were iced cookies with a photograph of the last year's group printed onto the icing. Or am I mixing up the Valentine's Day luncheon with some other festivity? You and your friends celebrated everything you could find. Not just birthdays and anniversaries and Jewish holidays, but Valentines Day, St. Patrick's Day, Fiesta, Susan B. Anthony's birthday... Once, before I was born, you and Dad held a campaign party celebrating an imaginary candidate. You made up the most ridiculous name you could think of. You printed elaborately designed invitations, and hung red, white, and blue bunting everywhere. There was always an excuse for a party, and I used to roll my eyes at that. It seemed over-the-top, even frivolous. I'm sorry about that now, Mom. Now that you're gone, I understand your parties in a new way. No matter what we do, life will hand us sorrow. It's life-affirming to choose to seek joy and togetherness in the face of that truth.  I don't own a red Chanel suit, and I'm not attending a ladies' lunch on February 14. But I'm wearing a string of your garnet beads, and my dress today is burgundy -- a cousin to red, if you squint. And on this day of red and pink paper doilies, and flower arrangements, and boxes of chocolate, I am remembering you.


The far shore

This is how the year ends.
We've carried your memory, and now 
we dedicate this stone
on the far side of the sea.

We've carried your memory.
Now we look back
from the far side of the sea,
our footsteps washed away.

Now we look back
and blink, disoriented,
our footsteps washed away.
The waves are gentler now.

We blink, disoriented.
I still talk to you.
The waves are gentler now
when I greet your photos.

I still talk to you
in every room
when I greet your photos
as though you were here.

In every room
questions I wish I'd asked
(as though you were here.)
I remember your voice.

Questions I wish I'd asked:
how do we live without you?
I remember your voice.
I don't want to let go.

How we live without you:
we dedicate this stone.
I don't want to let go..
This is how the year ends.

 


Tether

These letters, kite-string
or umbilicus: do they
tether you? When I
stop writing will you
dissolve, a water droplet
rejoining the flowing stream?
Maybe I'm the one
tied to what was,
not willing to disentangle.
When I wasn't looking
this year changed me.
Still homesick sometimes, but
I've learned to sleep
in this strange bed
where sometimes, I know,
I will see you
in dreams. Gone but
still here. Almost enough.


The weather

Things I can't know,
a partial list: how cold
the cemetery will be this time

how bruised my heart will feel
-- or not -- and most of all
would you wear sandals?

I don't think the dead
pull climate strings, but
if it were up to you

you'd want Texas to put on
her prettiest face
when we remember you.

You'd want our grief
to melt like thin ice
in morning Texas sun.

 


Pebbles

I know I must have talked with you
after unveilings for relatives

or friends, but I don't remember
what you had to say. Probably

we talked about shopping or haircuts
or Shabbes dinner, what Marie Howe

called "what the living do."
When you drove out of a cemetery

you moved on, but part of me still
hasn't left where we buried you.

Soon we'll gather to bless the slab
that marks the spot. Did you know

the tradition that says we stop
saying kaddish after eleven months

because only wicked souls require
a full year of kaddish to ascend

and we wouldn't want to imply
you weren't righteous? I think

you'd laugh and say whatever works
for us is fine by you, then ask

where we're going for lunch after
and what kind of shoes I'm planning.

Almost eleven months now I've been
writing to you, each line a monument

to memory. These poems,
the pebbles I leave on your stone.

 


A year ago

A year ago you kept falling. Bloodied from landing,
bruised as though beaten. Dad couldn't lift you, so one
night you slept on the carpet until morning. Did you know
your children were scheduling frantic conference calls?
There was no knowing how much worse it might get.
When you consented to hospice, you texted us, "if my decline
troubles you, have your doctor prescribe a happy pill."
I laughed until I cried. A year ago you were still alive.
This month I keep saying that, like a mantra.
Soon I'll never be able to say it again.


Chanukah gift

The closet in my study
holds picture frames, half-empty
boxes of stationery, old books,

pillows and blankets
for the guest bed. And tucked in
amid all of these, a small box

emblazoned Priority Mail,
addressed in your handwriting,
postmarked two years ago.

It slipped behind the quilts
and the crates of journals,
unseen and forgotten.

As I slice open the packing tape
I can scarcely breathe.
A letter you wrote to my son

for the last night of Chanukah
and some old coins -- a poem
and gelt, though I know

what in this box is truly gold.
Your words, your memory --
the oil that keeps on burning.

 


Dear Mom (as Chanukah approaches)

Mom, you're on my mind as the the shortest day approaches. A few years ago you commented to me that it was almost the solstice and that you couldn't wait for the day when the balance would shift and we'd be moving into longer days. I was surprised and moved to hear you say that. It's something I never realized we had in common: a visceral dread of the darkest days of each year, a feeling of inchoate relief when we could tell ourselves that the sun is slowly returning. Probably we both carry some version of seasonal affective disorder in our bones, though you would never have claimed that label. You never wanted to call yourself sad in any way. You didn't even want to call yourself sick, even when the disease that claimed you had fully settled in.

Mom, you're on my mind as Chanukah approaches. A kaleidoscope of memories: the giant plexiglass dreidel you one year asked me to decorate, and the cornucopia of gifts that spilled forth from it. The year I wanted to light the Chanukah candles myself for the first time but got scared by the match, and dropped it, and left a burnt spot on the dining room carpet. Singing Maoz Tzur beside the flickering candles.  Fast-forward: the year your father died during Chanukah, while I was in college. I had an a cappella concert that night, and the harmonies of "In Dulci Jubilo" brought me to tears. Fast-forward: the year my son was three and we first lit Chanukah candles together over Skype. Your visible sense of wonder at sharing that with him from afar. 

It's so strange to me now: for all those years when I could have spoken to you any time I wanted, I so often didn't feel the need. And now that you're gone, the fact of your absence is a constant presence in my life. The fact that I can't tell you things -- or I can, but you can't answer. Maybe I'll be blessed with a dream. But it's not the same as the immediacy of being able to pick up a phone and tell you a story and hear your response. Every day when I go to send a photo of my son to his grandparents, my fingers want to type your email address first, even though you've been dead for nine months. We hadn't celebrated Chanukah together in ages. But the fact that you're not in this world anymore makes the approach of Chanukah feel different, this year. 

What would you say if you could hear me? You'd tell me not to be maudlin. You'd point out that you're not suffering anymore. You'd remind me to enjoy what I have. You'd urge me to make hay while the sun shines, and to light candles against the season's darkness. To pour a glass of something tasty, and toast whatever sources of joy I can find. To set a pretty table at Chanukah, and gather friends for celebration. To enjoy my child's glee at opening gifts, winning at dreidel, unwrapping (and eating) chocolate gelt coin by coin. Mom, in your honor and in your memory I'm going to bring out the giant wooden chanukiyah that my brother made years ago. Its big bold tapers will blaze, just like they did in your house, and every night we will welcome more light. 


In this place

You're sick, but
still offering opinions
on which cut of trousers

best suits me. You promise
a pair of new boots, stylish
as yours, before you go.

Then you're dead, and
I roam your closet
(Narnia-sized, infinite)

with empty hands. But look:
on a countertop, the boots
you promised, in my size.

I wake laughing.
You're nine months buried
and still giving to me.

 


Recipe

The year your mother died
I was in college, living
off-campus for the first time.

As Rosh Hashanah approached
I called you for recipes.
I didn't know how to cook, but

I roasted cornish hens
and honeyed carrot coins
and assembled my housemates

around a table covered
with a bedsheet because
I didn't own a white tablecloth.

As this first Thanksgiving
without you draws near,
I'm emailing my sister

and scouring the internet
for a recipe that looks
like the mango mousse

you always made. It's a relic
of the 1950s when your marriage
was new. I don't think

I've ever bought Jell-O
or canned mango before, and
I don't own a fluted ring mold

but when my spoon slices
through creamy sun-gold yellow
it will taste for an instant

like you were in my kitchen,
like you're at my table,
like you're still here.

 


First day of fall

Mom, I'm on my mirpesset
on the first day of fall.
You loved that word --
a little taste of Jerusalem

or Tel Aviv. Two of the zinnias
my son planted last spring
have sent up new buds, like
dancers reaching toward heaven

with palms outspread.
They're trying to bloom
once more before first frost.
I don't think there's time,

but who am I to say I know
when death will come?
All morning I've been practicing
Torah in the golden melody

of the season. Last year
you watched holiday services
from your bed, Facebook Live
on the iPad propped on your lap.

From olam ha-ba I expect
you'll have better picture
and clearer sound. I wish
I could feed you honeycake.

I wish I could sing for you
and know that you hear me.
I don't want to be starting
a year that never had you in it.


Now

 

Suddenly the two stately trees
outside my window are shot through

with sprays of gold. My heart rails
against the turning season

like a child resisting bedtime, but
the trees hear the shofar's call.

Come alive, flare up, be
who you are: let your light shine!

The katydids and crickets sing
the time is now, the time is now.

The last time I visited my mother
I told her "it's okay if you're ready

to go." My heart railed against
her dying, but after one last burst

of color she was ready to rest.
This year the trees' razzle-dazzle

speaks to me in her voice: be here
while you can. Drink every drop

of daylight. And when night falls,
it's full of stars: don't be afraid.

 

poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2019

 

(Each year during the month of Elul -- the month leading up to the Days of Awe -- I write a poem to share with family, friends, & blog readers. This is this year's. Those annual poems are online here -- most recent at the top.)


Star light

Mom, tonight
after I got
the kid to bed
I stepped outside

onto the balcony
-- the air cool
without a robe
already, late

August preparing
to give way --
and the Big Dipper
gleamed above me,

and Cassiopeia.
I forgot to say
"Star light, star
bright," but

God knows
all the things
I wish for,
including

you listening
for these missives
lofted skyward
for you.

 


Hair

The alligator clips
for holding a hank of hair
while the rest is blown dry

wait patiently
for you to return
and need them again.

In your last years
you joined the ranks
of little old ladies

who let the beauty shop
wash and style.
Like your mother used to.

I always thought
they needed the bowl dryers
to set their curls.

I never understood
it was because arms
couldn't reach anymore, or

ports or open wounds
couldn't safely handle
the sluice of a shower.

I'd give anything
to talk over the hum
of your blowdryer again.

 


Return

Not sure what I fear more:
that your house will feel the same
or that it won't. The wheelchair
and hospital machines will be gone, but

the books in the library will still
be arranged by color, abstract
modern art constructed from their spines'
gradations. The heavy crystal bowls

of roasted nuts for cocktail hour
will still adorn the living room
where you used to hold court with
vodka soda and lime in hand, where

you let us take a family photo
that last Shabbat. I was shocked
you let us bring out the camera:
your hair was wild, unwashed.

You smiled as though nothing hurt.
You knew it was our last chance. Mom,
I don't know how to visit a Texas
that doesn't have you in it.

You're not there anymore. You're
not anywhere. But I want to believe
you're watching. Not all the time,
but maybe you feel a tug

when I'm thinking of you. Maybe
you were there when I went shopping.
I bought a dress for the trip.
It's deep yellow, like a loquat,

like your lacquered kitchen cabinets.
I chose it to show off your necklace.
You'd like it because it's bright,
it's vivid, like something alive.

 


Postcard

This is a postcard --
oversized, five by seven
and glossy. On the front
a photo of my garden:
look, the half-dead bushes
are gone, and the tangle
of wild mint and weeds.
In their place
tall purple astilbe,
silver-leafed brunnera,
a hydrangea, periwinkle
and columbine, shasta daisy.
On the back -- "wish
you were here" is trite.
Instead I'll write
that the sharp scent
of fresh mulch wakes
me like a shofar. All
around town tractors are
cutting tall grass, turning
summer's verdant beauty
into something sustaining
for when all this life
is gone.