When an anniversary falls on Yom Kippur, the most solemn holy day of the Jewish calendar, thoughts of living and dying take on cosmic proportions. Fortunately, it’s rare for the two milestones to collide given the differences between the secular and Jewish calendars. Both are celebrations, but Yom Kippur which ends the New Year’s ten Days of Awe, is a sacred time when the celebration of life is combined with contemplation its finite nature. This year, I have a double dose of introspection and my mind sought the path separating living from dying and wandered from wonder and gratitude to mourning and humility.
As thoughts of life and death bubbled up to the surface, my mind wandered to a conversation with Judy, my childhood buddy. Judy mourned for a friend whose cancer had returned with a vengeance. She felt her own mortality, always aware that her own cancer, now in remission, could return, too. I struggled to find the right words of comfort, advice and support and share here what I wrote.
My mother saw to it that I was prepared for dealing with illness. “If you visit the sick in the hospital, limit your stay to than fifteen minutes,” she explained when I was just a kid. “If they felt like having more company, they wouldn’t be in the hospital.” Ironically, as an adult, I visited her in the hospital many times, usually overstaying that limit. She had cancer off and on for nine years before it consumed her.
How did I deal with her death, her dying? Not very well, I thought at the time. Age has given me a better perspective, and I realized that I dealt with it as best I could. Giving and loving when possible, grieving and raging frequently. And I became deeply spiritual. I would imagine my mother’s soul washed out to sea. Her spirit mingling with the ocean, deep beneath the waves, peaceful, timeless, elemental. I imagined her spirit visiting me on a whisper of wind. And if I did not make peace with God over her death, I at least made His acquaintance.
When my daughter was little, just seven or so, she came running into my bedroom one day. “I’m scared,” she said, jumping into my lap. “I’m gonna die.” I smiled and assured her that would be a very long time from now. “I don’t care,” she replied. “My molecules will just disappear into the air. All of me will be gone; it’s like I was never here.” I struggled with what to say since I felt the same fear of death. I explained that she had plenty of company in her fear and that the fear is what made people strive for greatness. Leave something meaningful behind, make a difference. All the great wonders of the world were created to rob death of its power to destroy. It’s the striving that makes life so meaningful. She didn’t buy any of it and went off to find her father who was more practical. I never heard what he said to her. I wish I’d eavesdropped, but I remember hiding instead.
My parents never talked much about death. When my grandfather died, my mother comforted me by saying that he would live on in the hearts of those who loved and remembered him. I hated the thought. What if I forgot what he looked like? Would his soul be totally obliterated? Would I be an ungrateful, unloving granddaughter if I stopped trying to remember and went on with my life? I never asked these questions and while I sometimes wonder why not, I had my answer many years later when my father was dying. We didn’t discuss it; I rather think he convinced himself it wasn’t so. As strange as it sounds, there is a certain beauty in the denial of death and dying. Dad worked on his projects from his hospital bed almost to the day he died, leaving that legacy to be remembered.
I suppose I have some of my father’s endurance in making each day count with his attitude of the-show-must-go-on. I have carried on even when both brothers passed away after long struggles with cancer. But as useful as it is practical, the ability to endure is scarce comfort in the dark of night when visions of getting older, suffering and dying grow bold and colorful. “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” dad would say, so I knew he had similar nights. It helps on those nights to list all one’s blessings, give thanks to God for each of them and cherish them closely. And while one gets maudlin over what will be missed in death, the glory, the mystery of life begins to shine through.
“Smile,” I imagine the Good Lord saying. “Trust that I know what I’m doing. Know that humans use only a small portion of their brain and there’s plenty more to explore. Let your mind wander, ponder the depths of life and depth, seek out the ‘music of the spheres’ as the ancient Greeks called the energy around us. Resonate to it. Let your soul sing with it. Experience the vastness of space, of creation and know that dying is a portal to Being.”
A favorite poet, Charles Baudelaire, described the richness of the mystic journey. I read his poems in high school French class when my friend and I were kids together, and she was the kindest person I knew.
“Like long echoes that intermingle from afar in a dark and profound unity,
Vast like the night and like the light,
The perfumes, the colors and sounds respond.”
Always I return to my mother’s death, knowing that with each year, my time comes closer. “Think of life as a flower,” she said. “You start out as a tiny bud, you grow, you blossom, fade and die, making way for a new bloom to follow you. That’s how God made it and every stage has its beauty.”
I often get lost in the dying during the Days of Awe. I am stuck on the loss of my two brothers and both parents and need this time to mourn. This year on Yom Kippur, I hug my husband and look forward to celebrating with friends at the upcoming holiday of Sukkot which celebrates life, food, and the harvest. Thank you sweetheart darling. We confront living and dying together with a show-must-go-on boldness.