Dying Around Thanksgiving
“There is no death. People only die when we forget them,” my mother explained shortly before she left me. “If you can remember me, I will be with you always.” Isabel Allende
My mother died the weekend before Thanksgiving. Now I always associate the planning for Thanksgiving with the helplessness I felt knowing that my mother was dying. I need a constructive way to get through the day. It involves lighting a memorial candle, going to temple and saying the prayer honoring the dead. I do something she loved in nature or in culture and I talk to her in my head.
I was supposed to be ready when my mother died. She was ninety-one when she went into the hospital for the first time since the birth of her children. She had a long life. “Who is the president?,” they ask to check her mental capacity. The correct answer was Bush. Her answer was “Don’t get me started.” I should have been ready, but I wasn’t.
When we lose a parent as an adult, we are supposed to be prepared for this normal life passage, or at least be more ready to accept it when it does happen. We are expected to pick ourselves up, close the wound quickly and move on. We should not require so much time to “get over it.” This loss is expected and in the natural order of things.
Losing a parent is extremely difficult for most adult children if you have had a good relationship with your parent and even if you haven’t. (That is harder) My husband had left a couple of years before that so loss was becoming a theme in my life. My mother was my best friend and my support system throughout that time.
She was not religious. But she went to temple one day a year to say the Prayer of Remembrance for her parents. When I was twelve I started offering to go with her. She replied that she didn’t need company. She was going to say “Yiska”. It sounded very mysterious. Yizkor is the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead. The word means remember.
My mother didn’t believe in celebrating death. She would say, “Do for people while they are alive.” She had stopped going to funerals for her dying friends many years before. She must have done a lot because one hundred and fifty people who I did not know showed up for her memorial service and many spoke. They were her theatre community. They were the people she had met and given theatre tickets to throughout her life. She opened their world or she shared their love for the arts right up to the end. They became her friends and ranged in age from thirty five to a hundred.
My mother had requested that her ashes be spread over Lincoln Center and Broadway, so she did not miss anything. ‘When you come and visit me, see a play, ballet or an opera”, she said. None of us knew when we said yes, that it was illegal, but we did it.
I sit in temple feeling a weird kind of peace. “Who is in the first seven days of mourning?”, asks the rabbi. “Who is in the first eleven months of mourning? Who is celebrating a yortzheit today?” I stand and say her name. The ritual seems to help me. As we start the prayer, “yit gadal va yit gadash…. I struggle to keep up with the words in Aramaic. I have the same conversation with my mom every time I say the prayer. “What are you doing in temple on such a beautiful day?” she asks.
I leave the temple thinking of a conversation that I recently had with my children. “Can you get us Hamilton tickets in NY?” asks my son. “No,” I reply. “If Nana was alive, we would have seen it already,“ said my daughter. “If Nana was alive, we would have seen it in preview, at the Public Theatre for half price,” he answered. My son said that he would try for the day of show ticket lottery when he is in New York. The legacy lives on.
Happy Thanksgiving and Fly Safe Mom