By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
There’s a legend that the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish began when Rabbi Akiva saw a man struggling under a great burden. When asked if he could help, the man told Akiva that he was dead and the work was his punishment. When Akiva asked what could be done to alleviate the punishment, the man told Akiva that if the sage taught the man’s son a particular prayer and the son recited it every day, his suffering would end. This apocryphal story, of which there are several versions, is often quoted as the reason children say the Mourner’s Kaddish for a parent for 11 months. Historians note there is no mention of the Mourner’s Kaddish as a required religious observance in biblical or talmudic texts. In fact, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that it began to appear in prayerbooks. Some note that it was first said only in the Ashkenazic world and later spread to Sephardic communities.
Writing this history is my way of procrastinating, rather than addressing the real topic of this column: the fact that 11 months of saying Kaddish for my mother ended last week. She died the 29th of Elul. I can’t tell you the English date because it’s the Hebrew date that sticks in my mind. (I have friends who note the death dates of loved ones on their secular and Hebrew dates, but the secular ones never register with me. For me, the true anniversary – the yahrzeit – is the Hebrew date.)
This is not my first experience with mourning, but it may be the most difficult because my mother loomed so large in my life. I gave up trying to fix my health problems long before she did. She would have gone to the ends of the earth to discover a cure. She also had a wicked sense of humor about it. When I was upset about a doctor suggesting that my problems were all in my head, she refrained from saying anything in the office because she thought I would cry. What she told me afterward is that she wanted to tell him, “I know she’s crazy. But what’s causing her headaches?”
In case you didn’t know my mom and haven’t guessed yet, she was not politically correct. When we were at a meeting at BOCES about Larry, my little brother who had Down Syndrome, people were talking about the different conditions their children had. Since I wasn’t familiar with the terminology, I quietly asked her if we were with the right group. She whispered to me that the terms were all fancy names “for stupid.” But she loved and adored Larry: he was the light of her life and that is not an exaggeration. That’s because he loved his mommy and he let her know. That kind of pure love is not easy to find.
I did a short tombstone unveiling in July. I never do long services in cemeteries, but this was the shortest one ever. When I had difficulty reciting the first reading, a friend took over. Then I skipped to the two things I consider important and closed my notebook. That was the ceremony, except for what my mom would have considered the vital part: taking my friends out to dinner. My mom was generous and would have wanted that. I also had an alcoholic drink in her honor, something I knew she would have liked.
I hadn’t been able touch my mom’s clothes until the beginning of August. It took a friend to get me started: she’d mentioned in a Facebook post that she was good at helping people clean out closets and was thinking about turning it into a business once she retired from teaching. It was a long and exhausting day, during which we cleaned out the dresser drawers and made a large dent in the closet. My friend’s car was completely filled with clothes for Temple Concord’s rummage sale or Goodwill by the time we were done. Because she didn’t know my mom well, it made the process easier, although I confess to some reminiscing and kept the Daffy Duck t-shirts we found. (My mom and I were both big fans and once ordered different versions of Daffy Duck t-shirts at the same time.) Hidden in the closet were several boxes of fabric – my mom was a sewer – that I couldn’t bear to part with, at least, not yet. I thought the fabric filling the shelves in the dining room was all that was left. I was wrong. Someone once gave my mom a mug that said, “The one who dies with the most fabric wins.” I think she may have had a leg up on in the competition.
I didn’t have a specific conclusion in mind when I started this column because, as I’ve told far too many people before a funeral, there is no simple ending to the mourning process: the pain may never completely go away, but, as time goes by, it can get easier. That’s why I suggest that they share memories because talking about the person (or in my case, writing about them) keeps them alive in your memory and makes them part of your life, even though they are no longer physically with you. Writing this column not only helps keep my mom alive, but reminds people of her quirks and lets those who never met her know how much she meant and means to me. May her memory be for a blessing.