Eleven Years Later
Today marks 11 years on the Hebrew calendar, 12th of Av, since my mom passed away, which is also coincidently close this year to her standard calendar anniversary of July 25th. Tonight I recognize her death while considering mine inside these hospice walls. I must admit this night on the edge of two worlds is eerily chilling, rocking me to the core of my being.
But few nights are as memorable as her final night 11 years ago. I stayed awake with family members waiting for a fragment of time to pass. It had been eight months since a stroke took us on a medical rollercoaster of disbelief, and just ten days since the doctors performed surgery to discover incurable cancer riddling her body. Since that operation her mind drifted in and out of consciousness; her spirit in and out of this universe. But we remained vigilant by her side, protectors of the fragile soul caught between worlds.
Nurses and doctors practiced in the art of dying spoke to us about the end. They read vital signs like soothsayers see astrological signs predicting imminent death. Tonight, they assured us, would be her last.
On this night, I feel an uneasy calm in these hospice hallways like there’s a hidden order to the universe I’m aware of but not privy to understand. I know souls are in motion with angels descending and ascending ladders like in Jacob’s dream. Even though I’ve seen the forlorn look in the eyes of other patients; heard their terrible moans from ungodly regions of space, I’m just not equipped to see the sight of angels; at least not tonight thankfully.
And however hard I tried the night my mom died, it escaped me there too. I held her hand, whispered in her ear, ‘G-d loves you and we’ll be okay, but you need not suffer anymore, let go now.’ She opened her eyes in shock. She didn’t have to speak, her eyes said it all, ‘What do you know about anything, let alone death?’ I felt ashamed, for I knew nothing, and for that matter, little more than I do now. She’d fade in and out somemore and we’d take our shifts being with her.
I left when nurses came in to change her bedding and reposition her body. They told me she asked for me. ‘Where’s my boy?’ For the last few days all she spoke of was random shout outs to her ‘ma’ or ‘pa.’ There are small miracles in these days yet to be seen, the rabbi foretold us. This was one of them.
Another came in the waking hours of morning. Our stamina wiped away, we all fell asleep from my dad and sister on lounge chairs in the waiting room to my uncle and I on the hospital room floor. My brother, wife and sister-in-law all went home to sleep and catch a later shift. But there would be no more shifts. The nurse, who had hospice experience, caught my wary eyes as I opened them at ten after eight am. She carried my eyes up to my mom’s body. Twenty minutes ago while I was still sitting beside her, she held out shallow breathes like the distant rhythm of the tide heard from the high cliffs overlooking the sandy ocean pier. Now she lay still, motionless, without breath or soul.
I woke my uncle with the hallow words, ‘mom’s gone. She’s dead.’ And that began the grieving process that still hurts me to this day; it still haunts me even now in the airtight chambers of my lungs and the forgotten chambers of this hospice sanctuary. She needed to be alone to let go, I guess I understand now. I don’t know what I’ll need to do to let go but I guess over time, the days, weeks, months to come, I’ll learn.
I know there’s stuff I’ll never learn. I spoke tonight as we davened with a minyan to mark Miriam Isaac’s yartziet, how as a parent you try to negotiate the big pleas. "I suffer through cancer, okay, I’ll happily do that. But You G-d, Hashem, Can You please promise to let my wife and kids off for free? Please bless them with long, happy lives, filled with meaning, mitzvah, and Your approval." But I’m sure my mom made her bargains. Wouldn’t any parent? So how is it 11 years later I’m here now? I walk these haunted hallways, fearful that my breathing will continue to deteriorate. Already, I’m locked up here like a prisoner by the broken elements of an unhealthy body.
Through this process I’ve grown to understand that we’re not meant to understand the thoughts of G-d. Certainly my grievances are well founded but step in line, maybe behind the righteous family that perished in the concentration camps without any survivors. G-d loves us and we cannot venture to understand thoughts that far beyond our own meager thoughts. So I do take away lessons from that night 11 years ago. I do believe that my mom was calling to her parents, ‘ma’ and ‘pa.’ I do believe that she saw a better place, but held on with us for as long as she possibly could because she had faith; she believed in G-d’s love. And wanted us all to be together, or to slip out when the chance arrived, going on her next sacred journey while we all still had life to live here.