It's been a sobering week. I paid two shivah calls and attended the yahrzeit gathering for a friend who died several years ago of cancer. The expression "Nor oif simchas/(We should meet) only at happy occasions" came to mind as I entered yet another house with the dining-room table overloaded with sweets and an adult child perched forlornly on a low couch or stool.
It's so wrenching and disorienting to lose a parent. Gratefully, the two mourned at these visits had lived long and busy lives. There wasn't the added tragedy of dying before one's time.
Yet even for an older parent, is there any "natural" time to die? Don't we greedily, instinctively want our loved ones to always be around, easily available when we need them?
Given our midlife status, we have gone to a sizable number of shivahs for friends who have lost parents. In this community, most of the people we know are transplants. Their parents live elsewhere. Unless those parents visit often, we typically don't get the chance to get to know them.
So it's helpful when mourners have items on display — usually, photographs — that tell part of the story of their loved ones who passed on. It also helps explain our friends and some of the influences that shaped them.
At one of last week's shivahs, we not only looked at photos, but also at books and articles that our friend's father had written throughout a fruitful academic life. It's always a bit odd to think of parents as "accomplished." Part of us is proud, and the other part wants some distance from that, longing to be judged on our merits alone.
But one thing is clear: Our parents will always belong to a different generation and time. In this case, the father grew up in pre-war Warsaw. Although our friend herself is highly intelligent, she doesn't speak Yiddish, Polish and Russian, as her father did. She doesn't have that particular European sensibility. Thus, the shivah could be thought of as marking not only her father's death, but the end of an era.
At the other I attended, the Orthodox daughter-in-law sat on a couch near her husband and gave a running commentary to all about how genial and caring her mother-in-law had been.
"She was very funny, but never at anyone else's expense. The only person she ever made fun of was herself. And you couldn't get her to accept a compliment! If I said, 'Mom, I love this meal,' she answered, 'Nah, it's only because you're hungry!' "
The more she spoke of her husband's mother, the more I realized she might as well be talking about her husband, too. His quick wit and ability to turn anything vaguely complimentary into a self-deprecating joke were legendary. Even his brother from California, now sitting on an adjacent low stool, turned out to have the same gentle humor.
At that moment, I could imagine the mother looking down from wherever her soul had gone and thinking, "Zol zayn azoi/Let it be this way. I left two boys who go on making other people feel welcome and good about themselves. It doesn't end with me."
Beginnings and Ends
Maybe the best we can hope for at the end is that something of ourselves continues out into the world that we'll no longer be a part of. Words, actions, kindnesses, progeny — they've been created over a lifetime and will not easily be destroyed or lost, even after we're gone.
"Nor oif simchas" is an understandable response to a sad occasion, but it goes against the natural order of things.
So when someone's time has come, we gather around those who are left grieving and try to comfort them, feed them and listen to their stories. In the process, we learn more about the person who died and what they made of their time here. And that inspiration, along with our collective energy, is one of the few balms we possess for softening the inevitability of loss.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail her with any comments at: [email protected].