With tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, I stood at my mother’s grave and recited the age-old Aramaic prayer of Kaddish; Yitgadal veyitkaddash shmeh rabba … May His great name be exalted and sanctified… This is how my 11 months of Kaddish started.
Although my mother had been ill for many years, news of her passing was a blow, one that I feared my whole life. My wife, who lost her father 15 year ago, informed me that I was now a member of a unique club that nobody chooses to join, but automatically receives membership in, when a parent dies.
Judaism prescribes a path of mourning that is designed to help the mourner and at the same time benefit the deceased parent. Kaddish can only be recited with a minyan and, because it is part of the different prayer services, must be said at specific times of the day. I was not used to waking up at 5:00 a.m. to go to shul and participate in a minyan. My preference was always for the Shabbat Kiddush over the long Shabbat morning services. I was now faced with the prospect of 11 months without the pleasure of hitting the snooze button and on Shabbat mornings, getting to shul before the chazzan started to recite the first prayer. I committed myself to say Kaddish — every single Kaddish on every day of the 11 months. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
The week of Shiva was a cathartic experience, with friends and relatives filling the house, providing meals, which enabled us not to have to worry about the day-to-day needs we all have. We spent time talking about my mother’s life, the 25 years of teaching cooking at a Jewish school, 20 years as a volunteer with the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish Burial Society) and showing old black and white snapshots of her, when she was newly married. Over the Shiva, we shared lots of stories about my mother, we laughed and cried. I slowly learned the words of the two types of Kaddish that mourners recite.
Then, on the last morning of Shiva, the people who prayed with me, consoled me and fed me, raised me up from my low chair and told me that it was time to join the world. I took off my shirt with the tear in it, removed the coverings from the mirrors and went for a walk. I had an emptiness in my eyes and a heaviness in my heart.
I found different shuls, a Shacharit minyan across the street, a Mincha minyan in an office close to mine, a Maariv minyan there as well or a few blocks away from my home. Shabbat at my regular shul. My life became a series of timetables that governed all aspects of my free time.
I once calculated that I would say Kaddish over 2,000 times in the 11 months, but each Kaddish seemed to be different. Kaddish at the Kotel or in a Mea Shearim shtibel, in an Ashkenazi minyan or Sephardi — each time the exact same words were recited, but it was different. Sometimes I was part of a group of two, three, four or even more people saying this prayer for our loved ones. Sometimes I was all alone, and as my voice filled the room, I had to hold back the tears that came when I thought about my mother. Day after day, week after week, I moved forward emotionally. Some days it would be two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes it was two steps back and one step forward.
When someone says Kaddish, it is not a solitary affair. It affects the entire family:
Abba, I have a concert next week – I am sorry, but I can’t attend.
Abba can you pick me up at 7:30 p.m.? – Sorry, I have to be in shul for Maariv.
Our parent/teacher’s meeting is at 6:30 p.m. – Can you change the time to 8:00 p.m.?
Although my children were not enrolled in the “club,” they paid their dues and did it with a smile. I installed an app on my phone to help me count down the days that remained. With each passing Kaddish I became stronger, smiles returned to my face and emptiness in my eyes was replaced with hope. Watching the number get smaller with each new day also reminded me how far I had come.
The days became weeks and the weeks became months. I turned around one day in shul and saw a young man saying Kaddish for his mother. He had recently gotten up from Shiva. I recognized that emptiness in his eyes and realized how much I had started to heal.
I had begun to see that the Kaddish was not a millstone at all, but was a precious stone, and that every occasion that I had to recite Kaddish was actually an opportunity to sing my mother’s praises. A time for payback for all the times she cared for me when I was sick, encouraged me to get up when I was down, carpooled me to lessons and performed all the things a parent does lovingly for a child. I started to wish that I could freeze the countdown. Each day became more precious, and each Kaddish became more dedicated to my mom.
This afternoon, with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, I stood and recited the age-old Aramaic prayer of Kaddish. Yitgadal veyitkaddash shmeh rabba… May His great name be exalted and sanctified…. This is how my 11 months of Kaddish ended.