According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, as your travel velocity approaches the speed of light, time slows down. As I near the completion of the period of aveilut for my mother, I can reassure you that I am not moving faster than normal. Still, I sense time moving at a more sluggish pace. I think that this is in part because of the peculiar way the 12-month period of mourning is ending. My mother died on the 25th of Nisan, 5781. But because 5782 is a leap year, I have stopped saying kaddish 2 months before her yahrzeit. My aveilut will then end one month later, one month before her yahrzeit. I can feel the mourning gears for my mother slowly grinding to a halt. It may explain why I am stretching the month 11 time window to write this post.
My sister-in-law Beth passed away earlier this month and so my wife and I have been on-time, shul partners for nearly 4 weeks. I do not think I am a misery, but I do appreciate the company. Beth was one of the rare pure souls that hide in plain sight. At first blush, one would think that she came up short in the divine gift lottery. But anyone who watched person after person come to console my wife during shiva and fondly recreate the picture they had of Beth smiling warmly and affectionately connecting with everyone she came into contact with would be forced to reconsider. Beth’s too-short life was not filled with high drama, but it was a loving work of art.
Am I the only one who worries that people will have nothing to say about them when they die? We all want to imagine that we are “interesting” and that our lives were filled with “drama,” meaning a lifetime jam-packed with enough events to create a story that others would want to read. One of the last books I have read during the past year is a collection of short stories, “Objects of Desire,” by Clare Sestanovich. They are all about young women, all of them sad, vaguely dissatisfied, acutely unfulfilled. In one, “Brenda,” a creative writing teacher sees herself in her students, “whose greatest fear is that they have no drama at all. … They write long, precise paragraphs about objects—a papaya, a riverbed, an old man’s chin, to avoid writing about other things. What they avoid most of all is plot.” What if our lives do not have a plot worthy of getting into a short story collection?
The underlying assumption is that we know what a life of drama means and how important it is. Creating paradigm shifts at work, socializing with influencers and power brokers, having children who are all top X under age X. That’s the drama we strive for. By those standards, Beth did none of that. My mother did none of that. But what if drama is overrated? Art may inform life and creative plotting and dramatic action may enhance its narrative impact. But people have to live their lives and what matters more is how well they lived and not how theatrical their story was.
By that criterion, Beth and my mother had well-lived lives. For Beth it was in the effort to sustain her dream that she would get married someday and have a paying job. Getting them was a bonus. The quiet drama was keeping that broad warm smile on her face and unself consciously making everyone feel good about themselves even when it was far from certain that she would meet her husband or get a perfect job at the hospital. For my mother, it was not allowing the tragedy she endured prevent her from always being a welcoming host and friend to people who were in need. It was making sure that the shut-ins were visited every Shabbat, being there at the bedside of those with sick spouses or children.
Looking back over the essays I have written the last 11 months, I realize that my life has been about as overtly dramatic as Waiting for Godot. Not much has happened that would trigger a movie script or a good novella. But there has been theater right there in front of my eyes. It is in sustaining the effort to memorialize my parents and trying to act decently every day for the year. By blocking out all the other “dramatic” events of a regular years, aveilut heightens the intensity of what really counts as a well-lived life.
What about my mother and Beth? Their dramatic lives did intersect in the end. When Beth and her husband and mother and father would spend Shabbat afternoon with Audrey and me, the two husbands invariably disappeared for an afternoon consuming nap. My mother and Beth were not the people they had been just a few years earlier. But they never forgot what it meant to live well. They would sit on the couch in the den and talk to each other for hours. It was an interior scene from a drama worthy of Chekhov, even a little Pinter. It was a quiet, undramatic, well-lived Shabbat afternoon.