Barbara Cooper

People are born and people die

When I last saw my mother, we played Scrabble, I held her hands in mine, and found it hard to leave. But I didn't process the fact that I'd never see her again
Illustrative. Elder and younger locking of hands  (Jewish News)
Illustrative. Elder and younger locking of hands (Jewish News)

What happens between those two events is a question only answered through the time that they live as the days unfold.

Some live briefly — almost a gasp — and even others who live beyond the norms of life expectancy seem to go too soon.  They set us up for the unreasonable expectation that they will live forever.

My dad died 22 years ago. He was a dynamic figure, strong and protective, generous and kind, someone who people would come to for advice and comfort. Everyone knew that he would always be willing to help. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer, we expected that he would give it the good fight. If anyone could overcome that horrible disease, he would be the one to do it. His lung capacity even at that time was extraordinary, his bones as strong as ever, his heart exhibiting the health of a person decades younger than his 80 years. The medical professionals on the team that provided his care expressed the wish that their bodies be as healthy as his when they reached his age, minus the cancer, of course. But alas, even with his larger-than-life persona, he was only human. It was five months from the time of the diagnosis until he took his last breath surrounded by his children and grandchildren. His beloved wife of almost 60 years sat in the next room with my eldest son unable to bear what she knew was about to happen.

My sisters and I grieved together, huddling as the composition of our family changed, the fabric of our world suddenly having a gap that would need to mend. Eventually, as we adjusted to the reality of it, we were able to be apart but were bound as always by the threads that Dad had encompassed us with, that strengthened us in our own respective lives and kept us together even living hundreds of miles apart.

The shloshim (the first 30 days of mourning) for my beloved mother ended two weeks ago.  The shock of my mother’s death was greater than that of my father’s, even at her age of 102.  Dad had suffered a terminal illness. Mom, although declining during the last few months of her life, was dynamic in her own way. She was active and healthy, living on her own, always wanting to know what was happening in the lives of her three children, eight grandchildren, and 19 great-grandchildren, and keeping up with current events.  My sisters were in Mom’s condo in America hearing her take her last breath from the next room. They were no less surprised than I in my home in Israel at her “sudden” death. No matter how likely it is to happen, it is always a surprise. So abrupt. So final.

My visit to America in November 2021 only a few months before Mom’s death was to be the last time I would see her alive. We got to play Scrabble, her favorite pastime during the last few years of her life. I got to hold her hand warming hers with mine. It was difficult to leave her, all the more so when she frowned at my impending departure. Her frown, like a child’s drawing of a simple frown on a face, is etched in my memory. As the image haunted me in the following weeks, when I wanted to picture Mom’s beautiful smile, I suddenly realized that it might have been the last time I would see her.  And then, of course, the shock…

As a member of the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) when I lived in America, I couldn’t bear the image of my mom being prepared for burial. I had participated so many times and remembered the scene. It was a quiet room, brightly lit, with a name written on a chalkboard, the person whose body our team of five women would cleanse and purify for burial. We followed the rules, pronouncing various prayers at the appointed times along the way, and preserved the dignity of the person whose life had ended, keeping the body covered with a sheet as much as possible through the process. No! Not my mom! The only brief image that my mind would allow was Mom dressed in the stark white tachrichim (burial clothes), the shirt and pants, the bonnet on her head, a piece of broken pottery on each eye and on her mouth. It would not be difficult to transfer her from the table to the coffin, the lift not necessary for her child-like weight, divided by four hands gently placing her on the bed of straw in the waiting pine box and resting her head on a straw-filled pillow. Earth from the Holy Land would be sprinkled on her eyes, her heart, and reproductive area, and sprinkled all around her in her purified repose.

When I see the news on my computer home page, there are sometimes stories about births, but many more about deaths — young people with illnesses or habits that kept their lives short, people of different ages at the end of a full life, or those who were sliced out of our world by monstrous tragedies and atrocities.

I don’t know when I started to cry at those deaths of people who I never knew, but I have grieved privately from a distance with the countless families who would be mourning, whose lives would be changed forever. There are no adequate words when I succumb to the emotion of what the survivors must be going through. I have wondered how people get past unspeakable horrors that seem to always be present in our otherwise beautiful world.  Beyond our comprehension… Not for us to question…

And not to question the blessing of having had my parents for so many wonderful years. I am thankful, even while it is necessary to come to terms with this new gap in the fabric of my family. I know it will mend. Eventually, I will be able to think about Mom without feeling grief at her loss. The local huddling this time only lasted until the end of shiva, the week of mourning that I spent in America with my sisters.  With me living in Israel, the geographical distance keeps us physically apart, but the threads that our parents wove around  us remain forever.

About the Author
Once a stay-at-home mother of four children, and now grandmother to 15, Barbara spent 50 years 'children watching.' For a decade, she provided childcare in her home and was also a substitute teaching assistant at Gan Ephraim Preschool in Columbus OH. Over a period of 23 years, she made 19 trips to Israel, finally fulfilling her dream of making aliyah in 2019. She pursues ongoing independent study of Torah.
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