Talking with Mom a year after her death

Embarking on a journey to explore her mother's Christian spirituality and her own Jewish secularism

You don’t know that last week Michal lost her first two teeth, and that today Elad made kaki in the toilet for the first time. You are no longer witness to our mundane milestones and have been gone a year. But I’m still talking to you.

A year ago I said in one of our many long phone calls, let’s write a book together. I threw it out casually, after practicing how to approach the topic for weeks.

You would describe your spiritual journey, how you, born to a New York Jewish family, who started as a classical musician at Juilliard, ended up as a minister for the Disciples of Christ in Indianapolis.

My half would be about how I, born to a then-Catholic mother, found my way to Judaism at age 9, and to Israel by 24.

This was no selfless proposition, you knew that. I would finally be privy to your inner world, your motivations, what led you to your unpaved path.

We would finally discuss our separate but mutual “great epiphanies.” And we’d confront our double betrayals — you from your heritage, and me, in reclaiming your birthright as mine, my betrayal of you.

We’d reconcile how unlikely it was, that we were so loving and supportive of each other even after my eventual move to Israel where I am the mother of six little Jews who, by your chosen trajectory, should never have been born.

Mom and proud grandma, Audrey Borschel, holding a squirming Israeli grandson. (courtesy)
Mom and proud grandma, Audrey Borschel, holding a squirming Israeli grandson. (courtesy)

Not only were they brought into this world, but you were there, even during your nine-year war on breast cancer, to support me and welcome these miracles. And you loved them fiercely, these Hebrew-speaking noise makers who share a quarter of your DNA.

I see you in them. Fleetingly, as nine-year-old Kinneret lights up on stage at a school ceremony, possessed by some genetic echo, instantly able to sing on key.

Or in our four-year-old drama queen’s passions, when I remember your acting in the one-woman opera about Eleanor of Aquitaine you put on in Canada. You practiced it until we four kids knew the words better than you.

You never were very good at remembering words to songs, and had a gift of thinking quickly on your feet, impossibly creating improvised rhymes in rhythm while dancing a two-step.

Once, though, I rendered you speechless, when I told you about my pregnancy with our number five. You were tanked out on painkillers after major back surgery and were recovering while wearing what looked like a Wagnerian breast plate. The doctors had made you bionic, replacing your tumor-eaten vertebrae with titanium mesh.

Your response was in slow motion: an unbelieving, uncomprehending blink. A half-time double take as you drawled, “You’re what?!?” in disbelief.

You were always the first family we told.

We talked about almost everything.

You would drift off when I rambled and babbled a caffeine-fed monologue as a high schooler, back from somewhere — work, friends — filling you in. As your eyelids drooped, I would kiss your nose, your prominent “Jewish” nose, and say “Goodnight pretty Mommy.” And you’d sleepily say, “Goodnight baby girl.”

Mom Audrey Borschel and me in August 2009, days after a surgery and learning about the stage IV breast cancer that would claim her life five years later. (Ingrid Bellman)
Mom Audrey Borschel and me in August 2009, days after a surgery and learning about the stage IV breast cancer that would claim her life five years later. (Ingrid Bellman)

You would always claim I was a dirty blond — probably remembering the fine tufts hacked off in a prank by a local band of six-year-old hooligans that included Nick, the son who preceded you by two decades to wherever you are now. You cried when I came home, got on your knees and wrapped my four-year-old self in your arms. My gold ringlets were lost forever.

Later, when my hair was green, then pink, then checkerboard, I once asked you if I could smoke next to you. Just cigarettes, I said. You’d come to visit me at school, for once without Dad. I’d cleaned my little hovel, my first apartment on my own, and knowing I’d made an effort in your honor, you joked about getting bleach butt when sitting on the freshly scrubbed toilet.

I’d gotten swept away by our easy companionable conversation and wondered out loud, “Maybe we should just be friends now, not mother and daughter?”

You said no. You were right.

Last year I thought we may be strong enough to enter our minefield of a forbidden zone and talk about the unspoken — our parallel, but divergent paths to your Christian spirituality and my Jewish secularism.

In late February, impulsively, I traveled from Kidsville, Israel to see you in the Old Country. To spend time with you, I left the constant milling around my legs, nose and butt wiping, the kids’ eternal, sometimes existential, hunger. To be a daughter for a few days.

I decided it was time to stop carefully talking about our project and start working on it.

We were cautiously excited.

But those tumors that had eaten your spine, that had been living in your brain — miraculously — for five years, had started devouring your memory. Your self.

A month later your good friend, my Catholic godmother, actually, told me at your memorial service that my unplanned visit had made you think I knew you were going to die soon. You thought I had known something you didn’t. I hadn’t. But you died a few weeks later anyway.

Lately I look at my hands and I see yours. Strange, isn’t it? I used to love stroking your soft, veiny hands, always cold, always soothing.

Somehow they are now my hands, and like you with your poetry and your songs that came from some internal world I didn’t inhabit, I am now making notes on scraps of paper, writing down my slippery thoughts, hoping one day to find the time to bind them together.

Our project about self-awareness and mutual understanding wasn’t meant to be done in tandem.

But I’m still pausing, talking to you, Mom, even a year after your death. Our conversation isn’t over.

About the Author
Amanda Borschel-Dan lives in Israel, where she and her husband are raising their six always hungry children. She is The Times of Israel's Jewish World editor.
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