Not long ago, my mother and I visited the cemetery where my father was buried 11 months ago. I’m no stranger to cemeteries. As a rabbi, I’ve officiated at countless funerals and make it a practice to “visit” people when I’m at a cemetery, whether family, friends, or those I was privileged to come to know in the stories of their lives after they’d left this world. Yet, going to this particular cemetery haunted me. I pushed it off as long as I could. It would be an understatement to say I had no desire to return to my father’s grave before the headstone was erected. I actually feared going back to that space. By now the grass would have grown over. Still, I dreaded visiting a small plot of land with a little sign stuck in the ground like the flower markers at the botanical gardens. If I’m honest, underneath it all was the knowledge that this would be yet another goodbye, as my daughter and I prepare to move south (and not to New Jersey!).
The night before the visit, I set aside my rabbi’s manual and a small book of psalms and wondered what I would wear. That’s right. What does one wear to visit a loved one in the cemetery before the establishment of the “official” marker? As I looked through my dresser drawers, I came across a simple black V-neck T-shirt. Unfolding it, I noticed the rip in the front and the small silver safety pin holding the material together. It was my funeral/shiva shirt.
In the car after every funeral at which I’d made the initial small rip in a mourner’s clothes or helped someone pull at the kriah ribbon, I wondered what I would do when I became the mourner. Would I tear a scarf and wear it throughout the week? Would I pin a kriah ribbon to my blouse? Would I tear into my shirt and wear it every day — even in a 600 sq. ft apartment FILLED with people in the heat of a NYC summer?
I’m regularly reminded that I tore a kriah ribbon the morning of my father’s funeral as I stepped into my role as mourner. I placed it in my purse and periodically it pricks my finger as I reach into the pocket for a pen, some change or my daughter’s earring. I also tore my black V-neck T-shirt and wore it throughout the week.
For years, I thought about what one might do with the tear in the mourner’s clothes as they returned to the “new normal.” They could stitch the fabric back together, but with what thread? Matching to blend into the material and mark a return to the status quo? Maybe a yarn altogether different from the fabric to draw attention to the imperfection. Both reflect the status of my heart this year, the place to which the initial tear is meant to draw attention. Some days, life seems to just go on. The threads of my life hang together well enough and if there’s a wrinkle around my heart, so be it. At other moments, I notice the healing even if it feels marked with keloids or unexpected and colorful joy. Regardless of how full or bruised one’s heart feels, it’s good to notice what’s going on in the heart; it is after all the seat of wisdom.
The psalmist calls out, Teach us to number our days so that we may gain a heart of wisdom (90:12). Those words have been instructive for me as I moved through these months of kaddish in honor and memory of my father. Every kaddish has raised up dreams, accomplishments, opportunity, missed opportunity and potential. Every life affirming word has challenged me to be present, to speak with strength or unsteadied, through tears and with broad smiles (yes, my daughter and I sometimes grin at the memories of my father, evoked through the recitation of kaddish). It is the practice, the calling attention to a soul gone from this earth in all its complexity that invites the heart to open, over time, to what is real and true.
Preparing to step into the sanctuary that would host my father’s funeral service, I tore a rip in my shirt. For that week of shiva, it was an outward sign of my status as mourner. I certainly didn’t need it. My heart had been torn asunder. Throughout the year, I periodically came across that black T-shirt, sometimes pulling it over my head before realizing just what it was. Throwing it away seemed like discarding a sacred photograph, ignoring a palpable memory. But I wasn’t going to wear a ripped shirt, certainly not THAT ripped shirt. And so, I pinned the fabric together with a small safety pin, one I’d likely used to affix my bib number in a race. A pin I carried on my person as I pushed myself to achieve, to notice and to enjoy. One that came with me as I ran up hills and cheered others along the course. Every time I came across that shirt in my dresser drawer, the pin reminded me of what I could do, what I have already done and my father’s presence at the finish line, real or virtual.
It made sense to clothe myself with that sacred safety pin of memory, challenge and encouragement as I visited the place in which my father’s body was laid to rest. It helped hold me together at the unmarked gravesite, likely a product of the post winter months. I imagine it will help to hold my heart in fullness today as I recite my final kaddish of the year before my father’s yarzheit next month.
@Rabbi Lisa Gelber
June 1, 2016 / 24 Iyar 5776