Lisa Gelber
Living Life One Breath at a Time

Water for the soul: Death, life and my mother’s 80th

For the past few weeks, I’ve lived in a state of anticipatory mourning. This Saturday marks seven years since my father left this earth. It was a gorgeous day. The sun shone. The birds sang. My daughter played happily at her daycare, and I was embarking on new adventures. I often remember that along with the voice message that turned life upside down. I’ll commemorate my father’s yahrzeit in a few weeks when it arrives on the Hebrew calendar. But daily visits to my Facebook memories this year have me counting down to this Saturday. The anticipation of “memories” about his passing has me focused on the date, one with extra challenge and meaning this year. This July 9th would have been my mother’s 80th year of life, the first one on which she is not here to acknowledge the double valence of the day, the mourning mixed with joy.

photo credit: Lisa Gelber

For seven years we’ve joked that my father died on my mother’s birthday so she would not forget the date. It was truly a joke because my parents were inseparable. They were the center of each other’s universe. My father held the Eishet Hayil in mind for my mother, and my mother Psalm 15 for my father, who may live in your tent, who may dwell on your holy mountain, the one who lives without blame, does what is right and speaks the truth in his heart. Their lives revolved around each other’s needs and wants, with Jewish practice and tradition at the center. After my father died, my mother did not like to acknowledge her birthday. Her mourning overshadowed any sense of celebration.

The Torah tells us that when Miriam dies, the community is without water. This was a people without strength. As Rashi expounds, while Miriam lived, a well travelled with the people during their wanderings. The Midrash suggests the well was a water flowing rock which rolled alongside the people. This was the rock Moses hit. He was so sad at his sister’s death, he did not want to draw forth any water for Israel (Ta’anit 9a). Imagine what it must have been like to be that thirsty for connection in a place called Kadesh/a holy, sacred space. On many days, this was my mother, without water, tired, untethered, connected so long as her internal batteries could sustain themselves.

In our home, we celebrated my mom, even when she did not. We acknowledge birthdays, and half-birthdays, capitalizing on opportunities to celebrate potential and possibility. Especially in these months of mourning, my daily kaddish has felt like a sanctification of my mother’s memory and potential, a focused reminder of expression and story. In her almost four score years, my mother planted seeds of love and friendship, learning and laughter, humor and joy. While there are days on which I’m thirsty for her voice and her counsel (whether to accept or ignore), making time to acknowledge and remember the gifts she brought to her family and this world help transform sorrow into hope.

It has been a long time since I’ve made chicken. Our family has radically diminished the amount of meat we consume in the house. Today, as I prepare to make the recipe my mother used every Shabbat of my childhood, I’m noticing the pin feathers that look decidedly like toenails (not what I remember from years past) and thinking what a great, side splitting laugh my mom and I would have had about this poor chicken who needed a pedicure. Instead of anticipating how difficult this July 9th will be, I’ll do as the psalmist suggests and let the holy memory of joy, humor and love turn my mourning into dancing. While I’m at it, I’ll raise up my water bottle to toast my mom and saturate my soul.

July 8, 2022/9Tamuz 5782

About the Author
Lisa Gelber is rabbi, fierce mother, marathon runner, spiritual director, breast cancer survivor, domestic violence advocate and PELOTON enthusiast. She serves Congregation Habonim in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of NYC. Her journey to parenthood is profiled in the Emmy nominated documentary ALL OF THE ABOVE: Single, Clergy, Mother.
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