Sitting Shiva with the Synagogue Ladies

by Rebecca Linz

I was at a Weight Watchers meeting the first time I ever heard someone use the expression “sitting shiva.” A middle-aged Jewish woman announced with a loud voice and a strong Long Island accent that it had been a hard week for her weight loss efforts: “I was so bad.  We were sittin’ shiva for my dear aunt Shoshanna and let me tell you, it was a week of tuna salad, chicken salad, egg salad, bagels, kugel and knishes!” She sighed dramatically, as others in the room offered advice and sympathy.

A few months later, I found myself “sittin’ shiva” for my own mother in Michigan. I had found out my mother had cancer through a text message from my twin sister Sarah.  “Mom is stage 4 lymphoma and will start chemo ASAP,” she bluntly wrote. Sarah had ended her 5-year relationship, quit her job, and moved from Massachusetts back to Michigan to live with and care for our ailing parents, so I couldn’t exactly get mad at her for delivering this news via a text message. Our father’s Parkinson’s disease had forced him into early retirement, but it was a shock to us all when our normally robust mother fell suddenly and seriously ill at the relatively young age of 57.

Within six months of her diagnosis, my mother had lost 100 pounds and the ability to stand or even sit up on her own. Frail and extremely ill, she passed away a few days after my wife, two kids and I had gone to Michigan from New York for what we knew would be our last Thanksgiving with my mother.

My mother and I were not particularly close. She and I often went for months without speaking to each other, either out of anger or just avoidance. Our biggest fight occurred after the birth of my older son, Avery. He was just a few days old, my wife Carolyn and I were sleep deprived, and I was a hormonal mess. My mother criticized me for struggling with breastfeeding, and worse, she said he was “just a sperm donor baby,” and suggested that we were not a legitimate family. When she left for the airport, I was sobbing and vowed that I would never speak to her again. She apologized a few weeks later in an e-mail, and eventually we returned to our infrequent and formal communications.

The semester my mother died was rough. I was working full-time as well as teaching an evening class twice a week, on top of trying to make progress on my dissertation. Carolyn gave birth to our son Caleb in October, but she had to go back into the hospital for several days due to an infection and then carry around a “wound vac” which was about as gross as it sounds. Avery was three years old and was being evaluated for autism and other developmental delays. Our dog died. And then my mother passed away.

My parents had converted to Judaism several years previously, but I had not been brought up in the Jewish faith (or any faith for that matter). The last time my parents had come to New York, I had been surprised that instead of Broadway shows and Chinatown, they wanted to go to Judaica stores and visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The day my mother died, my three sisters and I sat around drinking wine, looking at photos of our mother, and telling stories about her. A rabbi came over to help plan the funeral ceremony.  He explained to us the Jewish custom of shiva, where mourners would come to the home of the deceased to grieve their loss. I thought that was bullshit. I didn’t want to make small talk with people I didn’t know and worry about whether or not there was fresh coffee made and toilet paper in clean bathrooms. Instead of the traditional seven-day period, we agreed to reduce it to two. My father asked about covering the mirrors, and my sisters and I looked at each other blankly. The rabbi gently said that that would not be necessary.

During the next couple of days before the funeral, my parents’ phone rang constantly. A steady stream of women, whom I dubbed “the synagogue ladies,” as I couldn’t tell them apart yet, were anxiously checking on my dad to see how he was coping. Sometimes they just showed up without any warning. This made me resentful; I wanted to spend time with my family and not deal with all of these people who were strangers to me.  But my father always seemed happy to hear from them, so I remained silent. The synagogue ladies brought food when they visited, and I recalled the woman from the Weight Watchers meeting and did my best imitation of her to make my sisters laugh. But to walk into my parents’ kitchen and see trays of food was both touching and practical during the next couple of days of constant visitors.

After the ceremony and burial, I asked Carolyn to bring the boys for the meal of consolation (another surprising ritual for me) held at the synagogue. Caleb was just six weeks old, and Avery was having a bad day. Due to sensory issues, he only wears short-sleeved tee shirts, and that day he had chosen to wear his favorite tee shirt featuring a frying pan smiley face: sunny side up eggs for eyes and a bacon smile. Even I knew that that wasn’t good: “He’s wearing a bacon shirt to his Jewish grandmother’s funeral?!” I hissed at Carolyn. Worse though, was his tantrum. He simply refused to enter the synagogue. “I don’t want no sinny-gog! I don’t want no sinny-gog!” he screamed and kicked as we stood there, mortified. The rabbi walked by and smiled. “Don’t worry, lots of adults feel the same way,” he assured us.

Back at the house, the rooms filled with synagogue congregants. Again, I felt suffocated by the presence of all of these people. I was pouring wine for my sisters and myself when one of the synagogue ladies admonished me, “You can’t have alcohol during shiva!” It was one admonishment too many for me. No one seemed to understand that not only was I unfamiliar with the customs of this religion, I was beginning to resent the feeling that my mother’s death was the opportunity to be “taught” something about the faith. This was the time for me to mourn the loss of my own mother, on my own terms. I asked the rabbi about the wine, and he assured me that I was not being disrespectful. I suspect he also spoke to the synagogue ladies as the informal crash course in Jewish Funeral Customs came to a close.

The rabbi said prayers in Hebrew in my parents’ crowded living room, and I tried to appear attentive. Caleb was passed around from one synagogue lady to another, and they each cooed over his red curly hair.

One of the synagogue ladies pulled me aside. “You know, your mother really loved you and your children so much. After you lost your baby, she was just so sorry and so sad for you.  We all prayed for you and your family,” she said, rocking Caleb in her arms.

Her kind words prompted me to burst into tears. I grabbed Caleb, held him tightly against my chest, and ran up to my parent’s bedroom. Carolyn followed.  I sobbed – really sobbed – for the first time since my mother died. Before Carolyn was pregnant with Caleb, she had been pregnant with another baby boy, whom we named Kevin.  Kevin had a fatal fetal anomaly, and we did everything we could, including fetal surgery, to save him. The surgery was unsuccessful, and the specialist advised us to terminate the pregnancy. It was a late-term abortion; Carolyn could feel Kevin’s kicks and the procedure was a devastating choice. After we lost Kevin, Carolyn and I mourned the son we would never meet and Carolyn remained depressed for a long time.

Although my mother had come to visit and help after we lost Kevin (and it was by far one of the most pleasant visits we had ever experienced with her), I had no idea how much she had been impacted by our loss. I certainly had no idea that she cared enough to share her feelings and tell our story to the other congregants.  After I was able to dry my tears and calm down, we headed back downstairs, where I took closer note of the synagogue ladies (and men) present.  Many of them had tears in their eyes or were actively crying. A group of them were gathered around my feeble father, helping him to sit or stand as needed, and handing him tissues, food and drink. They were hugging him, rubbing his back and listening to him talk with more patience than my sisters or I could ever muster. I started to realize that the synagogue had been a tremendous resource for my parents during the last few years of my mother’s life. While my sisters and I had spread out around the country dealing with our own young adult lives, trying to figure out how to be grown ups, my parents had found community and support. The synagogue ladies knew my mother better than I did, and they were blessed to know a side of her that I never got to experience.

I made a decision that evening. I determined to always tell my sons that I loved them and that I was proud of them. To tell them that their joys were my joys and their sorrows my sorrows. While I want my sons to be independent, I want them to know that I will always be there when they need a parent.  I don’t want them to attend my funeral and realize that they never really knew me.  Soon after my mother’s death, Carolyn gave me a pendant shaped like the figures of a woman and a child, linked together with a diamond. Carolyn told me that it represents my mother and Kevin together.  I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in Heaven. But there is something intensely comforting about the idea of this connection. These losses are part of our family’s history.  I mourn the loss of Kevin, the loss of my mother, and the lost opportunity to have a loving and emotionally close mother-daughter relationship.

Rebecca Linz works in the Office of Graduate Studies at Sarah Lawrence College where she also teaches French through their Continuing Education program.  She recently defended her dissertation, entitled “Maternités et Identités: Representations of Motherhood and National Identity in Literary Texts of Quebec” at CUNY’s Graduate Center, and in February 2013, she’ll officially be “Dr. Linz.”  She is the proud mom of two young boys.


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