01 August 2012


We walked around the block last night as Shiva for Mom came to an end and I realized, amidst the receding tides of memories leaving ephemeral impressions in the shore of this experience, that I felt grateful.

Grateful for a mother who raised me to appreciate life's simple blessings.

Grateful for a wife who makes a home where such moments are the rule, not the exception.

Grateful for my sisters and brother and their presence at Mom's side for so much of her battle with cancer these past six years; and especially as her breath diminished, her soul departed, and her body gave out.  One sister called to tell me "Mom is gone" and within minutes another sister texted me a photograph of the sun rising over Lake Michigan.  מי זאת עולה מן המדבר--"Who is it that arises from the desert?" That wilderness of suffering having ended; up she went, the Mother.

Milwaukee Sunrise:  7.22.12
Grateful for the staff and administration at the Jewish Home and Care Center in Milwaukee, all of whom were extraordinary in their expressions of love and sympathy for the six weeks they took care of Mom.

Grateful for family and friends from all walks of life--Mom's life which predated her children; her work friends from the Boston Store; her friends from Gilda's Club; from the Shorewood Public Library; from old political campaigns; PTA meetings; bridge clubs; and the friends of friends and family who knew her kindness and quirks, loved them, and so came to offer her one last chance at being drawn into the experience of giving gentle love and kindness back to the world:  a shovelful of regenerative earth down into the grave, covering one life in order to give way to new life in a new form.  As for all the emails and the letters and the phone calls, I'm grateful for those, too.  I plan on writing you all back over the next month.  Please be patient.

I'm also grateful for open hearts:  for Mom's children and their spouses who've chosen different faiths; for grandkids that sing songs and recite Shakespeare; for the Jews and the Christians and the Atheists and the Democrats and the Republicans who gathered together to acknowledge that an unusual person, in her often frustrating meekness but startlingly graceful humility, had left her mark.

And I'm grateful for psychoanalysis:  When I was 20, Dad died.  He and I had been fighting for the weeks leading up to his heart attack and when he left in a predictable explosion of cardiac matter, it took me years to excavate my anger.  Here in Brooklyn, years after his death, one therapist set an empty chair before me and said, "Talk to him.  He's sitting there," and for several sessions, I did.  It took years but we made peace.  When it became clear that Mom would die, we spent January to July speaking to one another truthfully.  My current therapist helped me figure out how to do that.  Which I appreciate.  Sometimes it hurt to say certain things to Mom and to hear certain things as well, of course, but that was the point.  To take responsibility.  If you have the chance, I recommend it.

I'm grateful that Mom died in an Election Year.  The country's a mess.  I like that my year of saying Kaddish will be comprised, in some significant way, with fundamental political battles over the direction of our country.  My brother-in-law Mike summed it up quite well in his eulogy:  "And I know these last couple of months were miserable for you...what with Scott Walker winning the recall election.  Oh, and the cancer too."  She'd have loved that.

There's so much to say, so much to write.  No one can really close out a person's life so easily.

Yesterday afternoon, when it was clear that the seven days of Shiva were drawing to an end, I was watching guests talk to one another in my living room, my mind drifted away, and I had an image of myself floating down a river, its alluvial banks a deep, muddy comfort; its current steady and inexorable.  This is Jewish Law, I said to myself.  Submission to a structure beyond the Self.

While Mom was dying in the first weeks of July, I was back and forth on Airtran Air (the Milwaukee Airport on life-support is another topic altogether) and among the books stuffed inside my bags were those of Alison Bechdel, Janet Malcolm and D.W. Winnicott.

I had never been so acutely aware of Transitions like I was those weeks; and these three thinkers were my compatriots in this last battle, helping me make sense of the metaphoric war between regenerative life and cancerous death.  I'm grateful for those guys, too.

I leave you, now, with a photograph that captures, I think, what Winnicott referred to as the child becoming aware of himself as an independent object, distinct from his mother.  As he weans from the life-source (the breast, the bottle), his 'transitional object' (usually the blanket) eases him into the idea that he is independent of that life source.

As I mulled these ideas, I focused on a particular picture from my childhood, taken at one year, when we were living in Sacramento.  Mom and I are very happy in the picture and with sarcasm my dad had scrawled on the back, "Grumpy," a likely approximation of his own feelings about the Oedipal nature of things (which Uncle Siggy explicated back when Vienna was still respectably Jewish.)

Nevertheless, I present it to you, dear reader, with the title, "Smiling Into Separation."  It turns out we started saying "good-bye" a long time ago.  Mom loved to make things so easy.  She was generous in that way.

Smiling Into Separation, Sacramento '64
I'm grateful for that, too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beyond beautiful Andy. May her memory be a blessing.leah, matt and oliver schrag