The Mother Who Birthed Me Has Birthed Me Again
by Ella Russell of blessed memory
(Ella Russell wrote this immediately after sitting Shiva for her mother Rose Dobkin, it was shared with the mourners who were joining her sons sitting Shiva for Ella. You can also read more from Ella at Spiritual Autobiographies or her eulogy at Recollections. - rge)
Shiva is over. I uncovered the mirrors and saw myself from the outside for the first time in a week. I paid some bills and made some business calls. Tomorrow I go back to work. I am filled with gratitude, both to our supportive community and to the centuries of traditions that honed a prescription for comfort. Last night Mark Z. was here for my last Shiva minyan and since he lost his mother just a few days before I lost mine, and since we had just lit the Hanukkah menorah and were talking about the rededication of the Temple, I said to him, now we have to rededicate our lives without our parents”. Yes he said ”we are orphans now”.
Years ago when I joined the Hevra Kadisha, I realized how important it was to me to have my mother gathered unto her people when she died. I wanted her grave near me, and I wanted her to go out of this world as she had come in, as a Jew. Even though my mother was 86 years old and ready to die, even though she was not in pain, even though she was receiving excellent and compassionate care at a nursing home in Berkeley, even though, just a week before I had sat by her bed and read her the Viddui and the Shema and talked my heart out with thanks and tears, even though I had meticulously arranged for her transfer up here and had all the logistics covered and even though my brother and I felt a sweet closure and gratitude that she was dying a natural death, I was experiencing tremendous stress. I wanted to be by her side, but I couldn't. I was deeply exhausted. The day before she died, I prayed deeply that she would be able to find the way Home with ease, and I finally relaxed. Long talks with the Hospice nurse and the staff at the nursing home also helped.
On Wednesday November 4th at 09:20 a.m. I received a call from the nursing home in Berkeley that my mother was breathing her last breaths. Hyperventilating myself, I called my brother in Berkeley, and Margaret. Then I knew exactly what I wanted to do, standing barefoot in my kitchen, I again read the Viddui and repeated the Shema 7 times. With each repetition, I slowed down more, breathing deeper. The circle of light coming from my heart grew and grew. I experienced a peace that I had not known since my mother began her long decline. She had found her way Home.
The time between death and burial is a period of intense activity, despite perfect foresight and planning. Margret was by my side and an hour after Rose passed. She literally set up her office, that is my phone, on my couch, and kept her arm around me the whole time. We farmed my out lists of people to call to Ellen, and with Donna organizing the Tahara, and Ed organizing the Shomrim, and Larry at Chapel by the Sea taking care of getting my mother's body up to here. I was free to share some vivid memories with Margaret of sumptuous and laughter filled Thanksgiving feasts for the extended family of 30 or so. Which my mother so graciously hosted. Just as Margaret was about to leave, late in the afternoon, Kim arrived with wonderful food. She swept and organized as I called the closest relatives, knowing they would not be here for the funeral. I spoke at length with my mother's nurses, who were with her as she dies, and with Denny, a member of the Kehilla congregation's Hevra Kadisha in Berkeley. Denny sat with my mother's body until transportation arrived, and she was brimming with a happy report. “Rose didn't hang around her body at all. She saw where to go and was out of there!”
Late at night, Rio arrived with David and Donna, my brother and sister in law, and they were grateful to be bundled off to Mickey and Margaret's to bed. Donna M. dropped by with a Shiva candle, and to report that the Tahara had been peaceful. As Rio collapsed on the couch, I got out my favorite pictures of my mother.
Next morning, with the funeral scheduled for noon, David and Donna and I headed up to Fort Bragg to wrap up business with Chapel by the Sea. There, in a quiet room, was my mother's casket, with Belle sitting her shift as Shomer. My mother had been sat with in shifts all night. .Again, a wave of love and gratitude washed over me. While we were gone, Ellen covered my mirrors, brought me a little low bench to sit on during Shiva and placed a pitcher and bowl outside so people could was their hands before entering a house of mourning.
The funeral itself was very meaningful, so much bigger than honoring and burying only one person. Many people did not know my mother. Many people there, people from the community who did not know my mother, seized the opportunity to open their hearts. I saw it on their faces. They felt love, loss, gratitude, grief – all the feelings that come up when we watch a body, so which was so recently housed a person, be placed into our mother earth. As for me, I felt supremely supported by my family and community. And beyond that, I felt that everything was “right”. Time stood still, the rain let up and we were the center of the universe. The selection that Margaret read was “right”, my four boys all in a row were “right”, all that was said in remembrance of Rose was “right”, the poem that Lydia “read” was right, every syllable of the Kaddish was “right” and every tear and shovel full of earth was “right”. We could do no wrong because it was a holy moment and we were all blessed in it, in its sacred act of laying a body to rest.
Back at home, we had a meal of consolation. This was the beginning of Shiva, the week of mourning which serves to comfort the beloved and the memory of the deceased. It is a lesson in receiving. By the end of the week I was adept at not getting up to greet or say good bye to my visitors, at not serving food, but allowing them to serve me, and most of all heartfelt compassion so truly and deeply that I was indeed comforted.
After the meal of consolation, everyone went home except for Jesse, Tatanka and his fiancé Anna. This was a great moment, because Jesse and Tatanka let loose with delightful stories about their grandma -- about how they teased her or how they tricked her, and vivid memories of the special food she made them. Stories infused with love and happy memories, stories that were new to me because they had their own relationship with their grandma that was personal to each of them. It was almost an enchanted moment for me, to see my mother through their eyes.
All week long people came to my house bringing food, bringing themselves. They did not knock; they just walked in. Some stayed a short while; some stayed longer. A cousin I hadn't seen for years visited from Marin, I found a picture of his mother among the family photos and gave it to him. Every day there were cards and letters from friends who did not know Rose, and from Rose's friends and relatives who were grieving her loss themselves and wanted to share their fondest memories and stories with me. Those stories washed over me in waves of awe and love.
Cecile and Lillia each gave me a Polarity Therapy session. My body was freed up to feel deeper and to integrate. I felt it in my bones alive and tingling; these bones that are my structure, a direct inheritance from my parents. Some friends took walks with me, always up the hill; never toward “greater downtown Elk”. If I needed something from downtown, someone would get it for me. Every night there was a minyan here, not always numbering 10, but that didn't matter to me. What mattered to was being able to pray the service with others and to say the Kaddish. All week long Gully appreciated the gentle caring (and the food) we received.
The first day of Shiva I shared pictures of my mother,but then I started missing my father so very much (he died when I was 19) that I took out his pictures too, and it was a complete honoring of both of them. I had call after call from relatives, many in my father's family, and each story they told fleshed out my parent's lives and answered questions I could not even know how to ask. My uncle Mac, my father;s brother, told me that he had asked my father three days before he died, if he would have lived his life differently. My father said no; he had leukemia and and he continued to work as a family doctor through his illness and died with his boots on”, as Mac put it. I was able to grieve for my father in a new way. I at 54, grieving for my young father who died at 54, and my old mother of 86. Shiva allowed me the opportunity, to grieve both my parents, and to consciously become an orphan.
Shiva provided the structure within which I was able to focus on the inner work which needed to be done. Thank you, all of you, near and far, who touched me with your love and support during this time.
(Thanks to Ella Russell's sons, Jesse, Tatanka, Rio and Gully Russell for permiting us to share their mother's thoughts. I am very poor typist and had to retype this from hardcopy, please let me know if you spot any typos. (rge) firstname.lastname@example.org,
© 2009 Estate of Ella Russell
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