Monday, December 11, 2017

A Year of Mourning - And So It Begins - Shiva

Beginning to understand just how important shiva is. I knew, but didn't really KNOW. 

Everyone keeps saying, "How are you?" Well, it turns out grief comes in waves, but those waves are mitigated by the throngs of people who love you. I am so grateful to Merrick Jewish Centre and Rabbi Klein for making sure we could use the shul as the home away from home it was for so many years.

So much food arrived during the first days. Bagels. Deli. Egg salad. Tuna. Lox. Whitefish. Potato salad. Cole Slaw. Pickles and olives. And cookies, cake, and more cookies.

(If you haven't seen them, please check out these videos on YouTube: iShiva and The Seven Days of Shiva)

Clearing out some of the shiva food. I keep hearing my father.
(In a loud voice) “Whadya throwing that out for. It’s still good.”
“Daddy, it’s turning. It’s tingly.”
(Still loud) “No. I’ll eat eat. Save it.”
Russell and I expected to contract food poisoning, but Dad would always be fine. He had an iron stomach. On the day Daddy died, we returned from the funeral home to find there was a bowl next to the sink with an almost unrecognizable mixture. I do remember it had a half-eaten chicken leg and 1 1/2 slices of a beet. Only God, and maybe Daddy, knew what else was in there.  I know the shiva food is going bad. So why do I feel just a little guilty. (Okay. I do know why. I still think it’s nuts.)

Shiva isn’t so much one smooth period, rather a series of disjointed moments rising and falling with emotion. Memories are shared and laughed over. Family drama bubbles under the surface as we attempt to be strong for our mother. Though we know she’ll be fine in the long run, her anxiety flows when no one else is around (as if we or our aunts and uncles would allow our mom to become a bag lady wandering the streets). In moments of clarity she will admit she has investments to live on. Our father made sure of that. But then the ball drops again, and we’re back in the abyss.

Each morning I attend minyan, feeling both part of the community and separate from it. I arrive before they begin, counting the men. In a minyan that just gets there and doesn’t count women, I find myself wondering if I will be left as the tenth, unable to say Kaddish, making plans for next steps. As the shatz (the prayer leader) begins reciting the ancient blessings of Birchot Hashachar, I find I cannot recite amen to the blessing thanking God for not making me a woman. I wonder if anyone has thought about the idea of reciting that blessing aloud where women are present, and what they would do if I pointed it out. Ironically, as on the same day these thoughts cross my mind an article pops up in my Facebook feed about a famous and trusted scribe, Abraham Farissol, who changed this formula to thank you God for making me a woman and not a man. One morning we did have 9 men. As we davenned on our own I thought about asking the men to step outside with me so I could recite Kaddish. One, then two, then three men came up to me to say, "We don't have a minyan, but if you want to count us and recite Kaddish, we'll answer." I did, and they did. An interesting compromise.

The disjointed nature of my days shows in my Facebook feed, from leaving Toronto, through the funeral, and into shiva. As extended family returns home, I am unable to truly sit. My brother and I split the responsibilities - deciding on and putting out meals, washing dishes. Big Brothers/Big Sisters calls. They will be coming to the neighbourhood on Monday. We have to clean out Daddy’s closet NOW! And so this is how I spend a morning. Bills are being gone through. Drawers searched for information to put Mom at ease that she’ll be able to handle this. The “Seven Days of Shiva” (see link above) plays in my head. We are honestly disappointed the kugel wasn’t potato, and we do have another shiva to attend when we finish Daddy’s. At times I am both grateful an disappointed more people aren’t here. Too many friends are too far away. 

By day three I’m the only one still wearing my kriah ribbon (actually a scarf). Russell wears his shirt when we pray. Otherwise it hangs on the ear of the paper mache llama. (Yes. Really.) I will be the only one saying Kaddish for a year, three times daily. But I already know I will miss Maariv Saturday night and Shacharit Sunday morning. There’s no shul to walk to for Saturday. The one nearby says Mincha at 12:30. My flight Sunday prevents me from attending that morning. Barely into the second week and already missing. Some nights here our timing is a bit off. Maybe someone will shine a flashlight outside the window so I can convince myself that it’s lighter. I love standing next to my Aunt reciting Kaddish with her. We stand so close I feel we are supporting each other.  Today, in the middle of Maariv, she called Daddy a fink for dying. It was such an Elkin moment. We were looking out the back door almost expecting to see Daddy kneeling by his garden. His shadow lingers there. “That was a really finky thing to do. How could you do this to me. Bruce - you fink!” I agree. (Fink was the name Daddy called us when he was telling us to do something ridiculous that we’d never agree to. “Go out and get me a Boston cream pie, but not like they make today - like from my childhood with real, fresh whipped cream.” “No” "You’re a finky kid.” It always made me laugh, but tonight I wanted to cry.

Got up from shiva this morning. Took a short walk just down the driveway since we needed to take Russell to the airport. It seemed strange to take the covers off the mirror and discard my kriah scarf. Now there’s too much to do before I go home. Cleaned some of the garage. Daddy was a gardener, and there were dozens and dozens of plastic pots and styrofoam cups. I piled most into the recycling. Swept. Then took Daddy’s clothes out to the garage for donation. 

Thursday morning. Mom is moving things around. No more trucks or rocks in the living room. I’m happy to see she’s exerting her own personality. There was a leak in the kitchen to be fixed. And then my first minyan beyond shiva. It was both odd and comforting, a feeling I expect to encounter many more times before this is over. Last night I realized that there will be no more mornings to lie in bed, no cold weekends to hide under the covers. A large part of my own psychological health is about to be sacrificed to tradition, and I don’t know how I feel about that. 

Following retirement, my father studied at Yeshiva Etzion on Long Island and in Queens. Though the students were in their 20's, he was welcomed. Daddy wasn’t easy. He wasn’t an Orthodox Jew. He was a mitnaged who challenged religion. He wanted to know and to deeply understand. The Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Avraham Gaon, welcomed Daddy and challenged him right back. Over the years they developed a deep friendship. In our sorrow, we neglected to inform Rabbi Gaon immediately. I spoke with him today. The yeshiva will be dedicating their learning to Daddy for a month. (Cue tears.) Just received a condolence call from a student at Yeshiva Etzion. He never knew my father. He said, “I knew your father was very close with my rabbi, and I heard so many wonderful stories about him, so I wanted to call.” Wow. (Over the next couple of days more students called. Really - wow!)