Bruce Black lives in Sarasota, FL. He is the author of Writing Yoga (Rodmell Press), as well as personal essays and articles that have appeared in Tiferet Journal, OmYoga Magazine, MindBodyGreen, Yoga Times, The Jewish Week, The Jewish Exponent, and Reform Judaism Magazine. His most recent story was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses.
The End of Shloshim
Thirty days have passed since we buried Dad. It’s the end of Shloshim, the start of a new stage of mourning. Whether I go to shul (Yiddish for synagogue) to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in the traditional way or say it alone on my early morning walks, Dad’s death remains the same. Kaddish doesn’t change the truth or eliminate the pain of his absence. He’s gone, thirty days away from life, from breathing and smiling and enjoying poached eggs and toast and his cup of coffee for breakfast, from kisses and hugs and Father’s Day cards that were never sent because he died before I could put them in the mail, having bought them only days before news came of his death. I’d planned to mail the cards in time for them to reach him on Father’s Day. Instead, I got on a plane to bid him goodbye and left the cards on the dining room table, unsigned, without addresses, for where could I send my Father’s Day cards now that he was gone?
I haven’t yet shaved. When I look in the mirror, I see an old man with a gray beard. No longer am I the boy in my dreams but fifty-five years old, the same age as my father was when I stood next to him in the waves off Montauk Point or walked beside him on our way to shul for Rosh Hashanah. I still remember wondering what it would feel like to carry a tallit bag like his under my arm and to wrap myself inside a prayer shawl the way he wrapped himself in his. He was so young then, but I didn’t know it. I thought he was old. How our perspective changes as we grow old and death comes for us.
The end of Shloshim marks the end of something but I’m not sure what. It’s different than the end of Shivah, the seven days of mourning that we sat at my brother’s house in Highland Park, New Jersey. During those initial days of grief we were still numb, not quite able to grasp what had happened. Maybe that’s why tradition recommends that mourners stay inside and not go out, not as a punishment or torture, but rather as a safeguard to protect a mourner from his own lack of focus, an inability to concentrate on the simple tasks of life like crossing a street or driving, because his thoughts are pre-occupied with loss.
For seven days I inhabited a cocoon of grief, visited by friends and members of my brother’s temple and community. I was taken care of by family, allowed to melt into my own state of sorrow. And then at the end of the seventh day I emerged from that cocoon, ready to return to the world, but not quite whole again, not quite able to find my balance.
Hence Shloshim, the next stage of mourning after sitting Shiva, was a way of acknowledging that, while a mourner can go back to work and resume the daily rituals of his life, a major shift in life has occurred, and it may require another thirty days—not just seven—to regain one’s equilibrium, to focus on the world again and not find oneself distracted by grief.
So for thirty more days I lived in a kind of middle-world—neither numb with grief and shock but not yet fully present, not yet able to be fully attentive to the world again. Still forbidden from cutting my hair or seeing plays or listening to music or attending parties, I continued to mourn. The shock of death hadn’t fully worn off yet, and the tradition forgave me my grief, even as it raised expectations that I return to the world. No longer would the minyan, the ten-person prayer group, come to our house so I could say Kaddish. Now I had to go to shul to say Kaddish. I was encouraged to leave the house, to begin living again.
But thirty days didn’t diminish my grief. Once the initial shock wore off and the truth of Dad’s death began to settle into consciousness; I noticed how grief deepened with each day that passed. It wasn’t just deeper but more profound. In the early days of mourning I could protest, pretend death might not be true, imagine someone spreading false rumors. I could believe that I’d be able to see Dad the moment I entered his house. But now that those days have passed, I can no longer deceive or delude myself. Dad is gone. I’ll never enter his house and see him there again. After thirty days, this is the new reality, my new reality.
And yet, after thirty days, I still listen for his voice. On some days I believe – or convince myself – that I can hear it. It’s as if he’s walking beside me or sitting next to me, his arm over my shoulder, the way he used to comfort me when I struggled as a boy to learn Hebrew. The same patient, wise, and encouraging tone. The same concern and love in his voice that I heard in those days long ago. I don’t want to lose the ability to hear his voice, to imagine him nearby.
But I’m afraid after thirty days my memory of him will begin to fade, the same way my memory of Mom faded after her death, and I’ll lose him a second time. That’s why the end of Shloshim is so hard to bear. It marks a full thirty days since we laid him to rest. And the days keep moving forward. And memories keep receding into the past. And I can’t stand still, trying to hold onto the past, without moving forward into the future. I can’t stay in this place the way I tried to stay in one place holding onto memories of Mom. That strategy didn’t work. No matter how hard I tried to cling to her and to our days together, she slipped away, and my memories of her slipped away, too. Maybe it’s just inevitable, the way life works. You can’t cling to the past or avoid the future any more than you can halt time. Perhaps the end of Shloshim is an acknowledgment that you have to move on.
So perhaps I’ll shave off my beard later today or, at the least, trim it. And maybe tomorrow or next week I’ll go for a haircut. At some point I’ll listen to the radio again, to talk shows, to music. I’ll watch TV and go to the movies. In other words, I’ll continue living. I’ll return to life.
But I’ll keep saying Kaddish too, for the next eleven months, on my own and with my congregation on Friday nights. I’m still not sure why I need to say Kaddish, except that it’s a prayer that Jewish tradition says a mourner should recite after the loss of a loved one to honor his or her memory.
I don’t see how saying words that I don’t understand, in a language that Dad didn’t understand either, makes any difference. How does such a prayer help Dad? How does it help me? And yet, even with these questions, I still find myself needing to say it each morning.
Saying Kaddish is as much about the sound of the words as it is about their meaning. It’s about the repetitive quality of the syllables, the way chanting the prayer on my morning walk as a kind of personal mantra lends my steps a certain cadence, as if I’m in step with the energy of the universe, as if the divine is surrounding me and pulsing through me as I walk and chant the ancient words. There’s something comforting, too, about saying (or sometimes singing) the words while gazing at the sunrise or the clouds or the blue sky. It’s uplifting to feel the morning breeze on my skin as I say words of praise to God. And it’s comforting, too, to feel as if Dad is in the breeze touching my skin or in the songs of the birds or in the cries of the seagulls overhead or in the gentle rustle of palm trees.
This morning on my walk I listened for Dad’s voice, trying to hear if he needed me to say Kaddish more often or in the presence of a minyan. Did he still need me? Did I still need to feel needed? I strained to listen but didn’t hear him make any request. He seemed content. He seemed happy. He seemed fulfilled. His life had been a good one, filled with blessings, and he’d managed in the end to overcome his fear of death, a fear, he once confided to me, that he’d been aware of ever since he’d watched Mom suffer before her death from liver cancer. He said he didn’t know if he’d be able to be brave like her or if he could withstand that kind of pain.
He was given a different ending than Mom. Thirteen years on dialysis, heart and breathing issues, poor circulation in his legs that required the amputation of two of his toes. These were his challenges, and they were not without pain. But they were nothing like the pain Mom had to endure. Yet even though he had his own pain, his own fears, he overcame them. He displayed the kind of courage and optimism in life that inspired everyone who came in contact with him. He seemed to radiate life, and every day he expressed joy and gladness in simply being alive to anyone who he met—nurses, doctors, drivers, waitresses, sales clerks, whoever they might be—and they responded with appreciation for his spirit and determination.
It’s funny how these thoughts swirl through my head. Memories. Recollections. Snippets of conversations. Pictures frozen in time, then gone, replaced by others, as if memory is made from a huge album of pictures, with hundreds of pages that you can turn forever and never finish turning.
How do I honor Dad’s memory now? What can I do to keep his name alive in the world? Maybe that’s partly the function of Kaddish. It extends his place in the community another year so he isn’t gone completely. But does it really? Is saying Kaddish really about remembering Dad and honoring his memory? Or is it more about my need for some kind of comfort, and, ultimately, closure?
Each life is like a bubble on the sea. I came across this idea in a book on Tibetan meditation. We are all bubbles, our existence fragile and temporary, and when we burst, we rejoin the sea to form new bubbles. If Dad’s life was a bubble, it lasted 94 years. In that span of years he had loved apples and pies and golf and America and being Jewish and Israel. He had loved Mom and my brother, Rick, and me. He had loved his second wife and her children, too, and all of his grandchildren. He had grown and changed over the course of his life, yet deep down he had remained true to himself. There had been something mysterious that had made him who he was. Call it soul or spirit, identity or DNA, or simply a bubble. Whatever you want to call it, that’s the part of him that survives.
I wish I could feel his arms wrapping around me again, embracing me just once more. All I feel, though, is stillness, a hollowness in my chest, an emptiness in my heart.
And yet, there are some days on my morning walks, after I finish saying Kaddish, when I would swear that I hear his voice.
It sounds practical and wise and oh-so-near.
It sounds like he’s whispering in my ear.
Thirty days are over, son, I hear him say.
It’s time to let go.
It’s time to move on.