I thought that there should be a rule: the recently bereaved, or the soon-to-be bereaved, should be kept away from smartphones, or from any kind of device that allowed electronic communication. I had gotten into nasty and unnecessary exchanges with the human resources department at my job and with a putative Fire Island housemate as I hopscotched around the Kübler-Ross model. "Is your mother dead yet?" I had had to stop myself from writing several times. I ended up bawling on the ground near the entrance to one of the Riverside Methodist Hospital parking garages. Asaph tried to console me, as did a doctor on the way to his car. It was hard to stop apologizing.
The bereaved need to be protected from others, and others need to be protected from the bereaved, I had thought.
But there were no rules in the secularized Protestant culture in which my family was immersed. It was do-it-yourself. There was no sitting shiva (שבעה). There was no wake. There were no calling hours. Our house went unvisited the day after my mother's death, presumably to give my father and me some privacy. I didn't know if I wanted privacy, though. The only thing that relieved the miserable silence was the presence of Asaph, and of my mother's friend Joan, whom we had brought in from New York. Asaph and Joan ended up flying in three times: for the hospital, hospice, and memorial service chapters of the story. They were able to do things that my father and I could not. I didn't know how my father and I would have gotten through even the first chapter without them. I canonized them as household saints: Saint Asaph and Saint Joan. I could never have given my unconscious mother foot massages, or have looked her in the eye and said, "Maggie, we will go through this together." My father could barely sit in her room without sobbing. When some old friends from my mother's dance company visited her, put in an old videotape of one of the troupe's concerts, and began to leap and twirl around her bed, I had to run out to cry in a corner.
I wanted to be told what to do.
I had consulted Judith Martin while sitting on the couch in my mother's hospice room, as birds fought outside the window and air conditioners hummed, oblivious to the constant death for which they served as backdrop.
[I]f people are not protected in childhood from ministering to their declining relatives, they grow used to the presence of human decay. Soon the unpleasantness is hardly noticed, and one learns that great lesson of valuing people for their positive attributes, rather than focusing on their disabilities. This is the one area in which the natural human propensity to grow callous may be used to advantage.
I had never ministered to a declining relative. I had not grown callous to advantage.
I consulted the chapters about mourning at the appropriate moment. She was a staunch advocate of reinstating some mourning practices, although she advised people not to wear all black in the workplace, to avoid triggering sarcastic "Who died?" comments. In New York one could wear all black in most workplaces without notice, however.
In traditional Judaism, the mourning period for parents was one year. It was the same among the Victorians.
I consulted the Analects of Confucius (孔子).
Tsai Wo asked about the three years' mourning for parents, saying that one year was long enough.
"If the superior man," said he, "abstains for three years from the observances of propriety, those observances will be quite lost. If for three years he abstains from music, music will be ruined. Within a year the old grain is exhausted, and the new grain has sprung up, and, in procuring fire by friction, we go through all the changes of wood for that purpose. After a complete year, the mourning may stop."
The Master said, "If you were, after a year, to eat good rice, and wear embroidered clothes, would you feel at ease?" "I should," replied Wo.
The Master said, "If you can feel at ease, do it. But a superior man, during the whole period of mourning, does not enjoy pleasant food which he may eat, nor derive pleasure from music which he may hear. He also does not feel at ease, if he is comfortably lodged. Therefore he does not do what you propose. But now you feel at ease and may do it."
Tsai Wo then went out, and the Master said, "This shows Yu's want of virtue. It is not till a child is three years old that it is allowed to leave the arms of its parents. And the three years' mourning is universally observed throughout the empire. Did Yu enjoy the three years' love of his parents?"
Should I not eat good food or listen to music for three years? I wondered.
In traditional Judaism, one could not shave or have one's hair cut for at least 30 (שלושים) days. After that, one could only shave or get a haircut after being encouraged by friends.
The day after my mother died, as on September 12, 2001, I went shopping. Saints Asaph and Joan, and I, drove to a fancy shopping mall where I bought a pair of expensive sunglasses. I had read in one of Judith Martin's books that sunglasses had replaced the mourning veil once worn by women at funerals. I thought they would allow me to cry in public without notice. I hadn't replaced the sunglasses I had left on the bus from Budapest to Cracow, so I figured it was excusable to turn to filthy consumerism for succor.
We had eaten in an expensive and stylish café nearly every night of my mother's illness. At times we had quite enjoyed ourselves, something that would come back to haunt us later. We ate there again the day after she died. I had failed to measure up to Confucian standards of filial piety during my mother's final days, and I unsurprisingly continued to fall short.
The anxiety that had lurked in the background of our meals before had been replaced with a numbing emptiness. I didn't realize that the numbness would soon wear off. We didn't know that we were numb.
I returned to New York for a few days during the week before the do-it-yourself memorial service that we were planning (St. Asaph was organizing most of it). I had gotten into a small dispute with my church over a left-wing practice that I found smug and insincere. I avoided my church on the day that my mother's name was read during the Prayers of the People and went to St. Bartholomew's instead.
It felt good to be unknown. I didn't really believe in petitionary prayer (and didn't even attempt it during this ordeal, since I knew it would only make me enraged), but I had gone to a healing service on the Sunday when I learned the gravity of my mother's illness, and I had been embarrassed by weeping in front of Father Hugh. There had been a young woman sitting next to me at the healing service who was all smiles. I had tried to remain charitable but had wanted to punch her in the face.
Father Hugh told me, by telephone, to avoid driving while my mother was in the hospice. That was good advice.
Back in New York during the days before I returned to Ohio for the memorial service, I had the strange sense of being tainted, or marked. Friends and acquaintances whose parents had already died made a point to talk to me. Now I understand, I thought. I had never really known what to say or do when someone's parents died, other than the standard polite formulae (which of course I appreciated). I felt like I had finally joined a special club, even though it was a club that everyone (if they were lucky) would eventually join.
Later I read Joan Didion:
These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved.
I noticed one interesting thing: friends who were still very close to their parents had a difficult time talking to me. Some never even offered condolences of any kind. I couldn't blame them. Talking to me would have made the unimaginable imaginable.
After the hematologist (a euphemism) told us the news, I got access to my mother's on-line social-networking profile and sent out notices to all of her friends, telling them to come quickly if they wanted to see her. Consequently, I was later flooded with messages from my mother's friends and former colleagues. A professor at the college where she had taught recommended that I read French semiotician Roland Barthes's Mourning Diary. I bought it and read it immediately, since I pretty much did whatever anyone told me to do.
I wasn't sure that it had been the best idea. Later I read that Roland Barthes died three years after his mother.
My mother died seven years after her mother.
Back in Ohio, my father and I went to a garden center in the rural hinterlands called "Baker's Acres".
They had an extensive selection of interesting plants. The idea was to make our house and yard look attractive for the reception we would host after the memorial service. I had a feeling that this was not something that we were supposed to do, mourning-wise, but my father desperately wanted to work in the garden. While my mother was in the hospital, I found a heartbreaking note he had written to himself that read:
The question mark was the most heartbreaking part.
I started grabbing plants and placing them on the shopping cart. As my favorite author Julie Hecht would have said, I felt a small mania coming on. I spent over $100.
Later I read one of the Julie Hecht books that I had bought for my mother, in reference to the decline and death of the narrator's father:
I should have made it my full-time job to find the solutions to all things at the time. Now that I know, it's too late. That's the secret of life -- by the time you know, it's too late.
Thanks to St. Asaph, and to my father's younger brother's wife, the memorial service went about as well as it could have gone, although a thunderstorm knocked out the power. I even delivered the principal eulogy, somehow. My therapist had told me that people would rise to the occasion during times like these, and I guess I had.
The fact that we had had to create it with only the most minimal of Unitarian templates had been a source of great stress, especially since we had wanted to include some singing and music too difficult for the Unitarian church's pianist to learn in a week. The Unitarian minister had given me some books about memorial services to look through, and they didn't really help much with the planning, although they helped me to understand some of the benefits of traditional funerary practices. Having a formulaic traditional funeral right after my mother's death would have certainly been less stressful for us and would have allowed us to grieve without having to event-plan and agonize over musical selections (when I suggested the third movement of Schubert's String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D. 804 -- known as the Rosamunde Quartet -- to my father, since my mother had used it in a dance, and played him a selection, a look of terrified sadness came over his face that I would not soon forget). I had always thought that the display of an open casket seemed barbaric, but I learned that it actually served the function of allowing mourners to understand that the person was actually dead. My father and I, Sts. Asaph and Joan, and the nurses at the hospice had seen my dead mother, but no one else had.
The Jewish traditions seemed the most sensible. The immediate funeral and burial (Asaph said that no one in Israel would ever plan a service like the one he planned for my mother), the seven days of staying in the house, the thirty days of abstaining from entertainment, and then the insistence that life go on, even for those observing the full year of mourning for a parent. But we had no clear boundaries. We were just supposed to do what felt right.
But how we felt changed by the hour, so it was a challenge.
We all seemed irrevocably transformed. After everyone else left the reception at our house, I sat in the kitchen with Asaph and Joan, and we wondered what would happen to us.
What if we weren't really irrevocably transformed? I worried. If things went back to normal, then my mother would just be gone.