On the morning before erev Rosh HaShanah, the night before the Jewish New Year, my mother Lynn drew her final breath. I wasn’t in the ICU beside her because of my compromised immune system and Covid-19. My sister held up her phone so through FaceTime I could say my last words to her and see her neshamah (soul) leave the earth.
Her funeral was on a brilliant sunshine-filled Sunday afternoon in a small Jewish cemetery surrounded by the greenest hills of trees in Central Pennsylvania, where she had lived for the last forty-two of her eighty years. It was excruciating to be to be so physically near my Dad, siblings and nephews but not be able to hug them, to cry together on each other’s shoulders. I delivered my Mom’s eulogy in a masks, sniveling, sobbing, stopping to blow my nose. My husband Fred, daughter June and me drove the four hours back home without the comfort of a shared meal following the service. But waiting to greet me on my porch were beautiful fall mums and pumpkins that lifted my spirit more than I can express, left by an anonymous friend.
Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, our extended family, friends and circles of communities met in the evenings on Zoom for shiva. Faces of loved ones across North America and even my Mom’s cousin joining one night from Israel at 2am filled three screens of connection. Our Zoom shiva was full of prayer, listening, sharing…memories close and intimate, tears, laughter, shock, disbelief, comfort.
Since it’s been over, I’ve tried to keep an open channel to my Mom’s soul, talking to her through the day much as I would have through our texts and phone conversations. I’ve felt her near me at different times, some quick and fleeting, some powerful with a clear and sparkling comfort.
Thursday was a warm early fall day here in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania where I live. My day began at 6am as usual, when I wake up and take my dog Hank out to pee. That afternoon, we took a great 45-minute walk through the neighborhood. When we came in the house, he followed me, tail wagging to the refrigerator, asking for some baby carrots. He got some and then went to lie down in his bed while I opened my computer and got back to work.
At 4:30pm, Fred put Hank’s dinner in his bowl but Hank didn’t follow him to eat it. That was highly unusual behavior for Hank and had happened only a few times before when he’d been sick. I was sitting in our backyard, finishing a conversation with my Dad when Fred came out to tell me what happened. I asked if he could see if Hank would come outside with us, something Hank loved to do. Hank came out the back door to me and sat quietly, wagging his tail, while we called the vet and left a message. We guessed it was a recurrence of Lyme disease, which had happened to Hank before. He’d just had his annual physical a month ago and emerged from the exam as a healthy dog.
At 8pm, I reached the vet on the phone who said to bring Hank in. At 8:30pm, Fred called to tell me the horrible news that Hank had a tumor the vet considered to be inoperable, that had likely been growing and had suddenly shifted, causing blood flow to stop. She said we could take him to an emergency hospital to see if surgery was possible but imagined he wouldn’t make it there. That felt cruel to us. Fred came home and picked up my June and me. We sat together holding Hank and crying while we said goodbye.
Hank was everything a dog should be and more — he filled our home with his unbridled joy and affection, healing each of us and showing us the way to be more loving. He loved swimming, snow and fall weather. His eyes penetrated the human soul with compassion and understanding.
Two weeks after my Mom’s death, his passing is a terrible blow, the pain cutting and raw. Still, we are uplifted by his love and the way his presence changed each of us forever. Many many times I have wondered to God, what did humans ever do to deserve dogs becoming our companions?
Today begins the holiday of Sukkot, the one that feels most wonderfully pagan to me in its practices. It is called Z’man Simchatenu, the Season of our Joy. But it is a kind of joy that is deeply rooted in experiencing our impermanence. We build an unfinished hut like our ancestors used thousands of years ago in the harvest season. We take our meals there, gather with friends, decorate the sukkah with paper chains and colorful decorations, cover the roof with leaves, branches or stalks but leave enough open to gaze up at the stars at night. We invite our ancestors to join us in the sukkah, acknowledging the veil between the dead and living is not so far away; the sukkah welcomes all the souls we’ve known and loved. Usually during the holiday, rain tears down the decorations and the branches, leaving the hut more barren than how it began.
We certainly didn’t have the energy to build our own sukkah this year but will sit, socially distanced, in our friends’ sukkah tonight and feel that closeness to nature and also, I imagine, to my Mom and to Hank.
The pain of my grief has been cut by the beauty offered by vulnerability, being present in my emotions as they rise up and in sharing intimate conversations with those closest to me. I have worked hard to come to a place in my life in which I can receive compassion easily and can offer it, again and again to myself when I slip into old patterns of perfectionism or blame.
I know there will come the season when the rawness of this grief lifts. This is one of my times for grief, none of us escapes this kind of suffering at some point and we (hopefully) transform through it. I have written often about how one of the gifts of my having experienced illness and healing is that I do not ever take my own mortality for granted, aiming to live in a consciousness that recognizes the value of each day.
Staying connected to the natural rhythms of the seasons, sitting in a sukkah or just on a bench or rock somewhere where you can feel a breeze on your face, let go of your to-do lists and the demands you place on yourself, can help us to feel what is eternal and what, when we leave the earth, remains.
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