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Without You

There are days where the hours pass by, where the world spins on its axis, the birds chirp, the cars pass by and day turns to night. There are days where the warm summer breeze flows care-free, where 2014 is no different than 2004, or 1982.

And then there are days when December 21 is always.

There are days when that day’s magenta sunset still blankets my life, frozen in time, stuck. There are days when the weight of loss is as oppressively heavy as it was back then, when the truth feels brand new, just as shocking, just as unnerving, just as confusing, days when the world is askew, life is not real, memories seem made up.

There are days where I learn again, over and over and over and over, that I live life without you.

Without you here by my side, or on the other end of the phone, without you to nag and pester and love and adore.  Days when I shake my head in disbelief that nearly two years have passed without you on this earth.

Five hundred and ninety three days.

593 without your dark hair. 593 without your smile. 593 without your hug, your voice, your love. Gone. Has it really been that long?

Do you know what I’ve been up to? Do you know what I’ve felt, how I’ve ached, how I’ve soared, how I’ve loved and grown and triumphed? Do you know what I’ve done? Where I’ve gone?

All without you.

But the globe keeps on spinning. The axis is upheld. And I am here.

Here.

What does it mean to move on without others, to sludge forward, head up high, without a corner of their very being? How do we transcend the gap, ever-appreciative of what was rather than mournful of what no longer is?

I’m still learning.

And man, it’s tough.

You forgot to teach me that lesson, mom. You thought you had a few more decades to do so.

Today is one of those days, one of the ones where the Texas heat seems unending and like a veil of absurdity has fallen over real life. This isn’t normal. But it used to be.

But that’s myopic.

This is life. This is real. The new now, but not so new anymore. Here. Life.

That’s it.

Without you.

Yizkor

One of the strongest, and most aggravating, qualities of my mom was her memory. In this fashion, among others, I suspect that she wasn’t very different from most Jewish mothers.

She remembered everything.

Birthdays, anniversaries, phone conversations we had seven years prior.

My mom’s memory was like an old medieval tome, recording every which event of the kingdom in perpetuity. Her mind was our family’s record, a vivid collection of everything that had ever been.

And as strong as was her memory, even stronger was the lasting impression she left on every person whom she met. For better and for worse, you could not forget Lori Bolotin. She was so giving, so caring, so much of a pillar in her community that she left an indelible mark on all those whom she touched. She was too nudgey, too impatient, too, sometimes, forgive me, mom, obnoxious to ever be forgotten.

And so it was with that reality as my backdrop, that I could not help but feel the deep irony, the sick sick irony, of some of the first angst-filled words I heard after her passing. Only hours after my mom’s body turned cold, decades too early, on that beautiful December morning in San Diego, my dear sister, tears rolling down her cheeks, looked up at me and my father said, “What if I forget her?”

Forget her? My impulse was to laugh at the absurdity of the suggestion. Humor, quickly turned to indignation.

How could you forget our mother. She was – as much as any human being I ever encountered on this earth – unforgettable. Don’t be ridiculous.

You cannot forget Lori Bolotin.

No, Shanna, I heard myself wanting to yell that morning. How dare you suggest that. As dead as is her body, her memory is alive and well and permanent.

But that was then. It had only been but hours since I last spoke with my mom. And now, sixteen months later, after the endless days of kaddish and memorials and ceremonies and ritual, I find myself wrestling with the hard truth of my sister’s fear.

Let there be no misunderstanding of my words. I will never forget my mom: her dark black hair, her soft hands, the weird sounds she made as she had conversations with herself in the car. All it takes for me to bring myself to the brink of tears is to take a brief second to hear the sound of her voice in my head.

But these days, as we’ve emerged from the valley of the shadow of death, I’m not sure that I always remember her. There are days that pass when I fail to recall that she’s gone. Days when her image seems slightly less vivid in my mind’s eye. Days when I ponder how much has happened to me in the year and a half since she left this earth and then, suddenly, am left breathless by the realization that she does not know of it.

I am sure that I will never forget her. But I also fear, that every day that passes, I remember her less. And with each forgotten memory, each faded detail, it feels like she dies anew.

And I know that so many of us parallel these same experiences, this same angst, as we mourn the loss of those whom we love.

We cling to that piece of clothing that still carries their scent; we gaze at picture after picture; we watch that short video clip over and over again.

We do everything we can to stimulate and concretize our memories of our loved ones because we know, deep in our hearts, that that is the closest we can come to bringing them back to life. We cannot revive the dead. But the memories of the time we had with them is almost just as good.

Memory is all we have. The rest is just stuff.

Ours is a tradition that upholds the value of memory as great beyond value. Remember what Amalek did to you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.

But while we remember, we simultaneously forget – the memories fade with each passing day. And that is something with which, for good reason, we cannot be comfortable.

Four times each year we pour out these emotions in prayer. The words of Yizkor are particularly short and straightforward. May God remember the soul of my mother, my father, my husband, my wife.

We beg God to remember our loved ones because we, too, desperately want to recall them. We cling to our memories, even as, over time, they inevitably fade, and we pray that as much as time erodes the vivid colors of each picture in our mind, that it will never ever wash away our memory entirely.

We beg God to remember our loved ones so that we will remember as well.

After all, as much as we may fear forgetting, remembering is sometimes infinitely more accessible than we realize.

The night before Passover, Danielle and I were busily preparing for our seder. We cooked and cleaned and went through a long litany of tasks that seemed to have no end on this most complicated of holidays. At about 10:30, Danielle called me over to taste the fruit of ongoing labor: her charoset, which she had just painstakingly diced and prepared with a butter knife.

As the chopped apples touched my tongue, tears flooded my eyes and I collapsed to the ground. In an instant, I was no longer standing next to Danielle, no longer in Dallas, but back, in my mom’s kitchen, preparing seder with her. She grated the apples, Danielle chops them, but the distinction was irrelevant in the experience. The mere taste of apples, cinnamon and bad kosher wine was enough to make my mom more real than any moment since the day she died. She was there, with me, with my fiance whom she’d never met, cooking for the festival to come.

On these holy days, when we may feel their absence the most, we need reassurances more than ever that our father, our mother, our brother, our wife, still exists, still is real, is not a made-up creation of our minds.

We will never forget those whom we love. But sometimes we need help remembering.

Let the words of Yizkor be our motivation. As we beseech the Holy One to remember those whom we love, let Yizkor help us to remember those we lost, to remember that the memory of our loved ones is only as far away as one smell, one sound, one taste. It never dies.

That is how we fight death, how we stand up in the face of loss, and celebrate that which we once had, celebrate those who once were, and keep them infinitely close to us during our most sacred of times.

Master of the Universe, may it be your will that you remember our loved ones. Yehi ratson, may it be your will that their memory inspires and fills our lives. Though we are mere mortals, may it be your will that their memory is immortal. Through your loving kindness, help us remember, and through our memory, may we keep them alive.

Amen.

I Did It, Mom

Dear Mom,

It happened. Finally.

There were a handful of things that you built your life around. Besides shopping, and Lifetime Television, and rice pudding… You got to marry off two of your daughters before getting sick. You got to see me become a rabbi before you began treatment.

You left this world knowing that you had raised two children, had built a massive family of in-laws and step children and an ex-husband and so many others who were tied together because of you.

And I think you also left wondering whether I would ever settle down. Whether I would find the woman I loved and actually find the courage to ask her to spend her life with me.

I did.

And she said yes.

I will never get over the regret I feel that you two never met. But you were too sick by then. It would not have been fair to you and who you were. So you had to settle for Facebook “friends.”

But you knew that she was incredible.

You were the first one to know that Dallas was where I should go, where I should bring my work and build my life. You knew it before I did. You didn’t know that I was going to find my match here, a woman who I could not be more fortunate and blessed to now call my fiancé. A blonde, at that!

She’s so much like you, mom. She’s a fundraiser, yes. And she’s also beautiful, and the sweetest, kindest soul in the world. She loves your family, and spends so many of her days madly in love with the bonds of love that you built. She’s stubborn, and strong-willed, just like you.

She would make you unbelievably proud. She works so hard to keep your memory alive, to be all that you would expect of her, to carry on your legacy for me and for all our family.

I’m so sorry that, Friday night, we couldn’t call you. You were the one person who would have enjoyed that call the most.

But I feel you smiling. I feel you and your joy and your excitement for everything that is to come. I just wish I could see it too. I would give anything for that.

When you were dying, when it was too late, and you knew the end was coming, you asked my dad, “Will the kids be ok?”

I’m not going to lie. It’s been an awful year. Your absence leaves a hole that I don’t know we’ll ever begin to fill. There are days when I think I’m ok, and then, the next, or the one after that, it all comes crashing back down. I miss you so much. I always will.

But today, mom, for the first time in a year, only three days before we mark your yahrtzeit, I finally know the answer to your question.

I miss you so much mom, so so much. But I found Danielle.

And I am going to be alright.

Love,

Me

Sandee

The day after my mom was given her death sentence, I went up to the Valley to visit my grandma.

Still shaken by the shock of the news, I wanted solace in the embrace of a person I loved and had known my whole life. I wanted to share the terrible news with someone who cared and knew my mom.

We sat together at a table, over lunch, and I said, “Grandma, you know, my mom’s really sick.”

She sat there, unfazed for a moment, and then inquired, “Oh. Do you think I should go visit her?”

Holding back the tears, I smiled for a quick moment, amused by the irony of her offer. She was, after all, well into an advanced case of Alzheimer’s at that point, confined to the Los Angeles Jewish Home where she could be cared for and cared to. She no longer remembered my mom, but she faked it well. She certainly was in no position to go visit.

But, despite the ravages of her lost identity, she still had the vestiges of sympathy and concern, offering to be there to help soothe someone else’s pain.

In that moment, at the table, I shook my head. “No, I don’t think you need to visit her, grandma.” I said. “I think she’ll be OK.” I knew she wouldn’t.

She looked me in the eye, reached out and grabbed my hand. “Are you going to cry now?” She asked. I did.

I haven’t seen my grandma since that June morning. Between the move to Dallas and  mourning of my own mom, I’ve had to cling to news and updates from my dad about his.

My grandma breathed her last breath this morning, at 3:52 AM, surrounded by the immensely large family of which she was matron. We knew it was coming, inevitable, but it still stings to lose someone. And it aches to watch my dad lose his mom, because I know just how awful an experience that is, and I don’t want anyone that I love to have to live through it. So I’ll be there, to help him walk down mourning’s path. The role-reversal feels odd, but also oddly soothing.

Such is.

My grandma’s mom herself lost all semblances of her memory, for almost ten years before her passing. I remember, as a kid, visiting my great grandma with her, sitting at a table with the shell of a woman, incognizant of who or where she was. As we left that visit, I asked my grandma, “How do you deal with seeing your mom like that?”

“My mom’s already dead,” she said to me. “I said goodbye to her years ago.”

And such it was, in ways, with my grandma as well. She began her departure many years back. She’s been all-but-gone for a few now. But today she left this earth.

Yet despite Alzheimer’s toll, she was still my grandma, still alive, she was still my dad’s mom, a woman who, even in her dementia, could reach out and ask if she should go pay a visit to my sick mom, could put her hand on mine and ask if I was going to cry.

This morning, grandma, I cry for you. Sondra Audrey Singer, you will be missed.

The Work of Prophets

Among the writings, papers, books and essays I have come across in my day, one quote rises above all others for its resonance, its salient criticism coupled with its invitation for improvement.

Abraham Joshua Heschel opens his major philosophical work, God in Search of Man, with words stunning in their sharpness, words that will be familiar to many of you with whom I have had the honor of studying this past year. The opening words to Heschel’s magnum opus declare:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.

Religion’s demise in modernity, says Heschel, is its own fault, a direct result of its inability to captivate the hearts and minds of its practitioners. Coming from arguably the most influential rabbi in twentieth century America, these words offer a acute critique of religion as we know it.

Irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.

Heschel, through his very being, showed us a way to remedy this malady. For Heschel was a man who dedicated his life to embodying a Judaism which has the power to transform worlds, a Judaism that speaks intimately to the soul. Heschel was a man who demanded we do nothing short of praying with our feet – allowing our prayers to infuse our very being such that our actions on this earth make manifest the very godliness and goodness that we pronounce in our liturgy.

Irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.

That need not be the religion that we hold dear. Judaism is relevant when it speaks to the issues of the day. Judaism is interesting when it when it helps us find answers to life’s greatest problems. Judaism is relieving when it offers an optimism that can lift our spirits and help us out of the depths of life’s morass.

On this most holy day, as we introspect and afflict our souls to repent and return to a more goodly path, we may be tempted to think that Heschel’s message is not the most pressing of issues. We may be tempted to let introspection turn us inward, closing us off to the world around us. We may be tempted to let teshuva monopolize our attention as a uniquely personal exercise. We may be tempted to fast, to abstain from food and drink and pleasure solely as a means of self-flagellation and punishment.

We could not be more wrong. Read more