Tag Archives: loss of loved one

The Passover Walk

 by Jacqueline Jules (Long Island, NY)

It was his idea to go to Central Park.

 “You love to walk, Mom,” he said. 

He was 26, in law school, and not as a rule, the kind of son who suggested outings his mother would like. I suspected he felt guilty for begging out of the second Passover Seder at his brother’s apartment on the West Side. I could have absolved him. Could have said that one Seder was enough for someone who’d been glancing at his phone under the table all night. He always suffered stoically at Seders, not being a fan of matzah ball soup, charoset, or the long service his older brother liked to lead. His only joys at Passover were the brightly colored fruit slices everyone else criticized as being full of carcinogenic dyes.

“If you can’t come tonight,” I agreed, “a walk this afternoon is a nice trade-off.”

The weather was glorious for early April. Sunny and sixty-five degrees. His step was uncharacteristically peppy, pointing out blooming flowers he said I’d like. I panted sometimes, trying to keep up, not daring to ask him to slow down, afraid he’d think I was too tired to continue. Time alone with a grown son was worth sore feet later on. 

He was a proud tour guide, insisting we visit Belvedere Castle, an attraction I hadn’t seen on any previous trips to New York. 

Reaching the balcony and the panoramic view, he grinned at me, sharing the small endearing space between his two front teeth.

“I knew you’d love this, Mom.” 

We leaned against the railing for a good twenty minutes, admiring the greenery, framed by the Manhattan skyline. I felt so full, so grateful he’d given me these precious hours.  

“When I’m old and gone.” I touched his arm, rock solid under his light jacket from lifting weights. “Remember how happy you made me today.” 

It was a year before his diagnosis. Colon cancer, stage four.  Neither of us ever imagined what kind of gift this day would become, how at Passover, I would be the one left to recall our animated walk through Central Park in place of his bored presence at seder. His strong legs striding beside me, still pulsing with life. 

Jacqueline Jules is the author of Manna in the Morning (Kelsay Books, 2021) and Itzhak Perlman’s Broken String, winner of the 2016 Helen Kay Chapbook Prize from Evening Street Press. Her poetry has appeared in over 100 publications, and she is the author of 50 books for young readers including four Sydney Taylor Honor winners, two National Jewish Book Award finalists, and ten PJ Library selections. To learn more about her, please visit her online at www.jacquelinejules.com.

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Condolences

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

People have surprised me since my son died—and not always in a good way. Some of those I thought would be there with a note, a call, a “How’re you doing?” have fallen by the wayside. Yet others I hardly knew have reached out in a most caring way. One such person called out, “Rita?” as I was leaving the synagogue one Saturday. 

Never having spoken, I knew this man only by sight. And name, if I could ever recall it.

He told me he had read an article I wrote about my son’s death (such a terrible and final word) when I had volunteered as a phone friend to an elderly shut-in as a way of reaching out to someone instead of wallowing in my sorrow. The man offered his condolences. But I sensed in his manner, in his almost hesitant way of speaking, that there might be more on his mind. I waited a beat and he asked if I had a minute, or did I have to get going? I said I had time.  

He shared that his father had died when he was five and a half, and his mother when he was 21. 

“Everyone has their own grief,” I said. “That must have been very difficult for you.” 

I wondered if this was going to be one of those conversations—if you can call it that—where people insist their grief is just like yours, or tell you about someone who has it worse than you (no one has it worse when you lose a child!). Or what you should be doing to get out of your funk.

But then, as if not to take anything away from my suffering, he said, “Losing a child is the greatest loss of all.” He was glad I had come to services and not stayed home brooding, grieving alone. It was important to get out, he said. To be with others, to socialize. “It’s key in the healing process.”

It’s also key in Jewish tradition to perform acts of kindness. The 12th-century sage Moses Maimonides wrote that by comforting mourners you fulfill the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. My neighbor was doing just that. 

“I hope you don’t think I’m preaching or telling you what to do,” he said. “I’m just passing on what worked for me.” 

“Not at all,” I said, taken with his compassion.  

There had been mentors, he said: a neighbor, an uncle, later on teachers, role models who shaped him and became important in his life. A job well done, I thought, considering how he had sought me out, a stranger, to comfort. 

We stood there talking by the exit door but I don’t recall seeing anyone come or go, so absorbed I was in our exchange. And though he spoke more than I, it wasn’t a me, me, me assault. An us talk is what it was. One sufferer (he) trying to make another (me), feel better in the most sincere way. 

How kind. How lovely. How a five-minute conversation, if it was that long, cut to the heart of things. 

“You’re Sam, right?” 

He nodded.  

“Thank you, Sam.” 

He reached out his hand to me. I could feel the slight damp. This had not been an easy talk for him. Then gently, almost shyly, as if the gesture might be too familiar, he drew me in. It did not occur to me then how much I disliked being touched by strange men. Perhaps because it was I who was the stranger, and he had welcomed me, as the Torah says one should. So that when he brought me closer and his cheek tapped mine, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. A complete understanding of what had passed between us.

Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College and the Fire Island School, Continuing Ed. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, Kveller, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Broadkill Review, Avalon Literary Review, Jewish Week, and The Best of Potato Soup 2020. 

If you’d like to read more about Rita and her work, visit her website: https://ritaplush.com

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Shevat—the month that makes my soul ache

by Carol J. Wechsler Blatter (Tucson AZ)

Shevat, it’s the month that makes my soul ache, my heart hurt. It’s a cruel month, usually cold and bleak, sometimes damp and dark. Rarely do the rays of sun seep through my windows and lift my spirits. It’s during this month that I light three yahrzeit candles–one candle on 2 Shevat for my mother, one on 9 Shevat for my sister, and one on 13 Shevat for my father.

***
It was on January 16, 1965 that my mother, sister, aunt, uncle, and I were present at the burial of my father, Albert, in the oldest Jewish cemetery in Middlesex County, NJ, Mount Lebanon. It was a frigid, snow-covered Sunday morning in central New Jersey. Rabbi Yakov Hilsenrath (of blessed memory) gave a very brief eulogy. Over my down winter coat he pinned a black ribbon cut to simulate the physical act of death ripping me apart from my father who, from that time forward, would only be in my memory.

I remember how bleak and alone I felt losing my father. I was only twenty-two years of age. I was angry. I felt cheated at not having a father. Even when my father was alive, he worked so much to provide for us that I had very little time with him. He had grown up with minimal emotional support, love, and self-esteem, and as a result he was unable to be supportive and complimentary. He was an expert in delivering put-downs. Yet once he was gone, I imagined that if he had lived longer, things would have been different between us. How could I have fooled myself into believing he would have changed his ways and been more fatherly to me? Yet, despite his flaws, I still miss him. After all, he fathered me and, in his own way, he loved me.

***
It was on January 2, 1986, twenty-one years later, that my husband, my sister, my brother-in-law, my brother-in-law’s mother, and I were present at the burial of my mother, Bertha, in Indianapolis. Rabbi Dennis Sasso spoke about my mother and described her as a powerful, intense, and passionate woman filled with love for her family and her heritage. “You could agree or disagree with Bertha,” said Rabbi Sasso, “but you could never be indifferent to her.” I was forty-three.

Unlike my father, my mother supported, nurtured, and loved me. She was always my cheerleader and made certain that I had every possible opportunity to be successful. It was a shock when she died to find that she was no longer at my side. It was very hard to let her go.  

***

And it was on January 14, 2019 that I lost my sister, my life-long friend, who died unexpectedly of a catastrophic brain hemorrhage. Although we had a minyan prayer service in her memory in our home in Tucson with our rabbi and many congregants, we were unable to attend the service and burial in New York. I never had the opportunity to say goodbye to my sister. I never had the opportunity to put shovelfuls of dirt over her coffin. I never had the opportunity to sit shiva with other family members. This has left an emotional gap in my life and an unfillable hole. There is one thing I do, though. I keep on my bed a tiny green velvet embroidered pillow which she gave me which says, Sisters Are Special.

***
As long as I can remember I have sensed God’s presence, as a supreme being who governs my life in unexplainable and unknowable ways. It’s as if God beams a light leading me to insight so I can glean what had been until that moment unseeable and unforeseeable. I feel that God is — and will always be — my protector.

But is this the same God who allows death? How can I praise God, I ask myself as I recite the mourner’s Kaddish prayer with a broken heart? And I tell myself it’s because I also believe that God is not all-powerful. God cannot prevent death. This is not God’s job. Death is not about blame. Death is what death is. It is my job to accept death.

***
The Kaddish prayer is always said in the presence of ten adults, a minyan, and a community of worshipers. As part of a minyan for eleven months after the death of each of my parents and my sister, I reaffirmed and praised God’s presence in unison with other mourners.

Healing took place slowly.

Day by day.

***

Now I’m seventy-nine years of age. I am acutely aware that my time on earth is limited. I am here only for an extended visit. Some day I know I will die. So I am trying to make each day count. I am trying to be fully present, especially when I arise at all services, on Shabbat, and on holidays, and say my prayer:

I give thanks before you, O God living and eternal, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion; abundant is your faithfulness!

_____

Carol J. Wechsler Blatter is a recently retired psychotherapist in private practice. She has contributed writings to Chaleur Press, Story Circle Network Journal, and One Woman’s Day; stories in Writing it Real anthologies, Mishearing: Miseries, Mysteries, and Misbehaviors, Pleasure Taken In Our Dreams, Small Things, & Conversations,The Jewish Writing Project, and in 101words.org; and poems in Story Circle Network’s Real Women Write, Growing/ Older, and Covenant of the Generations by Women of Reform Judaism She is a wife, mother, and grandmother of her very special granddaughter who already writes her own stories. 

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Worms in the Flour

by Jacqueline Jules (Arlington, VA)

The sweet smell of baking bread
widened your nostrils, then your eyes.
“A girl who bakes bread!” Your face,
a nomad finding water in the desert.
It was the seventies.
Men were afraid to open doors, afraid not to.
You were ten years my senior.
“Challah,” I corrected. “Sabbath bread.
An expression of faith.”

When time allows and mood demands,
I still set out bowls and measuring cups,
yeast, eggs, and flour on the kitchen counter,
determined to knead a sticky white mess
into something smooth and solid.
It’s a noisy process. The first time
you heard the sound
of something being punched and beaten,
you ran to the kitchen to watch.

It requires more strength now,
in the house alone.
Finding the cabinet empty of yeast,
I can’t ask you to put down the newspaper
and run to the store. I almost quit today—
opening the flour tin, finding worms.

But there were empty bowls
on the counter, waiting
beside sugar, yeast, and eggs.
They taunted me, dared me to continue.
I grabbed my coat and keys.

Not long after, I came back
with new flour, ready
to start over.

Jacqueline Jules is the author of many Jewish children’s books including The Hardest Word, Once Upon a Shabbos, Sarah Laughs, Miriam in the Desert, and Goodnight Sh’ma. Visit her at www.jacquelinejules.com

“Worms in the Flour” appears in Stronger Than Cleopatra, a collection of poems about going forward in the face of loss. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author. For more more about the book, visit: 

http://www.booknook-eljpublications.com/store/p4/Stronger_Than_Cleopatra.html

 

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