Love, Loss, and What I Learned

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Love, Loss, and What I Learned
By Rabbi Lynnda Targan

Rosh Hashanah. A new beginning. A time for reflection. For introspection. For taking stock. For repentance. For thankfulness. For resolutions. For inspiration. For reflection. For meditation. Yet the holidays, so rich with awesome possibilities have also given me a measure of annual pain for the past three decades. They serve as a yearly reminder since 1978 that my 49 year-old mother, lost her excruciating battle with breast cancer, just before sunset ushered in Rosh Hashanah.

Ruminating about that slice of life, I look back to living in Chicago with my husband and 5-year old son. My mother, divorced for many years had moved in with my younger sister and her husband in New York as her illness advanced and the need for continual care became inevitable. I was entering the fourth month of a high-risk pregnancy, and we planned to make the long trip east for the Jewish holidays, fearing that I wouldn’t be able to fly again until after I gave birth, and I was panicky that it was getting closer and closer to the end for my mother. I planned the visit anticipating that it would probably be the last time our family would celebrate the Jewish New Year together, but a day earlier than our scheduled flight, my mother’s condition unexpectedly turned grave, and my brother-in law called to say we better get to New York quickly. We were on the next plane.

My mother was awake and alert when I entered her hospital room, but I was thoroughly shocked by the sight of her. I had brought her to the hospital two weeks earlier when I was in New York to handle what we thought was a mini-crises, a by-product of medication and radiation. She had looked tired but still feisty at that point, considering the insidious state of her disease. In just two weeks she had deteriorated with stunning rapidity. It was staggering to see her once beautiful face, with the deep-set blue-gray eyes turn a sickly pallor of gray, her body ravaged by disease.

A white triangular cotton kerchief tied at the back of her neck hung loosely on one side of her head, barely covering the fuzzy crop of salt and pepper hair that was beginning to grow back after the siege of the newest experimental chemotherapy treatments, which ran their course without success. Though moribund, she did not appear to be in any appreciable pain, but her breathing seemed labored, and she sighed periodically with the resolve of an acquiescent wayfarer who sadly understood her destiny.

I thought I had been prepared for this scene from the time we first received her diagnosis, as the doctors shook their heads and stared at the floor while they gave us the bad news in monotoned voices. My mother’s primary tumor was very large and aggressive, and her prognosis was poor. Now, standing next to her ravaged body, four-years later after waging a valiant assault on the cancer-enemy, watching my grandparents witness their first-born daughter’s immanent death in disbelief, I knew I had deluded myself into thinking that she would beat the odds, defy the statistics and live to play with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Even as the death-evidence was mounting, I was not prepared to say good-bye.

Is anyone ever ready for the finality of death? To let go of the person who gave you life? I was 30 years old, but the continuing need for my mother’s presence, even compromised as it was, was painfully striking. Despite some difficult times in the past, my mother was my steady advocate, my cheerleader, and my closest ally. I needed her to console me, but our roles had become irrevocably blurred during the coarse of her illness, and I was forced to be strong and courageous, a mother to my mother, who in her late-forties struggled for the dignity of independence.

Though she recognized and acknowledged me in her last hours, she was too weak to hold a sustained conversation. Straining back tears, I nervously started to talk to her. I babbled on about my pregnancy, lifting up my skirt to show off my expanding abdomen stretched to the size of a watermelon as the life of my daughter, my second child, was taking shape within me. I talked about my son Eric, who made us laugh with his mischievous antics. About my husband Larry, a successful businessman whom my mother loved. About my job as a High School English teacher and a stringer for a local newspaper. About my volunteer activities. About current events. About friends and relatives. About anything to maintain a living connection between the two of us. I felt as though if I stopped talking, she would stop breathing, and her breathing continued to worsen while I babbled on faster and faster.

My mother drifted in and out of consciousness as I chattered endlessly, not knowing what she did or didn’t comprehend. Every so often she opened her eyes, looked around, smiled and drifted off again. Hours later, she quietly died, as we stood impotent and incredulous.

The sad fact is that my mother had a tough life and the cancer was the final cruel interloper. Beginning at an early age, she struggled with health issues, and she was forced to raise two small daughters alone when she became divorced in her early thirties, putting her into emotional and financial hardship. Without the benefit of support groups for single parents, which developed later, she endured the stigma of being a divorcee, a shanda my grandparents never accepted, referring to her as a widow, even though my father was alive and well. She was barely treading water in a sea of uncertainty, with no money, no car or experience driving, no marketable skills, no confidence, and two young children to feed both physically and spiritually when her marriage ended abruptly.

In spite of her challenges, she made a life for us, and created a stable home, emphasizing education, and menschlikite– values that couldn’t be taken away from us by a bank, like our house and the furniture in it had been when my warring parents defaulted on the mortgage during their arduous divorce dispute.

Brilliantly, my mother moved us and what was left of our belongings from Reading, Pennsylvania, where my father worked in the corrugated box business, back to her roots in Brooklyn, New York, counting on a large and loving extended Jewish family to help nurture and sustain us through our tragedies and triumphs. She studied for and passed her real estate exam and earned a salary renting apartments in luxury high-rise buildings. She set an example for us as a dedicated single mother, a great homemaker, a volunteer in the community, and a devoted family member. Her love of Yiddishkite, her sense of humor, and great family pride was her abiding legacy to my sister and me.

Long after her death, my sister and I continue to receive nourishment from her, like a steady drip of energy-infusing intravenous fluids. As a result of her strong influence, my sister and I have created successful and interesting lives for ourselves, steeped in Jewish principles–satisfying careers in healing professions, long marriages, each with a son and a daughter, and now sons-in-law, an affinity to travel, international relationships, an appreciation of culture and the arts, and most important, a strong sense of family and community.

Losing my mother was devastating, a cataclysmic rupture in my soul. After all this time the answer to the “why” question remains elusive. But I have learned a lot from the heartbreaking experience of traumatic loss, and I re-learn and examine it every Rosh Hashanah. As I sit in synagogue during the holidays, I invariably think of my mother as I make resolutions for the coming year. Her absence confronts me with the painful reality that life is precious and precarious. That our greatest assets can be whisked away from us with astonishing alacrity. That sometimes we don’t get second chances, and we must stand in judgment of our priorities. That we must cherish our health, our family, our relationships and our work, and that we must pursue all of it with passion, integrity and gratitude. And, as the great Rabbi Hillel posited, “If not now, when?”