Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Where is my mother?

Where is my mother? This is a question I've thought a lot about.  There are several possibilities.  Her  body lays under the earth at a cemetery in Richmond overlooking the San Francisco Bay.  (My parents chose the site because of its majestic view.)  I visited the cemetery about a month after she died, and it seemed so surreal.  I recited some Psalms, cried a little and left feeling fairly numb.

 But she can't just be there.  (At least I hope not, and I don't experience her as being confined to that plot of earth.)  Another place she can be is generally in the world.  At times I feel her presence, such as when I saw a ray of light entering the shul when I was praying, or when the trees started budding early this year.   This is a general sense of her presence, nothing overwhelming, but not a complete absence either.

Then there are the dreams in which she appears (see Posts: "I see and touch my mother" and "Visit from my mother.")  Are these simply the product of my unconscious?  Or are they messages from another place? 

Another possibility is that she is in some sort of netherworld, neither here on earth nor firmly in some post-life place (say, heaven).   This seems to be the traditional Jewish view, thus the expression that one says to a mourner: "may the neshema (soul) have an aliyah (ascent)."  The idea, which I struggle to comprehend, is that during the first year after death, the soul needs the help of the children (traditionally just sons) saying kaddish in order to ascend to its proper place in heaven.  In his book "Kaddish," Leon Weiseltier explores the story of Rabbi Akiva and the condemned man that gave rise to this idea as well as the various sources that have developed it.  (See particularly pages 40-45 and 126-127.)  He summarizes the notion as follows: "That the dead are in need of spiritual rescue; and that the agent of spiritual rescue is the son; and that the instrument of spiritual rescue is prayer, notably the kaddish." (page 127)

I admit I don't experience my kaddishes in this way.  My mother was an incredibly self-directed, accomplished and determined woman, and the idea that she needs my help to get where she belongs in the world after death is tough for me to relate to.

Another possibility is that she is, in some spiritual way, within me and in the many others she touched in her life.  She told me she would be "in" me.  One of our final conversations went something like this:
         (she to me) "I don't know what I would do without you."
         (me to her) "Yes, but I don't know what I will do without you."
         (she to me, sighing) "Ah, yes."
         (me to her) "I guess I'll manage."
         (she to me) "I will be in you."

And so, where is she? All I can say is, while she is no longer in this world, she is not completely absent either.  Her presence can, in different times, places and ways, still be felt.

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