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Jewish Death Practices:
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A Year and a Day: Kaddish
A Year and a Day: Kaddish
By Ronnie Caplane
It was recently the 10th anniversary of my mother's death. And, as I have every year, I lit a 24-hour yahrzeit candle, went to Friday night services and recited Kaddish. For me this service isn't like any other. I'm always apprehensive and anxious. It's the anticipation of hearing my mother's name read just before the Kaddish. One of the customs in our synagogue is reading the names of everyone whose death occurred during the previous week over the years. It's for people who belonged to our congregation or whose family now belongs.
The list is alphabetized so I can get ready. I listen through the "A's, "B's" and a few "C's." Then it's time. Marilyn Caplane. And I cry.
Most of the names on the list are the same from year to year. A few of the families I know. Most I don't. But we share an anniversary that changed our lives. The year, relationship or circumstances may be different but the experience is the same. And I know that just like me, those other families are remembering the details of their own losses.
"Mommy died," my sister said early that Saturday morning when she called. It wasn't unexpected. It didn't come as a surprise. It was just a shock. For months I watched my mother's health deteriorate and her world get smaller and more insular. First she stopped driving. Then she didn't leave the house. Eventually, she stopped coming downstairs and later never left her bed. She was drawing inward until there would be nothing left of her in the outside world. I was amazed at how quickly we adjusted to each decline – accepting conditions that would have been unimaginable a few months, even a few weeks before.
I flew to Cleveland the afternoon my sister called. It was a trip I had made many times during the previous months. But this flight was different. The one I had long feared. The flight "home" for my mother's funeral. I remember walking into my parents' house. My house. The house where I lived when I went to high school. A house I didn't know without my mother's presence. And just the day before she had been there. Instinctively, I went up to her bedroom. But she wasn't there. I kept expecting her to materialize or at least call to me from another room.
My mother and I had a close but difficult relationship. I'm still working on it. But in many ways her last months were some of our best. I think she was relinquishing control and had what she always wanted: two devoted daughters who gave her their full attention. When I was in Cleveland, I was with her from morning until night. We talked or I read to her. When she died we were in the middle of an Anne Tyler novel. I still can't bring myself to finish reading it.
Going to the funeral home was a nightmare, dealing with details like coffins, clothes, flowers, funeral arrangements. The kind of stuff my mother should have been in charge of. I didn't know if we were doing this right. If my mother would approve. We wandered around the "showroom" aimlessly until the funeral director appeared. He turned out to be a guy I went to junior high school with who, I remembered, hadn't invited me to his bar mitzvah. Now death and grieving families are his everyday business. I, on the other hand, was suffering the worst loss of my life.
Being surrounded by family and friends got me through that first week. Then I was left alone with my grief -- a process that never really ends. Recently I saw a friend whose father died in July. "I still reach for the phone to call him," he said. I told him I understood and warned him that the first year is the hardest. What I didn't tell him was that every year when I come home from temple and see the yahrzeit candle burning on the windowsill in my kitchen, I have an impulse to call my mother. For just a quick conversation. To see what she's been up to and tell her about us. So much has happened since we last spoke.