Cycles of Life

Debra Fran Baker

I. Introduction

The space of a year contains many cycles - the cycle of seasons, the cycle of the holidays, the cycle of Torah. It is also the time one mourns for a parent. My mourning for my father, a"h, is tied to all these cycles as surely as it is tied to the cycle of life itself.

II. Cycles of Mourning

One marks the time after a death in units measured in loss and therefore in healing...even when one believes one will never heal. There is the first day, when one awakens to a strange and threateningly different world. There is the first week, the first month, the first year - all the milestones as they pass by for the first time.

In Judaism, all these milestones are marked with something - some event, some ceremony, some change in status. The first day is the hardest. The loss is new, the pain is greatest and it is, if one is fortunate, the day of the funeral. Until the funeral, one is lost in a form of limbo - mourning but not yet a mourner, faced with decisions but unable to think clearly. There is no rest, no comfort, nothing. Men are even exempt from prayers and t'fellin (phylacteries) during this timeless time. But then the body is buried and safe, and the days start again.

The first week is the shiva, the seven days of deepest mourning. The mourner remains at home - the mourner's own home, the home of another mourner or the home of the deceased depending on circumstances. Shiva can even move if necessary. The world comes to them in the form of visitors. Their needs are provided for them - food, callers to bring comfort, a minyan so they can say or hear the mourner's kaddish. They neglect their physical apparency and are not required to take part in social niceties such as greeting their callers. Only the Sabbath interrupts this, forces the mourner to go out in the world, because there is no public mourning on that day. Still, some do not wear normal Shabbat clothes and do not sit in their normal seats in synagogue.

When the week ends, the mourner is escorted on a formal walk to mark the end of the week. They enter sheloshim, the thirty days of lesser mourning, which end thirty days after the funeral. Some groups mark this with the gravestone setting, although it's more common to do it inside of a year. During sheloshim, the mourners refrain from haircuts and cutting their nails. They do not attend joyful celebrations of any kind, except for children's weddings under certain conditions. However, they go to work and to school, they learn - they are in the world and not in the world.

At the end of the thirty days, those who mourn for a spouse, a sibling or a child are no longer in mourning. This does not mean they are no longer sad or that they do not miss their loved one, any more than "non-mourners" - in-laws, grandchildren, other relatives - do not grieve. However, they no longer have the restrictions of mourners, and if they desire, can take part in the world again.

For those who mourn parents, the end of thirty days means fairly little. They can cut their fingernails, and if necessary get haircuts. They are still unable to purchase new clothes or attend celebrations, or socialize or listen to live music, although rabbinic opinions differ on that last. However, despite the separation from the world that these restrictions imply, they are also forced to be part of it - for eleven months they say or listen to kaddish. Men are required to say it; opinions differ about women. They are unable to hide from the world because of this. It's another form of limbo, as the mourner watches spouse and children interact with others while the mourner remains at home.

Why is it longer for a parent? There are two answers. One is that one is required to honor one's parents, and part of that is a longer mourning period. Also, the world has changed in a vital way - one of the two pillars that held it up is gone. All humans are irreparable, but parents are more than anyone else.

The other is that, well...when one loses a spouse, one is torn in half; when one loses a sibling, one loses a colleague, a friend, an equal; when one loses a child, one experiences the worst anyone can imagine. However, the natural order of things says that parents go first. It's not something one wants, ever, and it hurts, but it's something one knows will happen. For the others, the grief will last a long time. To ensure the proper honor, then, the child mourns for a year to keep the memory living.

Eleven months after the parent dies, the child ceases to say the mourner's kaddish. Twelve months after the parent dies, the child leaves mourning, and can buy new clothes and attend concerts and parties and celebrations again. In fact, they are encouraged to do all this as soon as possible.

A year after the parent dies, the child lights his or her first memorial candle, and possibly fasts or visits the cemetery. The stone is already set. And the cycle is complete.

III. Cycles of Time

Time is funny. We experience it as linear, going from one moment to another, each one unique. But it is also a circle - the week revolves around the Sabbath, for example. No matter what else happens, the Sabbath is always ahead to give us hope.

We see this in nature - we watch the sun rise and set, the moon wax and wane and the seasons go from autumn to winter to spring to summer to autumn again, and this is how we mark the time as it passes.

We see this in our holidays as they follow the seasons and consecrate them in holiness, or in joy or in sorrow. We move to their rhythms throughout the year, timing our lives to them.

And we certainly see this in life itself as members of our community go through events in their lives. New babies are born and named or circumcised, young men and women reach bar or bat mitzvah, others marry. People die. And all members of the community take part in these things.

But those in mourning have to step back a little, be apart from celebrations not on the Sabbath. This is part of mourning. And it makes mourners, perhaps, a little more aware of what community and time and life-cycles mean.

IV. Cycles of Torah

The Jewish year is measured in New Moons and holidays. It is also measured in Torah portions and Sabbaths, as we read through the Torah in order during the year, each Sabbath named for its portion.

These portions guide our studies through out the year. Every time we read them throughout our lives we learn more, and so we say we will return when we finish each book.

This is symbolized by the holiday of Simchat Torah, which means, literally, Celebration of the Torah. On this day, we read the last piece of the book of D'varim, or Deuteronomy and then immediately afterwards read the first piece of Bereshit, or Genesis, literally completing the circle. And then we dance - also in circles. It's the most joyous of our holidays, so much so that it affects all around us (especially when we start dancing in the streets.)

V. Journey's Cycle

All of these cycles - the cycle of mourning, of the year and of the Torah came together for me this year and the year before. Last year, on the night of Simchat Torah, my father passed away. He had had open heart surgery, a quintuple bypass, eight weeks earlier, and he had never quite recovered. In fact, he never left the hospital or special care units. His kidneys had shut down, he was not quite connected to the world around him and, most seriously, he was not eating much of anything. They were to put in a feeding tube that weekend, and they were making arrangements to send him to a nursing home.

Even so, I still had hope that he was a holding pattern, that eventually things would heal enough for him to start wanting to live again. This was despite all his problems, despite that in one frighteningly lucid moment several week earlier, he'd said he was leaving in a box, despite the dream I'd had days earlier of my husband's death.

On the day before Simchat Torah, on the holiday we call Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day, because it's the final day of the holiday of Tabernacles, Sukkot, we say the memorial prayer called Yizkor. Traditionally, this is only said by people who have lost a parent, and those who have not leave the synagogue. However, with my parents' permission, I'd been saying it for my grandparents. As I stood there, I wondered if I'd be saying it for real the following year. I don't think I had a premonition of any kind. It would have been odd for me not to have those thoughts.

That night, I tried to make myself join in the celebrations around me - to dance and kiss the Torah and otherwise be joyful, but I couldn't do it. My father was the only thing on my mind. I knew he'd hate a feeding tube. He hated being tied down by anything. He'd also hate a nursing home. And so, he was in my thoughts.

At about twelve midnight, my brother called to tell me that my father was gone. He'd had breathing problems throughout - his lungs had a relatively small capacity - and he'd drowned in his own fluids. My first thought was tears, of course, but also relief...he wouldn't have that final indignity of the feeding tube.

I spent that night in tears, not knowing what to do or even what my status was - if it had been a regular day, I'd have been an onenet, someone waiting for the funeral. But as it was a holiday, I might not have been. We got up early, and we waited in front of the synagogue for our rabbi to ask him...although my husband was willing to walk to the rabbi's house the night before.

Before he showed, others in our congregation appeared and we told them. The most important of those, so far as I was concerned, was a friend of mine, a woman. Jonathan, my husband, told her when he met her on the street corner, following her sons. She came to me, hugged me and held my hand when we finally spoke to the rabbi and he gave us advice. Then she took me home, sat with me while I spoke to my family on the phone despite the holiday and stayed there in my sty of a kitchen, reading psalms, while I finally got some sleep. I'd made Jonathan stay in synagogue and do the normal holiday things. It was something he needed to do and I needed to know he was doing. Another friend of ours walked *him* home.

The funeral was the next day. Our rabbi did a more than decent job there - it was good we had someone who knew at least one member of the family. He also knew my brother, who had spent a couple of Shabbat with us, and he'd met my parents when, that summer, Jonathan and I had been honored at our synagogue dinner. It helped - he wasn't a complete stranger. My mother-in-law provided the meal of consolation at my mother's apartment, and we spent the first two days of shiva

When I did go home, my empty refrigerator was filled by my community, and in the evening, my home was filled with friends and family and community members, and we even had evening services.
The year itself passed oddly. I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes and told to lose weight - in a year when I couldn't buy new clothes. This meant that not only did I watch my clothing, already on the old side because I dislike shopping, get older and more worn and stained, but also larger. I missed out on community and family celebrations. I went to science fiction conventions, but avoided parties and singing.

I learned to get over feeling awkward about saying kaddish those times I was with a minyan - while my husband said it daily, since we knew my brothers would not. I learned to stumble through the Aramaic quickly. Our rabbi permits a woman to say kaddish provided a man says it with her.

It was a strange year, all in all. I spent several weeks crying at odd moments, but those got further and further apart and then stopped. I watched my family fall apart in some ways, as my younger brother, who'd been staying with my parents, brought his wife and son from New Mexico to New Jersey, and proceeded to make my mother's life more difficult, until finally he had to be asked to either control his son or leave.

Instead, my mother left her own home to live with my older brother for the final month. It was hard on all of us, but the loss of my father made it harder.

When my younger brother left, my mother began to make her own life. She got a dog, she began volunteer work at a local hospital, she became involved in her condominium. She's doing well at the moment.

I lost weight, got my numbers down, started to exercise, and began to want to be connected to the world again. That's part of the process - at first I welcomed the isolation of mourning but then it began to chafe, just like shiva chafes before it's over.

The cycle of years in Judaism is such that every few years there is a leap year, with an extra month. This happened this past year. Mourning does not last more than twelve months. This means that my mourning ended a month before my father's yarzheit, the anniversary of his death, and that kaddish ended a month before that. Each of these earlier milestones felt odd...they were an ending, but not a completion. Even the gravestone setting, which occurred before the end of our mourning, did not provide that.

For me, that was all completed on the anniversary of his death, on Simchat Torah, after I'd said Yizkor "for real" that afternoon. I'd been apprehensive about it. I had no idea what I was going to do or feel. I had a new outfit to wear, one which had been back ordered but had come in time. I was getting over a bout of stomach virus. I was...feeling odd, especially as I lit my memorial candle.

Then I got to synagogue, and all there was was joy and celebration. The circle was complete, and while I know I'll always miss him, I know it's okay. I sang and danced and held a Torah scroll while others danced around me. I had closure as the cycles converged and I could live again.

VI. Conclusion

Time is a paradox. It marches linearly in circles, each moment unique, but each one echoing one before and one to follow, just as Simchat Torah last year and Simchat Torah this year echoed each other, bracketing the year.

Copyright 2000 Debra Fran Baker and NightRoads Associates

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