I met Rabbi Reva on the day my mom died. She works in the spiritual center at the hospital, and came to my mom’s bedside to sing prayers for the dying. My mom’s brain had already died, and the formality of taking her off life support loomed before us.
Seven days after the funeral service Rabbi Reva called to ask how I was doing. I confessed that I didn’t know who I was grieving for—the mother I had, the mother I wish I had had, or the person other people adored who I did not know as well. Somehow my jumble of feelings all made sense to Rabbi Reva. “You have ambivalent grief”, she said kindly.
Thus began my talks with the rabbi.
I have met often with Rabbi Reva since my mom’s death. I am sure my Jewish mother is watching in disbelief, possibly amused. While my mom’s family was observant (and we occasionally celebrated Jewish holidays with them), my Dad was not. He firmly believed that we needed to assimilate (my parents had lived through the Holocaust) so I grew up celebrating Christmas and hunting for Easter eggs. Now, when people ask me my religion, I will only offer that my “background” is Jewish. When I was younger it was just easier to say that I was Protestant.
But here I am seeking wisdom from a rabbi.
The first book Rabbi Reva encouraged me to read was Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel. Frankel survived Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps by finding meaning in the most horrid of circumstances. After his liberation, and even after learning of the murder of his pregnant wife and parents, his deep sense of purpose propelled him to thrive as an existential psychiatrist, husband to his second wife (a Catholic), father and grandfather. He died at a ripe old age.
What meaning could I derive from my mother’s life?
My heart breaks for my mother. I can’t fathom how isolated it must have felt to be shut out of her daughter’s life. But I kept my distance because I needed to. My mother had honorable intentions. She was desperate to be close to me, to be my friend, and my confidante. But she demonstrated her need for connection in destructive ways. Eavesdropping on my conversations; over-sharing intimate details about her life; and, being indiscreet about the details of mine. Rabbi Reva has assured me that my self-protection was not selfish. My mother made choices. We all make choices.
But the choices that my mother made have had a domino effect. My own choices as a mother are a reverberation of hers. Her life is inextricably linked to mine, as my life is linked to my own two sons. We are each just one tiny link in a very long chain of life.
Because I didn’t trust my own mom, I am rabid about making sure my sons trust me. Maybe my relationship with my mom wasn’t the one I wanted, but I believe it has made a huge difference to the kind of mom I am to my sons. I am far from perfect but I have earned their trust. They both know I would sever my right arm before I betrayed their confidence. When they seek my advice, my heart bursts with joy.
Each day I take another baby step towards finding meaning in my relationship with my mom. I don’t blame her anymore for the choices she made. I know she was a product of her own life experiences, as I am too. But my heart still aches for her.
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