Monday (October 3) marked the first full day of the new year, according to the Jewish calendar. It was the holiday of Rosh Hashanah — literally, “head of the year” — two days of prayer and family and apples and honey. As a kid, I loved Rosh Hashanah because you could eat, although my resolutions invariably had to do with doing less of it. The problem with Rosh Hashanah is that it is inevitably followed, 10 days later, by the most depressing holiday of the year, Yom Kippur, where we recount all our sins, and where, as I would recite with shivers every year, it is decided who shall live and who shall die. Did I mention that you cannot eat or drink all day once you’ve turned 13 — or, if you’re a showoff like me who’s a grade ahead, 12? Only later did I realize this is not the kind of activity you want to get a head start on.
Neither, of course, is thinking about mortality, which literally lurks at the core of the Yom Kippur service. That’s the Yizkor service, the service of remembrance, the service at Temple Israel in Swampscott in the 1960s that was only attended by people who had lost a parent or child or sibling. So my father and brother and sister and I would cut out, leaving only our mother praying for her mother who we had never known, and we’d pick up my grandfather, who pretended to fast but didn’t, and head over to Dunkin’s for coffee. Not a bad way to spend Yom Kippur. Looking back, it was paradise.
Everything changed in the 1970s. That was true of a lot of people and things. My parents got divorced and unhappily remarried. All my grandparents died. My father died. My sister got divorced, and my mother divorced her second husband. I moved away. At all the temples around here, everybody goes to the memorial service. Mortality is inescapable.
I have one friend back East taking care of a very sick mother and another taking care of a very sick brother. That’s about par for an average week. I ran into a friend who is caring for her 93-year-old mother, who is doing remarkably well except that all her friends are dead. Sometimes, the thought of how many (or how few) years I likely have left creeps into my head, and really how few that is if you think backward. My mother would be 91 today had she not died of the usual fall, broken-hip and stroke combo at 80. Now, if I live until 80…
It would hard to be alive in the 21st century without knowing what to make of all of this. We all know what we are supposed to do. Breathe. How many times a day does someone tell you, or you tell yourself, to breathe? I write emails — silly — telling friends to breathe, waiting for one to write back and ask me what I think she’s doing. We are supposed to meditate. We are supposed to do what we are doing, not live in the past or the future. No regrets; no expectations.
I wish I could snap my fingers and have my children, as children, back in my arms again. Sometimes I close my eyes and can bring myself to tears remembering its sweetness. But that is not where they want to be. They want to be living their own lives, following their own dreams, finding loves of their own. And in order to do that, each generation must yield the stage to the next, with grace and dignity, without holding too tight, without letting them see our tears too often. Happy new year. May the Lord bless you and keep you.