I scheduled cosmetic eye surgery for next Wednesday, a week before the anniversary of my son’s birth and a month before the anniversary of his death. This is always a bad time of year for me so I might as well lie in bed recuperating from elective surgery, since lying in bed is exactly where I will want to be. The amazing thing is that the scheduling is a coincidence, or at least unconsciously a coincidence. I have booked and cancelled this surgery repeatedly but this time I am going through with it.
“Is it okay to have the surgery this time of year?” My therapist asked. She made the connection for me, pulling my unconscious mind to the surface as easily as plucking a piece of lint from the couch. Much of her greatest insights have occurred while she is cleaning, For years, she used Diet Snapple as an all-purpose cleaning solution.
“Actually yes. This year, I am somatizing in a planned way,” I replied.
It was ten minutes into therapy and I had just recovered from a crying bout brought on by a discussion of the Rabbi’s sermon at our synagogues’s Kol Nidre services.
“His sermon could have been titled Closure: The Big Myth. He spoke about Jews being “wounded healers.” I continued. “He referenced the Holocaust and the constant trickle of violent murders occurring in Israel. He ended by saying the Jewish people help manage their grief by doing good.”
“That’s true” said my therapist. “He sounds wonderful.” She concluded about the Rabbi.
I thought about his sermon the rest of the day. He stirred my grief right up to the surface of my mood.
Max was 27 days old on November 25th, 2006 when our baby nurse accidentally smothered him in bed in the middle of the night. He would have turned 19 years old this October 29th. He was just shy of a month old. I was not at all religious but we sat shiva for the full 7 days of the Jewish mourning period.
My husband was raised religious and his Rabbi rushed to our house the morning our son died. I liked his presence.
“Shiva for a newborn is not required by Jewish law,” said the Rabbi.
“Why not?” I asked. “How can there be no ritual for the death of a newborn baby.”
“The mourning rituals are only required for babies 31 days or older.” He replied, treading gently on the grief smothering my soul.
I wanted rituals to mourn my son. I wanted laws and rules and I wanted the world to stop with me. He wisely knew.
“You can choose to sit shiva. It is not required.” He answered my unasked question.
I guessed that his answer was most likely not halachically accurate. In other words, the law probably forbade mourning rituals for very young babies. Maybe too many died too young and full shiva was a burden and therefore forbidden. In fact, according to the great Jewish scholar Rashi, infants were not considered viable before 30 days passed. But in 2006, babies didn’t die easily. Max was born healthy. His death was a great tragedy not just for me and my husband but for our entire community. I needed to mourn and people wanted to mourn with me.
Shiva is not a party. Visitors are meant to come for brief visits throughout the day, to pay their respects and leave quietly while intoning very specific Hebrew words meant to provide comfort and link the mourner to their Jewish heritage.
But since my shiva was not required and very possibly not even correct, we could do what we wanted and what I wanted was people around me all day and all night. From the moment we woke up until late at night for 7 days endless streams of family, friends and acquaintances filled up our apartment. They cried with me when waves of grief engulfed my breathing and they laughed with me when the grief subsided and a temporary lightness gave me a respite.
When the 7 days ended, I was better prepared to return, slowly, to a life. A mother for 27 days, I was no longer one. So I embarked on a career of returning to motherhood. First, I volunteered at the Karen Horney Therapeutic Nursery School as an assistant nursery teacher. Pregnant with twin girls, and then a boy, I gratefully gave birth again. Once I maxed out on having kids, I moved onto animals. I adopt dogs with alarming regularity.
“You know” said my brother “you always get your dogs in the fall.” I was stroking my new tiny poodle puppy. “Every fall, you need a new baby.”
He was right. Every fall, I crave the experience of returning to motherhood. Just like Persephone, the Greek Goddess destined to live in Hades six months of each year, I am destined every fall to return to some level of grief. Having a new baby helps soothe the pain.
The Rabbi’s sermon acknowledged that grief persists forever. The shiva comforts mourners for the first 7 days. “Doing good” said the Rabbi “helps the mourners, even years after a tragedy.”
The pain I feel now, 19 years after his death is weak but it persists.
Next week, I will lie in bed and somatize my feelings. My girlfriends have offered to visit while I recover from elective surgery. It will be a week of recovery, a little like a shiva.
Take Away – Time doesn’t heal. Time can’t close or mediate a death. Grief can’t be disowned, disavowed, somehow unhad, despite decades of time. Grief hovers and is woven into our existence. But experiences can soothe and religious rituals can work.
Recipe – Grandma May’s Chicken Soup – Penicillin for the soul
My son was named after my husband’s much-loved Grandpa Max. Grandpa Max was married to Grandma May. This is Grandma May’s recipe. She was a gentle woman who lived till 99 years old. She held baby Max in her arms a few days before he died. I never asked her how it felt to bury both her husband and his namesake.
“The trick to the soup” she taught me “is to skim the scum off the top before you add the vegetables.” Those words are amazingly wise and can be directly applied to my life as well as my soup.
Kosher chicken is presalted and makes for great soup. If you have a kosher butcher, ask for bones for soup as well as a whole chicken cut into 8 parts. Otherwise, supermarkets have frozen Empire kosher chickens and they will work fine.
One chicken about 3 pounds cut into 8 parts and extra chicken bones if the butcher has them
One parsnip cut into quarters
4 cut carrots
Two cut leeks or an onion cut into quarters
4 sprigs of dill optional – not everyone likes dill
Egg noodles – I prefer the skinny ones
Place defrosted chicken in a large stockpot and add cold water to cover the chicken completely. Do not completely fill the pot with water, just cover the chicken. Bring to the boil. As the water boils, grey scum will rise to the top. Skim this off with a spoon. Lower heat to simmer and add the vegetables. Do not completely cover the pot with the cover. Steam needs to escape and some of the water needs to evaporate in order for the flavor of the soup to fully develop. Leave the cover slightly askew. Cook for 4 hours. Add salt at the end only if needed.
Let soup cool in pot and then strain over a large bowl. I throw away the cooked vegetables. I pull out the pieces of chicken that look good and add that to the strained chicken soup.
Boil vermicelli sized egg noodles in a separate pot of water and don’t overcook. Add these noodles to the soup.
The soup freezes perfectly.