Mourning My Presbyterian Mother as a Jew-by-Choice
How does a Jew-by-choice mourn a non-Jewish loved one? I struggled with this question as my mother lay dying.
My family has a rich and varied spiritual history. My father, born in the Ukraine, was brought up Ukrainian Catholic. When arriving in this country, he found no Ukrainian Catholic churches in his area and chose to affiliate with the Roman Catholic Church. My father married my mother--an Episcopalian--in the Episcopal Rectory. They brought their six children up in the Roman Catholic faith, after having done what many families did during the sixties and seventies-- rejected, explored, and found their way back to organized religion. My father finally found a Ukrainian Catholic Church in which to worship. My older siblings re-grasped Roman Catholicism with a born-again fervor, and I found rhyme and reason in Judaism.
As my family gathered at my mother's bedside for what turned out to be her last illness, we all were in tremendous pain at the thought that she was dying. During this time, I said many mishaberachs, or prayers for the sick and their caregivers, for my mother and for my family. My older siblings and my father had their various priests in to give my mother the "last rites." She was in a coma at the time and very much unaware of what was happening--which, considering that she was Episcopalian, may have been a blessing, as it was Catholic priests, Roman and Ukrainian, who presided.
I watched as the various priests came in to offer comfort to my father and siblings, and, knowing that I had left the faith, ignored me. An older brother read the New Testament out loud to my mother. When he needed a break, my older sister took over the reading. I quietly read psalms to myself, and when I did speak, it was to tell my mother that I loved her and to thank her for everything she had given me, for being a wonderful mother and a fantastic grandmother.
On a Shabbat, or Sabbath, evening, my mom died. The next day her funeral was planned. As we sat around the funeral home, decisions were made about the service. It was not up for discussion: a Roman Catholic Mass was to be said for this Episcopal woman. Again, I saw how my father, brother and sister seemed to derive comfort from choosing songs and readings that were meaningful to them. My request was to be able to read the 23rd Psalm--a request that was ignored.
The wake was short compared to others I have attended: one day only, and, once again, priests, rosaries, Our Fathers and Hail Marys. I sat quietly, remembering all the words to the prayers, remembering all the motions--when to bow a head, when and how to make the sign of the cross. I remembered and listened and felt alone: knowing that, as a Jew, I could no longer say the prayers. I sat listening to the cadence of the words as they were recited, remembering when I had learned them, how I had said them with my parents as a child.
Sitting alone, I wondered how I would find comfort. How could I honor my mother and still remain true to myself as a Jew? These questions weighted heavily on my heart and mind.
After speaking with my husband, I decided that once all the Catholic rituals and rites were over and my non-Jewish family had departed, I would watch my mother's coffin be lowered into the ground and put the customary shovels full of dirt into the grave. I would ask my Jewish friends, who I knew were coming to the funeral Mass, to stay and recite Kaddish--the prayer extolling God that is said by mourners--with me.
Sitting in the church, smelling the flowers and incense, once again hearing all the familiar prayers of the Mass, the songs of my childhood, I knew that I would soon be saying Kaddish for my mother as my way of trying to comfort myself. But again, all the memories of my Catholic girlhood came back--and remembering gave me a bittersweet sort of confusing comfort. Confusing in that as I looked around the marble altar of my childhood, I saw the statues, the flowers, knew which pew was the pew we all had stuffed ourselves into so many Sunday mornings. The smell of the incense, as familiar to me as my mother's Shalimar perfume, drifted through the church, and I felt myself a child again.
For a moment I pretended that we were at a regular Sunday morning Mass, Ma was home cooking a big roast, and we would all soon be eating and arguing over our Sunday dinner. I allowed myself a small dram of comfort in taking in all the sights, smells, and sounds. I also experienced a hefty dose of guilt: Was I betraying my Judaism--my newfound faith--by letting myself find comfort in a Roman Catholic church?
Looking back, I now know that the comfort I found in church that day was derived not from reciting the prayers or believing in the rites that were performed, but from the memories of childhood--the memories that recalled my mother young, healthy and whole, the memories that recalled my father smiling, not broken over the death of his wife, and all of us children young and naturally blonde.
I know that as an adult, finding comfort in remembering my childhood, especially in a place where I had spent so much time, was not wrong, and that my love of Judaism was in no way diminished or negated. I know that what helped me in the days to come was Judaism--the prayers and rituals for mourning and the community and acceptance I found in my Jewish friends.