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In October 2004 I embarked on a journey to a destination I have not yet reached. That was the month when my mother was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. For years my mother had been in remarkably good health for her age, and she also possessed more energy than many people 20 or 30 years younger than herself, myself included. Looking back, my father says he noticed that my mother's energy had been flagging in the months leading up to her diagnosis. She herself had noticed a strange sensation in her abdomen and a tiredness that would not go away. To her credit, she did not delay in calling her doctors, and they sought answers immediately. Things looked very suspicious, and I feared the worse. Unfortunately, nothing could prepare me for the look on my father's face when we were told my mother had ovarian cancer, and that the survival rate was not good.
The next 18 months were filled with doctors, nurses, chemotherapy treatments, countless medical procedures and many trips to be with my parents. The rest of my life seemed to fall away as I spent hours on the phone with my sister, with doctors, with the visiting nurses. When I was with my parents, I behaved as I'd always seen them behave during crises: models of Protestant, Pennsylvania Dutch stoicism. In private, I ranted and railed and tried to find spiritual strength. I prayed in a way I remembered from childhood, silently, before sleep, asking God to intervene and to spare my mother unnecessary suffering.
As I drove the 300 miles from my house to theirs, I struggled to find meaning. On the return trip, I listened to music I knew would trigger tears so that I'd be dry by the time I got back to my husband and daughter. I also started to follow the tradition of the Reform Jewish congregation to which my family now belongs. I added my mother's name to the list of people for whom we said the prayer of healing at Friday night services.
Slowly my mother's strength failed. By the end of January 2006, with yet more bad news about tumor growth and additional side effects from the chemo, she decided she had had enough. I sat with her and my father in the oncologist's examining room and listened while the referral to home hospice care was made. We took her home, and she started the long process of dying.
I have not yet found words to describe the last two weeks of my mother's life, in the bedroom she had shared with my father for 46 years, attended by my father, my sister, and me. The images, the sounds, the smells are fresh and muted at the same time. Early one morning in late March my mother took her final breath. Later that day I called our rabbi. I do not remember anything he said, only what I said: "I had to call you. I had to know her name would be added to the list." On that first Friday night after my mother died, my husband, daughter and I went to services. When the rabbi read her name as one of the people for whom we would observe shloshim (the 30 severest days of mourning), I imagined this journey was over.
A week later we were back in Pennsylvania for my mother's memorial service (she chose to have a memorial service rather than a funeral). Seated in the church in which I was baptized and later confirmed, I felt comforted and estranged. The prayer, the music, the responsive readings all seemed foreign to me after years of worshiping as a Reform Jew. When the time came, I walked to the front of the church to read what I had written weeks before. The stories of my mother ran together and eventually led to the only prayer I knew for such a moment, the Kaddish. As I read the English translation, it was a moment of quiet sorrow and public farewell. Saying the Kaddish for my mother satisfied something inside me. I felt profound loss but I also felt release.
When I look back now, I find a peculiar elegance in the timing of my mother's illness and death. Just eight months before her diagnosis, my mother and father had lovingly participated in a ritual which they did not understand but which they willingly undertook. They "stood in" for my husbands' parents, the Jewish grandparents my daughter does not have, when we passed the Torah down through the generations before Sophie's Bat Mitzvah.
As I approach the first yahrzeit (anniversary) of my mother's death, I know this journey is not yet over. It will continue for a long time, maybe throughout my life. But it helps to know I have a few guideposts along the way--the memorial candle, her name on the yearly list. My joys and griefs will mingle as I take another step.