Sunday, May 14, 2006

The obligatory Mother's Day post

My mother lived on her own terms and died on her own terms. But this post is not about my mother or about me or about our relationship. It is not about how morose Mother’s Day (and why is that a singular possessive, anyway?) is for people who have lost their mothers. As far as that goes, my mother still lives in my head (my father, sinking into dementia, is beginning to fade, though).

No, today I just feel like telling a story in which my mother figures somewhat tangentially. It’s a story about how we use language to create barriers of prejudice and how we have to get past language—an odd concept for someone like me who lives by the word—to overcome those barriers.

My mother, descended from German–Austrian–Hungarian Jews and a second-generation atheist, preferred the social company of Jews but was thoroughly at ease with people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds when circumstances put her in contact with them. In contrast, my father, son of Russian Jewish immigrants and a revolving-door Reform Jew himself, felt free to express his stereotype-based prejudices against those people (whatever group happened to be under discussion). Dementia hasn’t changed that about him, actually.

My mother died a couple of years ago. Her health had deteriorated to the point that she needed dialysis to stay alive, and she refused to begin dialysis, understanding she would die shortly. Hospice, a movement begun by Catholics, was called in. The Hospice workers who attended my mother’s last few days were black women, presumably of some Protestant denomination.

After the funeral, the Rabbi who officiated came to my parents’ home, in Shaker Heights, to conduct a private memorial ceremony for the family and whoever had come by at that time to offer condolences. (The ceremony is traditional and has a name that I don’t recall.) So here’s the cast of characters: The Rabbi; my father; a few elderly friends of my parents; my sister and brother-in-law; my niece—so far, all people who either read Hebrew or know the prayers by heart—my sons (not raised in the Jewish faith); my wife (second generation Unitarian); the two Hospice nurses; and me.

Prior to the Rabbi’s arrival, my wife wandered off to another room to have a conversation with the Hospice nurses. The Rabbi arrived and we gathered in the living room, where we passed around thin prayer booklets for the service. My wife was still actively engaged in her conversation and not focusing on these small preparations. The Rabbi called us to a brief silence before beginning and my wife, still standing with the nurses, some feet from me, finally glanced down at the booklet in her hand, discovering that it was in Hebrew, with Latin-alphabet transliteration on facing pages. The pages, like the Hebrew text, ran right to left; that is, the booklet opened from what we normally call the back. This was a new format for her, and she quickly became lost.

The nurse standing next to her noticed her distress and quickly reached over to point to where she should be reading. She grinned and whispered to my wife, “I’ll help you out, honey. I’ve been to plenty of these.”

My mother would have enjoyed that.

Meanwhile, my wife is off on the opposite coast this week, not near either of her kids or her mother, who is deteriorating in an Alzheimer’s unit and has no idea what today is. On the other hand, my sister-in-law, who was adopted as an infant, is visiting for the first time her biological sister, who just tracked her down. It will be interesting to find out if she meets her birth mother, also suffering from dementia, this Mother’s Day.

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