“Choosing life” gained a whole new meaning for me this year.
On September 2, my son was getting ready for his first day of kindergarten. As I saw my mommy friends around me preparing and anticipating, I felt as if I was standing on the outside looking in. I should have been worrying about books and notebooks and bags. Instead, I sat waiting for a phone call, a phone call which would tell me if my grandmother, Grandma Arlene, had survived the night. My friends were counting hours until the beginning, while I was counting hours and days since she had had her last bite of food, her last sip of water. Days without nourishment. Weeks of knowing that a phone call would be coming. Hours of joining my parents, my aunts, my sister at different moments in a bedside vigil.
I wanted to be there for my son with all a mother feels and experiences as her first child begins kindergarten. I wanted to embrace the key experiences that encompass that first day: the new, pristine outfit worn for the first time, the moment he stepped on that school bus and turned around for one last good-bye, the expression on his face as he bounded off the bus after a long first day. I wanted to be there and truly be present, but I was scared that it had become impossible.
How could I focus on the world of the living as I continued to wait for the inevitable moment when I knew I would lose my grandmother forever?
“I call heaven and earth as witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). On this Yom Kippur, as we read these words once again, they have come to have an entirely new and different meaning for me.
I saw this choice so clearly before me that day: life and death. Could I embrace the life around me or would I just collapse in the despair of loss?
What is remarkable about this passage is that it allows for both. The statement acknowledges the reality that, in life, we experience the good and the bad, the blessing and the curse. We live with loss and pain and despair just as we live with joy and comfort and hope. And there are moments when the choice to embrace the latter in the face of the former becomes that much more difficult.
And so I awoke on the morning my son would begin school and I sat with my little boy as he ate his breakfast, laughed with him as he amused us both with his usual morning silliness and hugged him as he stepped onto that bus. I did my best to choose life. And I continue to struggle to do the same, embracing life not in the absence of death, but as I sit engulfed in its reality; choosing life for myself and for him. And in making that decision, maybe, just maybe I will be carrying forward the life that my grandmother has given us both—her strength, her strong opinions (as anyone who knew her knew well), and her fervent hugs—the pieces of her which are a part of us today and will continue to be a part of us even now that she is gone.
My grandmothers, Grandma Arlene on the left and Grandma Horty on the right, when my son was 1 month old. My Grandma Arlene died on September 7. Zichrona Livracha.