In the spring of 2001, a friend of mine lost both her parents in a three-month span. Adding to this emotional juggernaut, she was planning her son’s bar mitzvah at the same time.
“I simply can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you,” I told her.
Soon after, I not only imagined it, I lived something close to it. In May, as I was ordering invitations for my eldest son’s bar mitzvah, my mother was discovered to have end-stage cancer. Long misdiagnosed with severe arthritis, Mom became alarmingly feeble, her pain unremitting. When further tests revealed the harsh reality, the inept doctor awkwardly advised us, “Take her home and make her comfortable. It’s a good time to get out the photo albums and gather the grandchildren around.”
Cancer had already claimed my father, aunt, and grandmother. My only brother had been killed in a car accident more than thirty years before. I wasn’t ready to lose Mom as well. She had held the emotional center of our lives, the smiling, gracious, emotional rock of the family.
My bond with Mom had grown closer in the years leading up to this, enhanced by her spending many Shabbat meals with my family. Many weeks, Mom would sit on the same spot on the living room couch, as my four kids piled around her to show her their school projects, tell her about their week, or have her read them a story. She also loved meeting our guests at our festive Sabbath meals, and her knowledge of Jewish history, gained as a docent at the Skirball Museum, enlivened our conversations.
After Mom’s devastating diagnosis, my life became surreal. My sister and I were thrust into a whirlwind of managing Mom’s hospice care and trying to get her business affairs in order while Mom still had the presence of mind to know what she was signing. On any given day, I might be calling the nurse to inquire about morphine dosages, while also waiting for the bar mitzvah caterer or photographer to call back.
The day I picked up my son’s bar mitzvah invitations, I headed out with a heavy heart to visit Mom. Thinking of all those crisp, lovely invitations in the back seat of the car, I could not stop crying. How I could show them to Mom without breaking down again? Could Mom, despite what the doctor said, survive to see the first of her grandsons step up as a bar mitzvah and read from the Torah? Or might I actually be sitting shiva — the week-long mourning period — during the week of my son’s bar mitzvah?
Mom, always a realist, knew that she might not live to be at the event, but it gave her pleasure to know how the plans were coming along. I steeled myself during my daily drives to remain strong in her presence, to tell her about the plans with a smile on my face, but my heart breaking.
But Mom’s deterioration was rapid and inescapable. It seemed an impossible dream for her to live to attend the bar mitzvah. While she didn’t tell me directly, she confided in her hospice nurse that she wished I could move the date of the bar mitzvah up.
When the nurse told me about Mom’s wish, I was crushed. We couldn’t change the date of our son’s bar mitzvah, but my husband and I came up with another idea: If Mom couldn’t come to the bar mitzvah, we would bring a trial run of the event to her.
With no time to waste, we had a family brunch the very next Sunday at Mom’s home. Our beloved rabbi came, wrapped Avi’s brand-new tefillin on his arm and his head for the first time, and then Avi practiced chanting part of his Torah portion. In that Torah portion, V’etchanan, Moshe recounts his disappointment that, despite his fervent pleas, God would not allow him to live to enter the land of Israel. Once again, the 3,000-year-old Torah resonated in our lives today in a way that was too deep for words.
We took our last photos of Mom and the family that day, but I cannot bear to look at them; the photos I keep at my desk and around the house reflect her earlier health, her true life spirit and beautiful glow.
Mom passed away two weeks before Avi’s bar mitzvah. My mourning week of shiva coincided with the first nine days of the Jewish month of Av, historically a time of tragedy for the Jewish people. When I got up from shiva, I rushed to finish the details of the bar mitzvah that there had been no time for: menu planning, seating arrangements, getting suits tailored.
Fittingly, Avi’s bar mitzvah fell on the Sabbath that is also called Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation. “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God,” Avi read from the book of Isaiah. I held tight to that promise as I listened to my son read.
The day could not have been anything but bittersweet for us, but our pain was somehow balanced by the joy in our son’s rite of passage into Jewish manhood, and by the very distinct sensation of Mom’s spirit filling the room, emanating from her well-deserved seat in heaven.
Judy Gruen’s latest book is the highly acclaimed memoir, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith.” Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Jewish Journal, Jewish Action, Aish.com, and many other media outlets.