“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” Oscar Wilde
I buried my mother on January tenth. After a long struggle with dementia, she passed away in her sleep. In the end, my father was too ill to attend a funeral service, so my sister and I had a small graveside ceremony in Aspen, Colorado where they have lived, loved, laughed and played for the last twenty five years. She was buried according to the Orthodox Jewish tradition in which she grew up– wrapped in a burial shroud in a plain pine box. This is the way that it is done—there are no fancy garments, no treasured jewelry, no viewing of the body and no silk lined coffin reinforced with steel. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, according to the Old Testament. There is no headstone placed at the time of the funeral; that comes a year later, after God has had plenty of time to judge the deceased, to decide which way they should go. Sadly, I had passed judgment long ago. And yet, the sight of my mother’s tiny coffin (always a tiny woman, no more than ninety pounds when she died) being lowered into the grave next to my dead brother was almost more than I could bear.
I don’t do funerals well and I never will. Despite the fact that I am very good at writing eulogies, I cannot and do not deliver them. I told my younger sister this ahead of time: “I don’t do funerals. You will have to speak.” She asked me why. I explained to the best of my ability that it has to do with the work I do in my everyday life as a radiation oncologist. Most of the time, I am able to submerge those feelings of grief and sadness at what my patients and their families are going through and my rage at the unfairness of it all. I shove it right under, bury it deep, don’t think about it and don’t dwell on it. But going to a funeral, and generally speaking, I do not attend patients’ funerals for this reason, all of the emotions like oxygen starved divers push their way right to the surface, gasp for air, take a deep breath and come pouring out in an uncontrollable torrent. The ghosts of every patient that I ever cared for and cared about surround me—they grasp for my hands and my legs, they perch on my shoulders and they whisper in my ear, “Let it go. Let it all out.” And I do.
I never got along with my mother. I can say it now. As an adult, I began to understand who she was, and why she was the way she was, and that in her own way, she loved me and I of course loved her. I can even laugh about it, in my better moments—in the last lucid phone message she left me, she threatened to disown me and write me and my three children out of her will. Actually, it was only two of my three children—there was one who was spared her wrath. I saved that message on my cell phone for two years, and sometimes I would replay it just to hear her voice again, after she had become mute. Then one day I accidentally erased the message. It’s just as well. There are better memories of better days.
As my mother was lowered into her grave, I whispered, “I forgive you.” Rest in peace, Mom.
RITA SILVER SPIRA, September 11, 1931–January 7, 2013