Yom Kippur

As the sun sets today, Jewish people all over the world will don their robes of pure white.  Even now they make their way to the Mikveh, the solemn bath of Living Waters that purify body and soul, in preparation for the Day of Awe, where we stand fasting before the King of Heaven and Earth to confess our sins and beg for forgiveness.  On this day our sins are forgiven, we are released from all vows, the slate is wiped clean for another year.

We wear white, because we are buried in white robes.  In fact, the men wear a kittle, a lightweight embroidered garment, in which they are married, and in which they will be buried.

We fast, and we wear white, because on this day we are like the Angels, who neither eat nor drink.  We wear our burial garments because on this day we are judged, as we will be on our deathbeds.

We fast for 26 hours, both from food and from water.  It’s a hard fast, especially in the Land of Israel where the air is hot and dry.  To add to this hardship, we stand for much of the day-long service.  Some people take on a personal service to stand during the entire service.

It is a day of examining the heart, a day of much weeping, a day of release from the burden of sin.

This Yom Kippur marks the first anniversary of Dad’s departure from this world.  His death.

I don’t know where Dad went when he died.  He didn’t know where he was going.  All he knew was that he was on his way out, and he was terrified.

He was sure he was going to be punished.  For what, he didn’t say.  He couldn’t say.  All he could do was shudder.  He was that terrified.

I have some ideas.

I know that he felt overwhelming guilt for things he had done in the war.  World War II.  He was sure he would have to pay for those things, one way or another, and the not-knowing gave rise to all kinds of imaginings.  He was a man who lived by imagination, by visions, by images, in the shadow-world.  It was the magic of his art, and the plague that visited his dreams.

I knew he would choose this day.  It was the deepest, darkest, most awe filled day.

Why not?  Dad never brooked folly.  If he was to die, it would be on the heaviest day of our year.

As evening approached, he gripped my hand for hours.  My hand screamed with arthritic pain, mine and his.

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Darkness fell.  His lips were dry and cracked.  I took some of the Hospice lemon flavored gel out of the cooler and brought the spoon to his lips.

He clamped his mouth shut, with the slightest shake of his head, “no.”

“Your food is spiritual now,” I suggested, knowing that this, his last Yom Kippur, would be his first and last fast.

He nodded.  It was nearly the last movement of the symphony that was his life.

He slipped into a peaceful dream, and I lay down on the vacant bed in the room reserved for dying people.

I must have drifted off, for near midnight an agonized cry jerked me awake.  I rushed to his side.  His face was twisted, his body arched.  I wanted to throw myself upon him, but I knew there was no way to save him from his pain, so I sent him wordless messages…I’m here….I’m with you…I won’t leave you…

Then I knew.  One more thing….

“Dad, it’s Yom Kippur.  Your sins are white as snow.  You are forgiven.  You can go.”

His breathing changed from the near-death Cheyne-Stokes pattern: a period of no breathing followed by several deep breaths, to the imminent-death pattern of rapid air-hunger breathing.  I called the Hospice nurse.  She gave morphine.  I called my mother, and in my doctor calm voice asked her if she wanted to be there.  At first she said no, then thought better of it and said yes.

Soon after she arrived, Dad had grabbed my hand again and I stood there, watching him struggle with the Angel of Death.  At last he knit his brow, and with a determined effort, made the leap.

Oh, how many times have I seen that look, when steeling himself for some odious task!  Dispatching a dying animal, gripping his usual weapon, the shovel…

And now, gripping his own soul, as he let go and tumbled out of his body, into….what?

His grip on my hand disappeared.  I looked at his hand, so tight just a moment ago, now flaccid and white.  His fingers, now blue sausages.

“Lower the bed.  All the way to the floor.”  The Hospice nurse and my mother obeyed.  I got my Siddur, the Hebrew prayer book, while I cried out,

“Shemah, YIsrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad…” 

Hear, O Israel, Adonai is Our God, Adonai is One….

Kaddish….

Yitgadal ve’yitkadash Sh’mei Rabbah…

May The Great Name be glorified and sanctified…

As the Deathbed Prayers stretched on, and my mother’s weeping grew louder, the Hospice nurse grew impatient and she called the mortician, who arrived with his impatient gurney.

“The mortician is waiting,” announced the nurse, just as I finished the Deathbed Prayers and was beginning to wash the body that used to belong to my dad.

I should have said FUCK OFF, this is my dad’s body, this is our religious tradition, this is Yom Kippur!

But I didn’t.

I watched them load him up, like a piece of meat.  They were casually chatting.  His dead face hung out; I pulled the sheet up to cover it.  My mother screamed.

His precious blue arm, the one that used to give me jovial hugs, had got caught between the gurney and the strap that held him on.  I pointed this out to the mortician and he fixed it, visibly irked.  My mother had declined a casket, since Dad was to be cremated.  Why waste money on a casket, only to burn it up?  No money in this deal for the mortician.

Now we have finished the twelve months of saying Kaddish, to help his soul make the journey into the Next World.  I am pretty sure I don’t believe in any Next World, but since I won’t know until I make that final leap, I leave the subject open.

Yitgadal ve’yitkadash Shmei Rabbah.

Amen.

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23 Comments

  1. I would have definitely told the to fuck off, but luckily the nurses I had told me to take all the time we needed with Hannah. We didn’t need long, once she was gone, she was gone. Luckily, hers was very peaceful, and much better than the day we learned it was imminent.

    Reply
  2. I’ve witnessed, sat & stayed with & cared for [labored] at home & Hospice, the very end stages (not there at the very time of death, but very close). My Daddy, Pop pop & ex FIL. to me awaiting natural death its alot like labor/birth. Discomfort/pain, time, unknown,,, i’m sorry the nurse was such a bitch, her line of work especially. Compassion?? Losing a parent is very hard. Hugs to you.

    Reply
  3. Hospice nurses, in particular, should be a lot more empathic than the one you dealt with! Why can’t they at least choose another place to work? Better yet, stop being a nurse at all.
    I’ve never witnessed death. Thank you for sharing your experience, especially since I know it must have been very difficult.

    Reply
    • Hi Anita,

      Actually, almost all…No, ALL, of the Hospice nurses I’ve known have been incredibly compassionate. I wish we’d had one of our other nurses, but this one had the night shift. She had come to our house many times to pick my father up off the floor. I was surprised when she got so callous. Maybe it was a reaction I’ve seen on other occasions when a caregiver couldn’t handle something and sheltered themselves from it by being rude and nasty. But you’re right. Someone who can’t shepherd a family through their loved one’s death should not be a Hospice worker.

      Reply
  4. Sending you love. xxx

    Reply
  5. Laura, painful to read that your Hospice nurse literally lost it! Her own “whatevers” got in the way of her time for compassion! I’ve seen it too many times in nursing! I know it’s not deliberate, But! Thank you for a beautiful writing of your religious tradition…praying your father in passing. Chryssa

    Reply
    • Thank you, Chryssa. He would have liked it. He had a special love for things he called “ceremonial.” That meant, for him, something solemn with rich symbolic meaning. The Jewish death ritual is certainly redolent with all that kind of stuff!

      Reply
  6. I really love to learn about other cultures and religions. This lesson was a sad one, however a lesson in rebirth also. I’m not Jewish, however I do believe that your energy never dies, just transforms.
    Remember your father, the hugs, the laughs, the times you sat silently together. . This is how he lives on. 💖
    Enjoy your rebirth!

    Reply
  7. Ohh, so he died on Yom Kippur. God bless his soul.

    You know Laura, it is just the conviction of our mind that matters. The terrorists who blow themselves killing hundreds of innocents think they are doing the word of God and jehad so they dont think that they will be punished. Why should a soldier blame himself for some things which he had to do for self preservation and the call of duty?

    May be your dad never talked it out that is why it became so heavy for him and that tormented his soul. That just goes to show how important is post traumatic counselling.

    26 hours without food and water must be difficult. I am awed by Muslim Roza where they are without water from sunrise to sunset, yours seem to be more difficult. I am glad Hinduism has become relaxed and atleast I have.

    I hope you are able to forgive yourself which is most important. God is ofcourse all love and benevolence .

    Blessings

    Reply
  8. I wish you peace and a smile
    If you scream he will hear
    If you cry he will wipe your tears
    Stay close to your heart
    And you will find your way
    Sheldon

    Reply
    • Thanks Sheldon. Screaming for years, only got more SHIT. No longer believe in a “he, she, or it.” I’m not Job. Done with it. Appreciate your words, but it’s bullshit.

      Reply
    • Lakes and rivers of tears, only SHIT to show for it. Mitzvot, mitzvot, mitzvot, tzdaka til I have nothing myself. BULLSHIT! If there is such an entity, give me relief and I will believe! Otherwise, just let me live in peace. Stop the SHIT!

      Reply
  9. Louise Sutherland-Hoyt

     /  September 27, 2015

    I can’t remember when I experienced a more moving story. My brother and other family members were with him as he took his last breath. How fortunate for us that the staff at St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno were so kind and compassionate. We sang to Dad, and acknowledged his belief that my Mother was in the room. As a WW 2 Veteran, he, too carried inner demons the seeds of which were planted in his early childhood. As he took his final breath, he heard my brother say “Anchors Aweigh, Dad”. And then, Dad was free.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for your story, too, Louise. Brought tears to the old eye-bones. Had your mother gone before him?

      Reply
      • Louise Sutherland-Hoyt

         /  September 28, 2015

        Yes. We lost mom just 8 months before. All of the remaining family including the grand kids and cousins gathered together to celebrate their lives and to scatter their ashes over the places each had chosen. It was transformational. To actually feel in my hands the substance of their bodies in the form of ashes and bone and then to cast into the 4 winds of the Nevada desert. What was amazing was hearing my daughters and nephews holler out the quotes they remembered so well of their Grama and Grampa.

        Reply
  10. This was amazing and beautiful. I wasn’t able to be with my Grandfather the day he passed, but I traveled cross-country with the two kiddos to say goodbye. He passed a week later. He rarely showed emotion, although he was my favorite person in the world and I was sure I was one of his. He never bought anything frivolous, but brought me a little stone frog from Mexico and sent me tomato plants one spring (we both loved tomatoes and ice cream…but not together). We were good buddies. Usually, I said, “I love you!” and he’d say, “and we you.” He continued this even after my grandmother’s death. When I went to see him, I said, “I love you,” and expected the usual reply, but this time he said, “and I love you.” Those were the last words he spoke while I was there, and I carry them with me.

    I’m not sure if the name of the prayer is actually “The Shemah,” but I’ve loved those words from the first time I heard them. I think it is one of the most beautiful.

    Reply
    • That is so wonderful, that your grandfather and you were able to share “I love you’s” before he went. A precious gift that so few are gifted with. Yes, it’s just called the “the Sh’ma.” When shouted by a hundred or so people, it’s awe-some.

      Reply

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