This year, I became an adult orphan. Not only is there now one less person on this earth who loves and cares about me, but yet another link to my childhood and my past has been severed. As the eldest sibling, there is now no one who directly remembers what I was like as a baby or toddler.
Admittedly, in my particular circumstances, such memories vanished quite some time ago. My widowed mother having been afflicted with Alzheimer's disease for the past ten years, I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of our immediate family history.
After losing their second parent, many people report feeling anxious at the realization that they have joined the ranks of the eldest generation, thereby becoming more aware of their own mortality – there is now no one between them and death. In my own family, however, the transfer of the responsibility baton took place while my mother was still alive, as indeed it tends to do in families battling debilitating long-term illness, where adult children take charge of caring for ailing parents. I had also become accustomed to mourning my mother's gradual loss mostly silently within, and so it was quite a relief for my grief to be acknowledged publically when she died.
Grieving for my mother has been quite different to my experience upon losing my father more than a decade ago after a short albeit brutal illness. Not having been given time even to try to accustom myself to the fact that he was ailing, my grief at the loss of my father was visceral and raw, whereas my mother's Alzheimer's tended to offer some protection, often cocooning me, as it did her, from the full brunt of emotion. After all, there had been plenty of time to say goodbye. Nevertheless, on occasion, the pain still manages to pierce my defenses.
Judaism recognizes the particular relationship between parent and child by allowing a longer mourning period. While the generally accepted time is 30 days, an adult child is notably expected to honor their parent's memory by publicly reciting a prayer, known as the Mourners' Kaddish, for 11 months. While the prayer itself actually has nothing to do with death, I have found this ritual to be cathartic, as it enables me to draw on the support of my community.
It was also a relief when shortly after my mother's passing, we decided to donate all the paraphernalia associated with her illness – wheelchairs and other medical aids – to the adult day care centre, which she had attended over the past years. As her world had narrowed, the centre had become her only source of companionship apart from that of immediate family and caregivers. It felt wonderful to be able to help others, while simultaneously removing the physical evidence of an illness that had nothing to do with her essence as a person.
When embarking courageously on the process of sorting through their parents' home and possessions, others might start with the wardrobe or kitchen cupboards. We, on the other hand, have been going through reams of newspaper articles, spanning five decades, which our parents and grandfather marked and preserved to discuss with each other, often providing a springboard for their own ideas. As I turn the yellowed pages, my past comes alive … until I hear my mother's voice whispering, "Find an interest to sustain you…"
At my mother's funeral, my youngest son recited the ancient, well-known verse: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; … A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance…" (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4)
On occasion such times overlap. Indeed, just three months after my mother's death, I find myself in the throes of preparing for the Bar Mitzvah of my middle son. While joy is somewhat tempered by loss, I recognize how blessed I am as a mother myself to see my child mature and begin to take responsibility for his actions.
For it is not all about me. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, colleague, friend, I exist in relationship to others too and must still consider needs apart from my own. At times, admittedly, compromise is difficult, and yet, it is grounding to remember, especially when feeling particularly vulnerable, that I am not alone and can look outwards rather than solely within, turning my focus to strive to contribute to the world.
My parents always put their children first, teaching us to be modest and ethical, to stand up for our principles and to make the most of our opportunities.
It is now my turn to transmit their rich legacy to my own children, providing a strong foundation for their future and uniting the generations. My children may not have had the privilege of growing up in the company of all their grandparents, but at the very least I can try to ensure that they will come to understand and even cherish the values by which their elders lived.