When Death Comes Around the High Holidays

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When I was a little girl in Hebrew School, September and October always came with the teaching of the High Holidays, of course. The image that always stuck with me most – from year to year – was that of God writing in his Book of Life – which I’d always pictured as big and brown and tattered.  Who would live. Who would die. I wondered if that actually happened, and how God decided. I imagined God getting to the M’s – my maiden name started with an M – and writing my family’s names down, or, maybe not.

Even as an adult, this image has always seemed to come back to my mind, God writing in a book. When did my last name come up – now a W – in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Had I properly atoned for everything that needed to be atoned for? Was I inscribed later in the week because of my last name, or did this ritual even exist? Over time, I saw the writing in the book as a story – an allegory for what it meant to atone, to be responsible for one’s life, for knowing I had done the best I could possibly do. But I still had that image of a long-white-bearded man contemplating my life – and everyone other Jew’s – over a big brown, tattered book.

Nine years ago during the High Holidays, my mother-in-law lay dying in the hospital bed we had set up in her bedroom. She had been fighting an uncommon cancer called Multiple Myeloma – a cancer I had never heard of before she had been diagnosed, that now has become more talked about since people like Tom Brokaw have it. All I knew of it when she was diagnosed was what the oncologist told us – that it often went years just sort of sitting in the blood stream – and then poof! – one day it jumped out of control and there wasn’t much you could do.

My mother-in-law had it for seven years before it went poof! We hadn’t thought about it much in those seven years after she had started taking medication to control it, so of course we were surprised – though we shouldn’t have been – when one day six months earlier, she had told us how tired she was, and the doctor had said the MM had taken off.

By July he told us that she had no more than six months to live. She had told me, as we had been driving to her doctor’s appointment that day, that she was going to ask when she was going to feel better, when she was going to get off the chemo and be able to drive and garden and do all the things she loved to do. I had silently prepared myself for the answer – he was going to tell her she wasn’t getting better. It was obvious.

She had been overwhelmed by the news and after that she declined rapidly, as though her body was just going to go along with the six months. She signed a DNR order. She made sure her will exactly as she wanted it. She spent time with family and friends.

By Rosh Hashanah, when she had always done a first-night dinner for her friends, and then leftovers of the first-night dinner for us on the second day after synagogue, sitting on her wide screened-in front porch, enjoying the last vestiges of summer or the first crisp fall days – she was too sick to make anything. Instead she stayed in her pajamas all day and we came to sit with her. We didn’t bring up the Big Book and the fact that her name would not be in it this year.

September and October brought in only more debilitation. She went a couple of days without being really cognizant. Most days she barely ate. She still received guests and we still sat by her side in the hospital bed each day, on hard wooden chairs we had brought in from the dining room that weren’t really comfortable at all. She was mostly lucid in those final weeks and she talked about things probably only the dying talked about – making sure that we knew how to sell the car and divide up the proceeds evenly, telling us how she wanted us to spend our inheritances, telling me one day, that she was afraid she wasn’t going to be able to finish the last book, a six-hundred page tome she was reading, and would never know what happened at the end.

It was an October evening when we got the call from the hospice nurse that something wasn’t quite right. My husband and I raced the thirty minutes to my mother-in-law’s house and found her incoherent, babbling, sleeping on and off. She had just been started on a new pain medication, and we assumed that was the problem.

But it wasn’t. The next morning, as I made my way to her home to see how she was doing, I don’t remember what the weather was like. I vaguely remember what I was wearing. I had brought a book with me in case I might want to stay while she slept. But the nurse was there again, and this time she told me my mother-in-law was “actively dying’ – a term used when the body is doing everything it can to let go. It was already a week or two past Yom Kippur, and I knew she had spent a lot of that day thinking.

Twelve hours later, she was dead. I listened to her chest, hoping to hear one last heartbeat, but the nurse called it for me. My beloved mother-in-law, who I had worshipped and loved for eighteen High Holidays, had died right before me. I still thank her to this day for letting me experience those most personal hours of her life.

The funeral fell right before Simchat Torah, and the Shiva had to be worked around the holiday. My husband and his brothers went to Temple on Simchat Torah at the Rabbi’s behest, and around them there was joyous dancing and singing, but all they could think about was their dead mother, and how we weren’t rejoicing.

I suppose in that big brown tattered book, by the time God got to the W’s that year, there just wasn’t enough room for her name. Or something. I don’t know. But now I do know, in the nine years since her death, when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come around, I’m even more serious about atoning and thinking about how I can improve and wanting to be better. It’s not just that I‘ve matured – which I have – or seen that I am not perfect – which I know – but that my mother-in-law took her last breaths during this time. She had not been written in the book that year. We’ll never know why.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.