It is the evening of Yom Kippur, the famous Kol Nidre service. The shul is a courtroom. All sinners are invited to enter. The judge will soon appear. My mother is bobbing her head beside me. Her wheelchair and helper are stationed outside. “Anytime you want to leave,” I tell her, “just say the word”. I’m hoping to skip out early, but for once she seems happy. A neighbor passes my seat and presses my shoulder. “Save me a place next to you in heaven” she clucks. “You’re going to Gan Eden for sure!”
I doubt it. In order to induce my mother to die, I’ve started to imagine her funeral. I think about which shirt I don’t mind ripping at the cemetery, something nice enough, but obviously, not a favorite. I make elaborate plans for sitting shiva, who will organize the food, what to do with the dogs. I make a copy of the burial plot deed for my brother. No time will be wasted. We are both ready. For a few minutes I am free.
When my mother was still healthy, she decided to buy a burial plot. The Jerusalem cemetery was filling up fast. The municipality had been adding towers of cement bins filled with dirt, nicknamed “the parking lots.” There were almost no real plots left. She needed to grab one fast. I had to come with her and help.
A member of the Chevra Kadisha meets us at the entrance. He has a little golf cart, and a map, which we would be lost without. “I’ll be right over there” he reassures us. The plan is to walk around and check out the available spots. Somewhere out of sight, I hear a group of real mourners crying. But this part of the cemetery is quiet and green. An occasional bird lands in the branches above.
“No, not there,” my mother dismisses. “Too many steps.” To the left is an empty valley, with a shooting range at the bottom. I hear the periodic sound of gunshots. Police? Army? “I like this row,” she calls out, pointing to an empty patch next to the bottom step. “It’s close to the road and underneath a tree, so people can stand in the shade.” “Yes, everyone will be happy,” I agree. “We’ll all want to visit.”
There are lots of articles that explain dementia. I haven’t read any of them. My brother lent me a book about the rewards of honoring ones parents. I dropped it in the middle.
The Jewish calendar is organized into lunar months. There is a Kabbalistic system of mapping them, based on an ancient text called Sefer Hayitzira -The Book of Creation. Every month has its own astrological sign, human capacity, energy meridian, Israelite tribe, Hebrew letter, mystical number, and spelling of God’s name. These identify the windows of opportunity that open and close as the year goes by.
My mother is blissfully ignorant of her deterioration. It’s other people who are mistaken, who can’t remember anything, who get mixed up. Once she wandered into my bedroom in the middle of the night and demanded to know why I was in her house.
Jewish time is a circle with many stations. Every year I wonder what I’m doing here again.
One day I find her waiting in our living room instead of the meeting point we had arranged. “It kept being three- fifteen,” she explains. I take her in the kitchen and point at the wall clock. “What time is it now?” I ask. There is a flash of panic on her face. Then it’s gone.
I buy her a digital clock with big numbers. A year later I replace it with a specialty item that simply announces “IT’S TUESDAY MORNING.”
There is an argument between the sages whether God created the world in the month of Tishrai or Nissan. Tishrai is a time of fixed boundaries, or what we call judgment. Nissan is a time of flexibility, which leaves room for compassion. Gravity, hurricanes and floods have no free will. Only human beings are given the ability to transform.
My mother is sinking below the surface. She used to grab onto me. She would gladly have pulled me under to save herself.
I see old women everywhere – their canes, their walkers, a Filipino at their elbow, or worse, a daughter. They head straight for me, eyes fixed on a point in the distance, or painfully get out of a cab, bones folding. There can’t possibly be this many elderly hobbling about, but somehow I inhabit a world full of them.
In order to explain God’s workings, the sages tell us stories about the Glory of the King, princes who run away and return, castles and dangerous voyages – allegories that mean nothing to me. To imagine God’s absolute power, I picture Gadaffi, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, one crazed dictator after another.
My father is a physician. He says the human body is proof of God’s existence. Who else could plan a hidden world so delicate and complex. There is a prayer for this. It acknowledges the miracle of passages that open and close in their appointed times.
My father is still alive. In fact, my parents are still married. They simply live on different continents. Occasionally my father asks how my mother is doing. When I answer him, he immediately gets off the phone.
The last time my mother got on a bus, the driver closed the doors on her. She fell to the sidewalk and ran home embarrassed. The last time my mother left her book club, she rode the elevator to a different floor. She was lost inside the building. She was lost outside the building. The last time my mother set the table, she circled it several times. Every half circle she put down a fork, or maybe a knife.
My mother is not a whiner. My mother does not complain. My mother has long sharp fingernails that curl inwards.
In Hebrew the words world and hidden come from the same root. It is obvious to the sages that we can’t see past the surface. My mother is losing language now. What’s happening inside will stay there. Today she is lying on the couch staring nowhere. She is concentrating very hard on this. Once she had a garden on her balcony, a tree to attract hummingbirds, plastic snakes to scare away the ravens. Now the ravens come and go as they please, and the neighbors no longer complain about the leaks.
Jane Medved writes mostly poetry in Jerusalem, Israel. She is the author of "Deep Calls To Deep" (New Rivers Press 2017) and the chapbook "Olam, Shana, Nefesh" (finishing Line Press 2014). She is the poetry editor of the online journal The Ilanot Review.