Our mother was dying, and we were singing. Not in joy, but in sorrow. Our mother had a beautiful voice and our childhood is filled with memories of it. So, as she lay dying, we did what made sense to us, to ease her on her way. We sang to her.
Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. Judaism is infused with music. When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, after fleeing Egypt, they broke out in song. To usher in the Sabbath, Jews sing to the Sabbath bride, welcoming her with a gentle melody. And to hear the Torah portion in synagogue? It is chanted, not read.
Yiddish was my mother’s first language, despite the fact that she was born in this country. Her Polish-born mother, a beautiful woman with a sweet smile, sang her childhood songs in Yiddish to her six children. But as an all-American girl, born in 1924, our mother was more likely to sing and dance to songs of the 40s—”Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me!)”—or to the show tunes she listened to over and over again in the 1960s, when we became the proud owners of a huge, wooden stereo.
The plaintive voice of Oliver Twist —please, sir, I want some … more …—or the sexy, passionate sound of Anita from West Side Story; those are songs my mother and her three daughters sang and danced to repeatedly. And when we did, in the basement of our Long Island home, we were celebrating: our spacious home, our family, our American-ness, our beauty and our voices, singly and in harmony.
But now she was taking her final breaths, and she knew it. My two sisters and I were there, surrounding her, a Jewish Pietà, at her head, at her side, at her feet. We talked to her, we stroked her, we hushed her. We could not calm her.
And then we began to sing. Not a show tune, not a rendition from the Andrew Sisters, not even Frank Sinatra. We sang a song that combined memories of her mother with her first language and with her Judaism–Oyfn pripetchik brent a fayerl,
Un in shtub iz heys,
Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh,
On the hearth, a fire burns,
And in the house it is warm.
And the rabbi is teaching little children,
And then. Quiet. The fretful thrashing ceased. She listened. She slept and soon thereafter, she took her last breath. She had shared with us her love of song and singing throughout our lives. It was our bond. And when she was ready to leave, we knew what we had to do—one last harmony together.