My mother forbade us ever to be lost.
Nevertheless, in 1970, when I was 7, I wandered away from my parents. It was the night of Tisha B’Av and we were visiting Israel. While we were at the Western Wall, among the multitudes, I decided to venture away from the sure hands of my father and my mother. As I drifted alone through the night throngs, I was not at all worried. I was lost but thoroughly content.
I didn’t get too far before a man who had not seen my father for 25 years looked at me, a wandering 7-year-old in an ocean of jubilant post-Six-Day-War Jews. “You look like a little Chaim Feuerman,” he said. And he was right. “What are you doing alone, little boy?” I was neither distressed at being lost nor relieved at being found. With poise and tall words, I explained that I had wandered away from my parents, but that I was staying at a hotel in the Old City called the “Jerusalem Hotel.” The man flagged down an army-transport vehicle and said, “This boy is lost. Take him to the Malon Yerushalayim.” It was a fleabag of a hotel, but well-known in the Old City. The soldiers in the half-track let me hold their rifles. When they reached the hotel, they handed me over the side of the truck, but not before one very pretty female soldier kissed me.
Within a few minutes, my mother appeared and began to weep strong successive waves of tears. In between these waves, I would ask, “Why are you crying? You found me!” She didn’t answer. Instead, my father interjected, “One day you will understand.”
I will never forget that moment of distance between my mother and me. For her, a British child of the war, my getting lost was an unspeakable tragedy—albeit averted—but for me, it was the most exciting achievement of my young life.
Still, a boy feels responsible for his mother. No boy wants to see his mother sad. Her tears and near mental collapse had the effect of a thousand dire warnings. “You must never, ever be lost again,” she said.
I did my best to heed her words, but like any child, I sometimes forgot to remember. About a year or so after that Tisha B’Av, my father bought me a second-hand bicycle. It was an old clunky Schwinn, heavy, with thick tires. It had a vintage headlight that never worked well, but I was happy to have something to call mine and I began riding it all over the neighborhood.
We lived in a section of Queens where the streets would flood after downpours, and that early summer day there had been a deluge. I remember riding it through the artificial lakes that were created by the poor drainage. Round and round I would go through the muddy, darkened waters, spoke wheels churning sheets of wet. I imagined myself a soldier in Vietnam, fighting bravely, splashing through the rice paddies in a fine, steamy sunshine rain. I had a marvelous time.
After several hours I returned home to find my mother on the ground floor of our apartment building. “Where were you?” she asked, looking at me wet and muddy. My mother, who had never raised a hand to me, slapped me across the face—a forceful, stinging slap that I can still feel. Apparently, my wandering around for hours without her knowledge was an endangerment of both me and her and a violation of the contract she held with life: Hold hands, stay together, and never let go.
It is not hard to understand her deep sense of aloneness.
After all, once the bombs started to fall on London, the British government mandated for reasons of safety that she (at the age of 4!), along with thousands of other British children, be evacuated to the countryside without their parents. But it was more than circumstantial with her: My mother’s aloneness and sense of being lost was cellular. Her parents were Polish immigrants who did not speak English. She had every reason to feel that they too were “lost.” I fantasize that in 1940, on that evacuation train from London to Leeds, separated from her mother, she made an unconscious promise to herself never to feel separated or lost again.
This promise was amplified because she was, like many women of her time, raised to take refuge not in herself, but in a labyrinth of affiliations, attachments, and covenants—with home, family, and tribe. To be faithful to those things meant she would never again have to feel the terrifying feelings she had once felt.
Even as I grew to become an adult, I don’t think even 48 hours would pass without contact between us. “Call me” was her mantra: “Call me when you arrive, call me when you land, call me when you get there. Don’t get lost!”
But it wasn’t only on account of my being lost that she wanted me to call. Any danger at all, any uncertainty had to be sealed out with these warm but wearying communications. And this worked both ways. As we moved through life together, she would call me wherever she was. I have landed. I have arrived at the hotel. We are about to take off. We are home now. Well into our adulthood, she wouldn’t go to sleep until she knew where we all were. I assumed that the injunction to call at all times, and its twin prohibition to not get lost, was the price one pays for love. Or maybe just for her love.
Even all these years later, it’s impossible to say precisely how this made me feel. Like many Jewish sons, I was held in a neurotic, maternal grip, but this hold my mother had on me was also saturated with the force of a great and pure love she had for me.
And of course, we mirrored each other. With all my life force, I grabbed on to the idea that she should never be lost. It was an unconscious vow I took that I would never allow this to happen, that I would never lose her. And oddly, this vow, though terribly burdensome, was also the ballast that centered me.
Of course, no one can be protected against an illness, and as she got older, illness came. First one cancer, then another, both cured. She was shaken, but she was safe. She told my sister, “I hope to never be really sick, but if you ever see me outside without makeup then you know it’s the real thing. I am really sick.” One such morning in her early 70s, my sister saw her without makeup, and she looked wobbly. Still lucid, she was taken to the emergency room. I kept her company. I brought a book—The Adventures of Lewis and Clark and their interpreter, Sacagawea—and we read it aloud together.
While she was lying on a gurney, she asked me, “How did they know where they were going with no real maps?”
“They went by instinct, I guess,” I said. “They imagined or heard of the Pacific Ocean through the Northwest Passage and past the Columbia River and they knew they must reach it by land, like Sambatyon.”
She knew that Sambatyon was a river mentioned in rabbinic sources that raged stones, sand, fire and water six days a week, but rested dry on the Sabbath. According to legend, lost Jews like de roite yidelach of the 10 lost tribes, reside there.
Doctors came out of the X-ray room and revealed my mother’s devastating diagnosis: a glioblastoma, a catastrophe.
Shortly after her diagnosis, on erev Rosh Hashana, she called me in the morning to say goodbye, weeping loudly into the phone. “Where are you going?” I asked.
“I am going to die!” She sobbed from her depths with the same artesian pressure I recognized from that Tisha B’Av night when I was 7. She would be lost! I moved immediately to rescue her. “Why not hold on till Yom Kippur?” I asked. According to Jewish lore, it is preferable to die after Yom Kippur, after one has been forgiven.
“No, I want to die right now.”
“What’s the rush, Ma? They said you have a few months yet.”
“No, I am done!” she said. “Bring on the waters of the mikveh. I want to go.” This was not the pliant mother that I knew my whole life. There was anger, there was spirit. There was passion. I wanted her to stick around. I did not want to feel abandoned, but she wanted no part of it. It would be my turn to feel the loss.
Seeing that she was determined to slip away, I said, “Wait, Ma! It’s erev yom tov. Did you make an eruv tavshilin?” She said, “OK, I will make one.” Someone brought her an egg and a matzo and she made the blessing into the phone; one last womanly duty. “OK,” she conceded after the blessing. She drew a long breath. “I will wait till Yom Kippur, but after that: I want to go.”
But she didn’t go. She did refuse all medical treatment and her body deteriorated but death did not come, not for several months. We had some good days together, while she lay there, gently talking and joking, but she was in a place of her own—neither life nor death. What had happened to her passionate, immediate wish to die? It was there, but not as pronounced. Maybe after a lifetime of being located and defined, it was time for her to have the luxury of being lost and this time, there would be no check-ins. We would be lost permanently to each other, but maybe, just maybe, I fantasized, she would not be lost to herself.
One Shabbos morning early in January, she lay still for a long time; she smiled occasionally until she moved into a deep coma and died.
My mother’s death might have cured us both of our fears of losing each other. Somehow, in her surrender to the forces of the firmament, she showed me bravely, in that in-between time before her death, that one could, in fact, succumb to uncertainty without terror.
I think of her many times a day; I miss her and I love her still. I have lost her forever, but she is not lost.
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Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.