Photo: Joan Marcus
Caroline Bowman and Kara Lindsay in ‘Wicked’Photo: Joan Marcus
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Mourning the Mother Who Left Me Behind

I sat ‘shiva.’ I said ‘Kaddish.’ Then I saw a Broadway musical.

by
Andrew Belinfante
July 15, 2015
Photo: Joan Marcus
Caroline Bowman and Kara Lindsay in 'Wicked'Photo: Joan Marcus

When I was younger, my mother was the most important, stable, and strong-willed person I knew. She was funny, she was spontaneous, and she loved with every fiber of her being. She used to take us on late-night car rides—presumably to put us to sleep. Sometimes these adventures took us around the block; other times as far as the 24-hour ice cream store. It didn’t matter that it was barely dark, what mattered was the time we got to spend with her.

But while she presented as functional and self-aware for a lot of her adult life, she likely had some deep mental illness or psychological disorder, waiting to be triggered. For a few years after her first trigger, my parents’ divorce, she struggled with and battled, from what I could tell, undiagnosed depression. She was no longer fully present, and she did not have the same vibrancy she once did. She remained spontaneous—but mostly to her, and to our, detriment. As a teenager, I remained loyal to her and forced myself to focus on many of her positive attributes. That loyalty died the first day I saw her taking drugs and in the subsequent weeks, when her then-boyfriend forced her to stop, and I witnessed her withdrawals firsthand. I lived with my father and stepmother from then on. My mother ultimately left her relationships behind by immersing herself in a dangerous world of drug abuse. She emotionally and mentally left us and eventually physically moved away to where she could isolate herself.

For years, I dealt with the loss of my mother—wondering where she was, who she was with, whether she was thinking about me. Then, last November, I got a call that she had died. My curiosity was gone. For the first time in eight years, I knew exactly where she was. My search for knowledge about her—her joy and her suffering, and her physical presence in the world—was over.

I was immediately overwhelmed by the pressure of deciding how to mourn her. After the mechanics—burial logistics, money to pay for a funeral, transportation of her body—deciding to engage in ritual observance was not easy. She hadn’t behaved like a mother for a good portion of my life, so honoring her memory was fraught with disappointment and pain. It seemed counterintuitive to honor a dead person who, for a decade, had behaved without honoring herself, or me.

I chose the elements of Jewish observance I wanted: I sat shiva. I recited the Kaddish. I stopped shaving for 30 days—shloshim—after her burial. And then, when the 30 days were over, I chose a method of remembrance that isn’t part of any Jewish mourning tradition: I saw a Broadway show. And it turned out to be an entirely proper way to bid farewell to my mother.

***

Shiva did not seem entirely appropriate. I felt an immense amount of guilt inviting people into my home to offer condolences when this was a person whom I had not spoken to in eight years—someone I struggled to remember. But it seemed too important to avoid entirely. I decided to sit shiva for one day instead of the traditional seven. I was able to find support for this in traditional sources. Two of the most important Jewish traditions that helped in shaping my practice around this are shmu’a rehoka and likkut atzamot. Shmu’a rehoka is about someone who hears about a close family member’s death long after the death has taken place. I heard about my mother’s death close to when it happened, but a colleague and teacher of mine used this example in response to the fact that I had lost my mother long before her physical death. Likkut atzamot translates as gathering of bones. In traditional sources, when an excavation of a dead body occurs, shiva is sat for one day to commemorate and honor the death. Along the same line of thinking as the first example, we considered this as a metaphorical second death in many ways, and this felt appropriate given the circumstances. I was comforted knowing I had a deep history of respected learners supporting me. I was, according to certain pieces of rabbinic literature, not entirely obligated to mourn her at all as she was an emotionally abusive parent, but I did not feel comfortable with this and it was also not recommended to me as a healthy option.

I also decided to say Kaddish—the Jewish mourner’s prayer. I did not feel comfortable ignoring what, in my opinion, has become the most important and public piece of Jewish mourning—especially because it is also a prayer for the deceased’s redemption. As a practicing Jew, I thought it seemed almost cruel to deny my mother this ability for redemption. I was the ambassador of that redemption, and I would not have forgiven myself if I proactively ignored it. I heard time and again that there is no right way to mourn—that I needed to do what felt comfortable. So, I went into Kaddish with a desire to recite daily and said to myself if I ever felt I should stop, I simply would. Even now, I do not know how long I will feel the pull toward this marker in Jewish death ritual, but I knew I needed it then. I also found a beautiful prayer in the Mahzor Lev Shalem that helped give my mother a place in the Jewish world. It is called A Yizkor Meditation in Memory of a Parent Who Was Hurtful (it can be found here on page 292). The first 30 days of saying Kaddish was both meaningful and painful. I never got through saying it a complete time without losing my breath, and I hope I never do.

The grooming rituals of the shloshim—not cutting your hair or nails for 30 days—were a struggle for me, because I didn’t want to see myself as dirty or unkempt. I looked at my unshaven face in the mirror toward the end of the 30 days and thought: “How have I not arrived at the 30th day yet?” It had been the longest 30 days of my life, and they somehow felt incredibly unquantifiable. Had it not been for my beard, my shaggy hair, and my long fingernails, I wouldn’t have even had a clear physical marker that 30 days had passed. I struggled with how to make the 30th day feel more personal and relevant to my experience. I couldn’t let this period fade away, or merely end, with just a haircut or a nail trimming. I needed something more dramatic. I needed a way to think about a major ritual transition away from her death. I spent the day at work, then taking care of long hair and fingernails.

Then I went to see Wicked on Broadway.

I did not intend to see Wicked to end shloshim. A mourning child’s prohibition against seeing musical theater extends past shloshim, for 12 months, so this was technically not permitted. But I had purchased the tickets months in advance and later realized the date of the show coincided with the final day of shloshim and I was, in some small way, excited about this act of defiance. I was not willing to change my entire routine for my mother. She didn’t change hers for me. I also felt strongly that I needed something big to mark the separation from my time of immediate mourning to how my grief would grow, or shrink, from there.

Wicked, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman, is the story of the famous witches from The Wizard of Oz told before they arrive in Oz. Elphaba, the wicked witch, and Glinda the good witch, have a friendship and audiences are given an opportunity to watch that friendship grow over the course of the musical. Where the story inevitably takes us is to how we see and perceive Elphaba as wicked although throughout we watch her trajectory and find compassion for her character. The musical’s narrative is one that allows us to see her wickedness as circumstantial and not an inherent quality of her being. She is a victim of her world in that way.

I had a profound moment of reflection seeing a show about a person everyone perceives as evil but who, in the musical’s retelling, isn’t. The woman we all know as the wicked witch isn’t portrayed as truly wicked, and I realized while I watched the show that my mother wasn’t evil or wicked either. She dealt with the types of challenges many people deal with, albeit extreme versions. I have not-so-fond memories of waiting on curbs, or in the school parking lot, for hours after a pick-up time while she was doing who knows what. I can remember a specific major depressive episode in which some combination of emotional distress and pills made her speak in unrecognizable tongues and have amnesia for close to a week. I am not alone in having family tragedy—and I’m grateful to have had stable parents other than my mother. We cannot always see mental illness, and we aren’t always made aware it exists in our friends or family, but we can learn to be more aware, we can learn to ask for help for ourselves, and we can learn to offer support to people we love. My mother either didn’t know how to ask for help, had little self worth, or both, and she unfortunately succumbed to a life of drug abuse. That doesn’t mean, though, I shouldn’t mourn for her—or try to understand and forgive her after all these years.

***

Part of dealing with my mother’s death has been acknowledging that I am in constant need of accepting who she was. Whereas before, my life continued in a way that rarely acknowledged her presence, I am now forced to think about it every day and know that parents can sometimes disappoint their children. I have learned that I can, and should, express my disappointment in her so I can be more aware of my needs and seek comfort or help when I need it. I know shloshim is designed to give people space to take the broken grief-stricken pieces of their lives and put them back together, but I was simultaneously left picking up pieces my broken mother couldn’t herself gather.

Seeing the musical was a helpful attempt at ritualizing my own experience.

I have seen Wicked more than six times in my life, and on my most recent trip to the theater I found myself grateful that the themes of the show allowed me to do what felt and seemed counterintuitive. Many people would say that seeing a musical was an inappropriate way to grieve, but this marker of my observance was defiant and spontaneous in a way that felt entirely appropriate to my mother’s memory. Each death is unique, and mourners need access to rituals that make sense within their own understandings of grief and their own religious framework. I am lucky to have found such rituals—some of them traditional, some of them not—in an overwhelmingly confusing time.

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Andrew Belinfante is director of programs at Mechon Hadar in New York City.