When I went to see my dad at the nursing home in Pittsburgh over Passover, I expected him to be more diminished in someway. I expected to see additional physical evidence of his deterioration–or some kind of indication that the end was near, besides the obvious terminal diagnosis. Because that’s why I was going–to tell him it was OK to go, to give him a hug and a kiss, and to say goodbye.
After 10 long years of suffering from early on-set dementia, my dad was confined to a wheelchair. He was unable to recognize anyone, or use the bathroom, or verbalize anything. I showed him some pictures of the grandkids on my phone and he seemed to nod and grimace. We sat outside on a beautiful spring day and he looked around, tugged at his diaper, and leaned forward in his wheelchair, stretching his back. I stroked his hand until it stopped shaking and told him that he was a great dad, an amazing dad, that I was fine, that mom would be OK, and that he could go.
Back at home in New York, just about one month since I saw him, I got the tearful call from my mom saying, “Daddy died.”
My almost 3-year-old and one day shy of 5-year-old cuddled with me on the couch while I cried. “Is Grandpa Barry really dead?” “Why are you crying?” “Are we really going to leave him in the cemetery?” “Will I see him again when I die?”
My husband distracted the kids while I made some really difficult calls to my family and my dad’s best friend from growing up. I sent a bazillion emails to friends who knew my dad when he was well and friends who have supported me over the last decade of struggles and sadness. I put up a memorial page for him on the Alzheimer’s Association website. I did laundry and talked on the phone, and cried on and off while trying to figure out the logistics of being a mom, a daughter, a wife, and a mourner. I had 10 years to plan for this moment, but it still caught me off guard.
I wanted to be there next to my mom–cleaning up the house, crying together, and making lists of people to call. I wanted to make the beds, get the rooms ready for out of town family, and go to the funeral parlor with her. I wanted to call our rabbi for her and help her make the arrangements for the service. I wanted to figure out which meals we needed to plan for and which ones our friends and family would provide. I wanted to go through my dad’s closets and finally bring those bags to the charity my mom really likes. I wanted to be physically and emotionally present for mom in a way that I haven’t been able to since I became a mom myself. Although we talk just about every day, it’s often in between kids clamoring for my attention, or a work deadline looming overhead, or through the exhausted haze of parenting. And when we’re actually together, we’re often running past each other, handing off childcare and kitchen duties, unable to stop and just be together.
But my mom said it really didn’t make sense to leave my kids, miss my older son’s birthday, and have my husband drive eight hours alone with two rambunctious boys a few days later. The funeral was pushed until Wednesday so that gave me time to travel with them.
But I still wanted to sweep in like a fairy godmother for my own mother–like she has done for me so many times. I felt guilty and bitter and resentful that I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be because I had a husband and little kids to consider. I felt like a failure–that my kids are so physically and emotionally attached to me, that I’m the primary parent to a fault, that they are a handful for anyone (even me), that I couldn’t be there for my mom.
I think of myself as the helper, the organizer, the do-er. I am the person who collects the money to buy the shiva basket on behalf of the class. I am the person who cleans out the fridge and disposes of the giftwrap and freezes the cookies and donates the flowers. I am the person who hugs, and cries, and listens and texts and leaves messages that start with, “please don’t feel any pressure to call me back, I just wanted you to know that I’m thinking of you” when a friend is in mourning. I am not the person who “sits.”
But then the shul called to say that they could bring over the mourner’s chair as well as siddurim for when I’m back in New York for the end of shiva. And it took me a moment to realize that the chair was for me. I am the mourner. I am supposed to be “sitting shiva.” And I cried, because I realized I don’t know how to let others take care of me. I don’t trust that food will magically appear at my mom’s house. That her friends will stay late after the funeral and clean up so she can crawl into bed. That my husband will be able to watch the kids so I can mourn. That I will be able to sit.
So I called my mom for the millionth time in two days. She told me how her friends were stepping up, stopping by, being with her, baking macaroni and cheese for the grandkids, and arranging a giant feast for when we return from the cemetery. I told her that my dad’s cousins and their amazing children had arranged another meal for us, and my friends here in New York were taking care of everything for the end of shiva. My Shabbat group from the Bay Area and my Shabbat group from Texas and my ex-boyfriends and my eternal roommate from college were all reaching out, connecting with each other, and banding together. And as for my husband, he promised to wrap things up at work, drive those eight hours with me and our two boys, take care of the kids so I could help my mom, and give me time during shiva so I could think.
My mom softly reminded me that we don’t sit. We’re caretakers. We will welcome and host our friends and family from out of town. We will thank everyone who sends an email, or takes off work, or gives us a hug, or stops by. We’ll make them feel good about everything they did and continue to do to support us–because we are so thankful. They are caretakers, too. We’ll cry with them, and by ourselves, and mourn over a long period of time. Not just one week of “sitting,” but a lifetime of remembering and honoring my father, and mourning his tragic death.