I became a mom when I was really young. It hadn’t always been my plan, but my childhood and young adulthood wound up being kind of overshadowed by a lot of death, and there was a point when I found myself wanting to bring life into the world. Sooner rather than later.
The first time I felt this longing was at my Bubbie’s shiva, the second time I’d been in that powder blue living room to grieve. The first time was seven years earlier after my dad died in a sailing accident off the coast of Catalina, an event that changed the trajectory of my life. When I was 19 and mourning my Bubbie Faygie, looking around at all the photos and furry pillows and costume jewelry, it struck me that there were no children in sight. Not a baby to be seen, no signs of new life or unironic laughter. I was the youngest person there and I was in college. At my Orthodox great-uncle’s funeral a few months earlier, he had four children sitting shiva for him, dozens of grandchildren, and by now, almost 20 years later, countless great and even great-great-grandchildren. That is what I wanted. I wanted life. I wanted babies. I wanted sad rooms to feel a little less sad because you can’t help but laugh when you’re sitting in the pathetic little shiva chair and your baby vomits all over the special sweater you wore to bury your father.
At that point, I’d already met the man who I thought might become my husband. And I did marry him. And it was good. It still is good. Rocky for a while at the start, but when you’re young and naïve and painfully idealistic, real life can kinda bite you in the ass when it shows up in your tiny little Brooklyn apartment in the form of some pretty hardcore prenatal depression, but we figured things out.
And we had a baby.
I went into labor on July 3rd, the nine-year anniversary of my dad’s death. She was born on the 4th, which made things a little less intense, but not by much. We watched the fireworks from the hospital window on the East River and felt like they were for Shayna, our little Yankee Doodle.
The first time I saw her, I did not feel like I’d known her for my whole life, or for the last nine months, or even like I’d started to get to know her in the hours I spent preparing for her arrival by being ripped in half before my epidural. She was a whole new person I had never met before. She was tiny and pretty, with a full head of dark brown hair. And she was a total stranger to me.
But for my mom, she wasn’t completely unknown. She was a baby. A girl baby, the kind my mom knew. Shayna was the fourth in line of first daughters in our family tree. When she was born, my Grandma Ruth sat with my mom in the hospital cafeteria drinking coffee and told her that a boy baby would have been fine, but she was just so glad that the first baby was a “real baby.” My mom told that story all the time. It was good to have a real baby. And my mom helped with everything. She stayed in New York for a good six weeks after Shayna was born. And after that, she visited constantly. And Grandma would take the subway and the bus from the Upper East Side to our apartment in Brooklyn to stay with my little girl so I could run errands or go to the gym.
In the mothering department, few things were intuitive in the beginning. Whatever I didn’t know how to do, which was a lot, my mom either taught me or did for me. That meant everything from baths in the kitchen sink to testing the temperature of a bottle on her wrist to singing “I Love You A Bushel and A Peck” on repeat when Shayna was a baby, to teaching her about music and art and watching “Mary Poppins” with her when she got a little bigger, to making her coffee before school when she started ninth grade. And laundry. My mom did so much laundry.
Last year, for Shayna’s 15th birthday, we went whale watching and visited Bubbie Jessica in her apartment in Beverly Hills, seeing her in her home hospice bed for the first time. We’d all moved back to Los Angeles in 2019, and we thought eventually Bubbie would move in with us. We even thought that maybe she would move in with Shayna, because it was so obvious to us that it would be decades into the future when that might be necessary. But she was diagnosed with cancer at Thanksgiving and by June the chemo just didn’t seem to be doing very much anymore.
Shayna spent a lot of time with her when she was in treatment. She’d sleep over on off-chemo weeks and Bubbie would make her grilled cheese. They’d watch movies together in bed, and Shayna would read to her when she was staying over on a Friday night. On her last Shabbat, with all of us gathered around her, my mom told my kids that dying isn’t scary. She told us that she wasn’t afraid, that she wasn’t going anywhere, that if we ever needed anything, to just ask. And she would take care of it.
A few days later, she was gone. And there they were: children at the shiva.
I am eternally grateful that my kids knew my mom, that she knew them, that they had so many good years together. Shayna got the most.
I don’t know why the birth of my firstborn wound up so obviously intertwined with the deaths of both my parents. But my mom’s role in her life was so prominent and important. Bubbie Jessica was always there, sharing everything with us. I had to get acquainted with Shayna as she grew up, but it never seemed like my mom did. She just knew her.
I have fallen more in love with Shayna in the last year. Our shared experience of losing my mom has bonded us in a way that I didn’t expect. It’s devastating. And beautiful. And hopeful. We laugh a lot. We watch good TV together. And we cry. I don’t know what I’d do without her.
But I am getting a taste of what I’d do without her in my own home. Right now, she’s in Israel for six weeks on a learning program outside of Jerusalem. It’s her first time away from home and I spend all day waiting for her Instagram stories and texts and photos. When she goes to sleep 10 hours ahead of me, I get some things done and then count down the hours until my bedtime when it’s time for her to start her day. Watching her on her own, a whole person, having this far-away awe-inspiring experience is blowing me away. She’s getting to know herself, away from me.
And it is emotionally complicated and absolutely bizarre that I am not sharing the experience of watching her with my mom. But I do feel like she is here. She’s reading every text with me, kvelling over every photo. And she’s there, too, a voice in Shayna’s head telling her that traveling is fantastic, but it’s OK if repelling off a cliff is not, and that she is old enough to tell a rock climbing adventure guy that no, I will not be jumping off that ledge with a rope to prove how passionate and brave I am. I am brave just for being here.
Yesterday, I helped Shayna do laundry on FaceTime. And today, I’m ordering clotheslines and pins to Israel because she couldn’t find any at the local market and the circuit breaker in her Israeli dorm keeps shutting the dryer off. She doesn’t really know why she needs this special laundry delivery. But I’m sure it’s what Bubbie Jessica would have done.