Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mourning, Before Death

I hesitate to continue in the vein of the previous post, but time demands certain responses. My aunt is dying of cancer. I read the story of Emily Arndt with such sadness because I am watching a similar but yet very different story unfold before my eyes.

My aunt--she's my father's brother's wife--is in the end stages of breast cancer. She's my only aunt. I was terrified of her as a child, and only learned that she was human when I was about 18 (when I discovered that it was possible for adults to be human). She had a double mastectomy 6.5 years ago and a year and a half ago, just before that 5 year mark, the cancer came back with a vengeance.

She has asked permission, in not so many words, from her family to let her die. She has two fabulous adult children, two amazing children by marriage, and four smart, adorable grandchildren who love her very much. Then there are her nieces and nephews, 6 in total and 4 extra spouses, who love her for being the aunt who always called, who always cared, who always sent cards and gave hugs and understood when our parents never did. And now, 6 grandnieces and nephews. A total of 4 brothers and sisters in law, and one healthy as a horse almost 90 year old mother in law who herself is a survivor of breast cancer.

I ache about this. It is not just that I will be losing a woman who I deeply respect, someone who has truly taught me what being there for someone really means, and someone who was so deeply connected to her Judaism that she literally lived and breathed the fulfillment of hachnassat orchim and bikkur cholim. I ache for children losing their mother long before the right time to lose a parent (which is obviously never, but old age helps to soothe a loss). I ache for grandchildren who will won't make any more memories of grandma and will miss the way she cuddled them on her lap (even the older one). I ache for my uncle, who hasn't been the same since the cancer reappeared and in spite of his tough outer skin, is experiencing a deeper pain than I pray anyone ever has to know.

My resolution is as follows. I will "be there" when I am needed. Whenever that is.

And I will learn to crochet washcloths.

When my son was born almost 3 years ago, my aunt and uncle showed up at my apartment with a trove of goodies, from Baby Einstein videos to board books and toys, all the products of having had 4 grandchildren and learned from experience. But in that trove of real treasure were two hand crocheted washcloths.

No other washcloths will compare. They are amazing for washing, they hold so much water and squeeze out so nicely and they are the loveliest babygift I may have received. They even hold enough to rinse the shampoo out of a little boy's hair. They are the kinds of things that become heirlooms. And when the time comes, I will learn to crochet those washcloths because that is the way I would like to keep my aunt's memory alive.

Now, mind you, I am not a handy girl. I don't bake and I don't do handiwork. I can build an Ikea bookshelf but nothing more complicated than that. However, this strikes me as a vivid way of actively honoring my aunt and helping others understand how special she a person she IS. And somehow, this work of learning to do this, will be a healing process, a chance to honor a truly great woman, and to pass her love to others in a way that would make her happy.

It is crass, beyond crass to mourn for someone before their death. But in a way, realizing the eventuality prepares us to mourn properly. Shiva is meant to lead us through the mourning period with structure, shloshim to keep it going a little longer, and then the entire year to stick with the idea of loss and make it a part of the fabric of your identity. Because I am not obligated to say kaddish, I will mourn for her in my own way, and make washcloths.


Maya said...

Gluckel, I'm so very sorry. It sounds to me that what you're doing is remembering, in advance of losing it, the life you're going to miss. That's a wonderful thing to do. And I think you'll make great knitted washcloths. (What a good idea!) Knitting is a lot easier than it looks. I learned how to do it when I tried to (ahem) quit smoking the first time. (Getting pregnant finally gave me the incentive to really quit).

Anonymous said...

Today (2nd day of Chanukah) was my mother's yahrzeit. She also died of cancer (though not breast cancer) far too young. She taught me how to crochet when I was quite young. I never did figure out knitting until long after she died.

Try to treasure the moments that you have now. I know that it is hard. I had a harder time with the dying than the death.

mother in israel said...

So sorry to read this. Your post wasn't crass at all.