|This piece originally appeared on my personal blog, Outside the Circle, at cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Head over there to sign up for announcements whenever I post new pieces, and/or feel free to share this one.|
That is my mom’s name. That was her name.
Today, July 28, is — would have been — her birthday.
We had this ritual, on this day, she and I.
I would gift wrap a Vermont Life desk calendar. The annual calendar consists of 52 spectacular photos of this most beautiful of places, set opposite 52 pages of 7 days each of clean space, which my mom would fill in with the details of life. She always knew what was hidden by patterned paper and ribbon, but feigned joyful laughter at wondering, before opening. Vermont was the land we loved best, as holder of best family times, best memories.
Last year, I knew the calendar would be her last. I also suspected she wouldn’t even put pen to its paper, ahead of the new year, as she usually did, to jot down upcoming dates in her perfect script, albeit shaky from chemo and arthritis. I had to keep to ritual, though. I had to keep to life, even as it edged close to death.
The 2014 calendar remains pristine. Images without words. Pages without meaning.
I couldn’t bring myself to use it.
But without her calendars to refer to, going back years, I can’t remember lots of the minutia that, when compiled, makes up meaning. Like when I was last in Madison to visit my sister Karen, as I am now on this birthday that isn’t. Like where I took my mom for her birthday meal last year, whether I packed her walker or had to declined to the wheelchair stage, what she ordered, or whether she could even eat much by then. I can’t recall if it was just her and I, or if her best friend of forty years, Mary, joined us.
Just a few weeks ago, Mary and I tried to recollect when I’d moved my mom into her last room in the assisted living community that these two friends shared in common the last year of my mom’s life. It was sometime soonish after my mom’s final birthday, yet when? Was it just shy of two months that she inhabited her last home, or was it a bit longer than two months before my mom had no need for calendars counting ahead, anticipating.
I did the same for Mary this July, moving her into her last room, her last home, for whatever time she has left. We both commented on how my mom would have been so glad for how close Mary and I have become, and how I came back here to help, and will again, in what seems a cyclic rhythm. We both paused, recording this event in our silence. A moment, a day, written only on air.
Where does life go when the markers are removed?
I had an urge to create a new ritual on this July 28. A ritual I didn’t realize until I remembered those calendars, because of course, without my mom, I’d forgotten the imperative to order one, always slightly ahead of when anyone else was thinking of the following year and its future promises. I had this desire to get a rectangular 2015 Vermont Life desk calendar, look through all the photos of seasons and cycles, then wrap it, as if in a winding-sheet, and place it, pristine too, side by side with the untouched 2014 calendar.
From year to year, absence will pile up, memorializing.
That is my mom’s favorite pie. That was.
It was her best friend’s favorite too. “Just rhubarb; no strawberry!” Mary always emphasizes to me now, with exuberance.
Rhubarb, straightforward, like the two of them.
Mary and my mom also had favorite spots to get their pie, when the rhubarb reached its perfection in mid-Michigan. In small towns. Necessitating, too, a country drive. There, big pieces would be dished up in diners for two women who savored every morsel, remarking with pleasure on the taste, texture, or color. The friends appeared overly sweet to the waitresses, nearly always smiling, but they both knew it was the tartness of rhubarb that they appreciated. “Lots of rhubarb; not a lot of sugar!” Mary declares still.
Life had handed them each much that would make anyone bitter. Instead, they savored their lives, just as heartily and honestly as they savored desserts, which of course my mom always meticulously noted in her desk calendars. As Mary mentioned of late, when bad things happen, people mostly ask, “Why me?” They should ask, rather, “Why not me?” What can I learn from tasting fully from all that life serves up?
The last time that Mary got my mom a heaping piece of rhubarb pie, from their all-time favorite village eatery, was too unexpectedly soon after my mom’s last birthday. One of Mary’s daughters had taken her for a country drive. My mom couldn’t join them, because she’d checked herself into a hospital with a 10 out of 10 pain in the hip where her cancer started — the cancer that would end her. Mary and her daughter accidentally drove by the pie place, and Mary had to get a slice to bring back to my mom, as gift of joy amid suffering. At the hospital, my mom’s face still carried happiness, openly, eagerly, as if there would be more birthdays and more rhubarb, but it also wore the now-inevitable mask of death.
I took her home, back to the assisted living community where Mary still lives today, right down the hall from the room where my mom died, her dignity intact. My mom’s last slice of rhubarb pie remained untouched, intact too, like that 2014 calendar of hers.
My sister and I were joking yesterday about how, precisely, we should celebrate our mom’s birthday today, which without question, we both knew meant: What should we eat for our mom? An appetite for life was, in our family, an appetite for the pleasure of food as well. Ice cream? Cake? Dinner at Denny’s? “Denny’s! That’s perfect!” laughed my sister.
Food wasn’t just about pleasure in life; it’s become a pleasurable signal of life after death. Our comic character of a psychiatrist uncle always said that after he died, he’d come back as a pastrami on rye, and eerily, there’s been one too many pastrami on rye appearances at the most uncanny of crucial instances. So we made our dad, on his deathbed, pick his afterlife form, and he settled on chicken soup with matzo ball.
We forgot to ask our mom. My sister Karen and I have fallen back, happily so, on 11:11, which like millions of other folks, my mom always thought had some sort of meaning when she noticed it on a clock or wristwatch. She’d often say, “When you see 11:11, think of me.” I do now. Always.
But this morning, lost in thought about this birthday, lost in wishing I’d gotten that 2015 Vermont Life desk calendar, I randomly picked a cafe to work in — one of several that I almost chose. It’s a bakery with all sorts of warm, comforting breads lining wooden shelves, and good, strong coffee. Yet in a glass display case, one spies a few desserts as well.
July 28: rhubarb fruit bars.
Maybe my mom did pick her food apparition after all, with its “barb” tucked at the end, like an exclamation point. “See, I’m here, with you today! RhuBARB.” My dad, if he were alive, might chime in at this point, never able to resist a pun, “I know, she’s not quite a pie, but she is a bar[b].”
I tried to breathe in the deliciousness of this sign, as if my mom were somehow with me on her birthday still, yet all I managed was bittersweet.
That is one word. There are, there could be, so many others.
Today is not just a birthday, was not just a birthday from days gone by, only a year ago. It is also Eid al-Fitr, a celebration that wasn’t.
My mom, Barb, taught me that being Jewish is more an ethic than a religion.
She was agnostic, sharing, with my dad, a sense of wonder at life. When they married, she studied with a rabbi and became Jewish, and they raised me with the notion that Judaism is about aspiring to be a good person, meaning to do good in the world. With and for others.
I stand helpless this not birthday, not Eid al-Fitr, unable to do much, if anything, from my small slice of this world to halt death, other than witness. Just as I was unable to do so last July 28.
So too many other words spring to mind today. Words that don’t contain my mom’s name, despite the fact that her father perpetrated all sorts of acts of barbarism against her for over a decade when she was a teen. To him, she was Babs. His barbs stuck in her, forever cutting away parts of herself. He tried to steal away her name, erase her person. She took back her name. She strived to make the rest of her life into a series of desserts, frequently, alas, skipping too much of the nutrients she needed to become fully who she might have been, could have been.
In hindsight, it struck me this day, trauma might make for a love of rhubarb, where the unpleasant tang can never be fully hidden, so why bother with strawberries. It’s enough to try to hold, with strength and grace, what fruits we can gather from lives that have more than their fair harvest of misery, until resistance makes for sweeter times.
Pages are being ripped from so many lives this July 28 in Gaza. Calendars ended. Days ahead forever gone.
Too many winding-sheets around too many little bodies, too many bodies in pieces, with precious little time for memorial. Just side by side by side, sadness.
“Only a minute ago, I was combing my brother’s hair, and then he went out to play and was gone.”
“If I die now, remember, I was a human.”
“We kiss each other good-night, not knowing if we’ll see each other in the morning.”
Barbarism is simply one word that can’t even come close to encompassing the calculating violence of drones and bombs, soldiers and settlers, heads of state and bureaucrats, NGOs and mainstream media, and other powers-that-be.
Savagery. Brutality. Cruelty.
This day, this Eid al-Fitr, is documented in blood-red ink, which even when washed away, will forever stain this July 28. It is a photo album, blood-red also, compiled hastily in tweets, passed around with reverent horror, among the family of people who still retain their ethical compass. It is the start of a yet-unknown ritual, for each Eid al-Fitr to follow, each not Eid al-Fitr.
This July 28, as I remember my dead, I — we — begin the process of remembering others’ dead, those we never knew, newly murdered this day that should have been a celebration. We start to recall the inherent worth of each person.
We do this as acts of dignity. We do this as means of honoring those we love and those we stand in solidarity with, and perhaps rehumanizing this world. We do this out of care, out of goodness, moved especially by the abundance of near-selfless care and goodness that those in Gaza seem to be bestowing on each other under the worst of conditions.
We struggle to make this unbearably long day a little less empty, because that is how we celebrate lives that are, lives that were.
* * *
Photo by Cindy Milstein, July 28, 2014.