Posts Tagged ‘mortality’

Do-it-yourself empty nest blog post

April 15, 2012

This week it became apparent that the end had arrived for my 17-year-old Camry station wagon, the mommy car I bought when my daughter was 18 months old. 

The blog post seemed ready to write itself: Another sign of transition to en empty nest. Feelings of sadness, astonishment, mortality. Et cetera.

But I feel like I’ve written this same post about a dozen times so far this year. First rule of blogging: Don’t be tedious or whiny. 

So I figured: If people know what I’m going to say already, why not let them say it for me? Here goes — fill in the blanks to create your own empty nest blog post —  

Yet Another Empty Nest Blog Post

As a young adult, I fantasized about little flashy sports cars like the _________. As a good environmentalist, I drove little high-mileage cars like the __________. 

But when I became a parent, I needed a vehicle that was more ________. I envisioned ferrying bevies of children on field trips to _________  or camping trips to _________. With only one child, a minivan seemed like overkill. So we bought a white Camry station wagon, the kind with a back area that could be turned into two rear-facing seats to carry a total of seven passengers. 

The Mommymobile, almost old enough to vote / Photo by Ilana DeBare

It was huge. It was bulky. We nicknamed it the Great White ___________. The first few weeks when I looked at it in our driveway, I couldn’t believe who I had become. I was suddenly a suburban ___________. I wasn’t a person anymore, I was a Parent. And that felt so wrong! I was supposed to be someone who HAD Parents, not someone who WAS a parent.  That big white stationwagon was a symbol of all the _______  I felt about the transition to parenthood. 

Well, I got used to it and the station wagon did a sterling job for 17 years and 140,000 miles. Field trips, ski trips, camping trips. Trips to the Oakland Zoo, Fairyland, the Monterey Aquarium, Marine World. (That’s before Marine World got all __________.) 

Then last week the computer that runs the _________ gave out. I was told it would cost $3000 to replace it. That crosses the border into “time-to-buy-a-new-car” land. 

And since B. is going off to college in four months, the next car won’t be a station wagon. It will be smaller. Probably a _______ or maybe a _________, since I remain the good environmentalist.

I can’t help thinking that this is the first in a series of downsizings over the next couple of decades –- smaller car, smaller grocery bills, eventually a smaller house and someday leaving houses entirely for a _________. 

The parenting period of my life is ending.

Even scarier, the expansion period of my life is ending. 

I don’t want to be morbid, and I know there are lots of upsides to this transition, but I still feel __________.

Eighteen, chai, life

December 13, 2011

My daughter turned 18 this past weekend. Eighteen!

I remember so clearly being home with a new baby, sleepless and overwhelmed and terrified of losing my independent adult life. Every half-hour seemed to drag on for a year. (Especially at 3:30 a.m.) The nurse/diaper/cry/nurse routine felt like it would go on forever. I couldn’t imagine her sleeping through the night, let alone going to school.

The juncture she has reached now — turning 18, a legal adult, applying to colleges — would have seemed as impossibly distant as Star Trek’s 23rd century. But of course here it is, and like going through a Trekkie wormhole, it feels as if practically no time has passed.

Ice cream cake with Rollos and Kit Kits, by my sister-in-law Esther / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I could write about how proud Sam and I are of the person that B. has become. But I won’t.

Instead I want to play with numbers, which is a polite way of saying I want to write about me.

She is 18. I am about to turn 54.

Eighteen is one-third of 54. I look at her and see my life divided into neat thirds: From birth to 18, I was growing up. From 18 to 36, I was an independent adult. From 36 to 54, I was a parent. Yes, I continued to work as a journalist, but my main creative energy went into being a parent and into projects that spun off from parenting (helping start the Julia Morgan School for Girls, writing a book about girls’ schools, etc.).

Now my next 18 years will take me from 54 to 72. What will that entail? A return to being the independent adult, a chance to invent a new career, more time for fiction writing?

Eighteen also connects to the word “chai” in Jewish tradition. The Kabbalist mystics assigned numerical values to each Hebrew letter, and the chet-yud of “chai” add up to 18. I learned this around the time of B.’s bat mitzvah, when she started receiving checks from relatives in weird random amounts — a check for $36? or $72? It was mystifying until someone explained the tradition of giving sums that are multiples of “chai.”

And then 54 — thrice eighteen — is the age at which my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died two years later. Almost two decades after that, I learned that I had inherited the BRCA2 gene that creates a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. I undertook preventive surgeries so my actual risk of breast/ovarian cancer is now very low — lower than that of the general non-BRCA population. But still, the age 54 carries undefined emotional weight for me. I’m not sure how I will react to it. Part of me irrationally assumes I will follow in her path, and that age 54 signals doom. Another part is prepared to celebrate every day after 54 that I’m cancer-free — Hooray! I made it another day longer than expected!

What does this all add up to, all these 18s and multiples of 18?  B. took the graphing calculator to school for her math final today, but that’s not why I’m stymied.  Perhaps this is just continued perplexity at the strangeness of a system where children’s birthdays inspire joy and wonder, but our own aging feels scary and bittersweet, if not downright sad.

At some point in those years between 18 and 54, birthdays shifted from being a moment when doors perpetually opened more — and more! and more! —  to a moment when they wobble on their hinges and maybe start inching towards closure.


Small cat, long lens

April 18, 2010

For the past three months, we have had a kitten. I’ll try not to bore you with too many Insufferable Pet Owner stories (are they worse or better than Insufferable Parent stories?) about how cute, charming, playful, affectionate, well-tempered and utterly sweet he is. I’ll just make two side points before getting to my main point: 

  • Side Point # 1: He is a particularly Loved Cat since both Sam and I are allergic to cats, and had to give away two cats several years ago. This one is a Siberian, a breed that often has lower levels of the allergen that bothers humans, and came from a breeder who specializes in breeding for low-allergen levels. We had a dicey few weeks there at the beginning, but with two visits to the allergist and a slight adjustment of asthma medications, we are A-OK and cat can stay. 
  • Side Point #2: He has been a blessing for my relationship with Becca, our 16-year-old daughter. Becca really, really, really, REALLY wanted a cat. She has been visibly happier since we got him, which for a teenager dealing with all the usual teen angst is no small thing. And we suddenly have a shared activity. She comes home from school, and instead of closing herself in her room with her iPod, we play with the cat. Or tell stories about the funny things the cat did earlier in the day. Or kvell together about what an incredibly excellent cat he is. The cat has, amazingly, made home into a place where this 16-year-old wants to be. Which makes us all happier. 

But enough pet gushing. Here’s what I really wanted to say: 

I think about this cat getting old and dying a lot. 

Typical morning: I’m at my computer and the cat is sitting on my lap. He’s about six months old, small and still growing. I stroke his soft fur. I smooth his ears back, which he likes. And I imagine him an old cat, kind of scrawny and drooling and not doing so well at getting to the litter box in time. I picture him moving slowly, playing less and sleeping more, trying to jump onto things and not being able to make it. I can see in my mind’s eye what this kitten will look like at the end of his life. I can almost feel it when I pet him. 

I never thought about this stuff with our earlier cats.  I didn’t think about them getting old, or running away, or getting run over. And when we got them, I didn’t think, “Okay, this is a 15-year commitment I am getting myself into.” 

Similarly, when I was pregnant with Becca and she was a baby I didn’t think into the future. I didn’t think about all the things that could go wrong – the  genetic diseases, prenatal conditions, infant crises. (By contrast, there was a pregnant woman in my prenatal water aerobics class who was a pediatric nurse who worried about a million ailments whose names I didn’t even know. She knew too much for her own good.) 

I didn’t try to imagine what Becca would be like in the future – didn’t try to picture her as a preschooler or teenager. I couldn’t have imagined it even if I tried: I didn’t have a clue what preschoolers looked or acted like! Basically, I read one chapter ahead in the parenting books and lived in the present. 

Now, with cats at least, I know. We had one cat who got cancer and had to be euthanized. We had another who was run over. I have friends with old cats and sick cats. 

If we’re lucky, of course, this cat will live to a ripe old age of fifteen or sixteen. And if I’m lucky, I will outlive this cat. I will bracket his life in mine – I will know him when he is a crazy, funny kitten and then a staid adult cat and finally a doddering old cat. There are not a lot of other beings that we can say that about. Our parents? Even if we witness the end of their lives, they were around long before we were. Our children? Hopefully they will be around long after us. Maybe our siblings, but our lives move in such parallel tracks that it is hard to have that kind of “bracketing” perspective. 

So what’s the point of all this? I’m not sure. It does make the cat even more precious to me. 

And I’m aware that this is not a perspective I would have had ten years ago with our previous batch of cats. It’s one of those midlife things: I think about endings now. 

Not to get too lugubrious, but…. it makes me sad, and reminds me of the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and his poem to the child Margaret who is saddened by trees losing their leaves in the fall:  

It is the blight man was born for

It is Margaret you mourn for. 


P.S. On a lighter note, the kitten is named Bowie.  That was Becca’s idea, after David Bowie. And he truly is the most wonderful, affectionate, cute cat in the world.  

(Speaking totally, completely, 100% objectively, of course.)


Bowie in fine kittenish form

Invasion of the Jewish Undead

January 9, 2010

If adding a few zombies can put Pride and Prejudice on the bestseller lists, why not this blog? 

Sad to say, though, I’m not really writing about zombies today. Nor even about vampires or werewolves. Instead, let’s talk about Jewish conceptions of an afterlife! 

(Clunk. That’s the sound of my readership plummeting to rock bottom as all the zombie fans realize this is not their kind of undead discussion.) 

As part of my ongoing meetings with my rabbi, I recently read two books about Jewish ideas of an afterlife – What Happens After I Die: Jewish Views of Life After Death, by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme, and The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought, by Neil Gillman. 

What Happens After I Die is a short, easy-to-read summary of how various Jewish thinkers have approached this issue. (Like Sonsino and Syme’s other book on Finding God, it’s kind of a Cliff’s Notes for Jewish theology.) Gillman is a little weightier. 

A lot of this was new to me, since I’ve never paid much attention to what Judaism says about death. Here’s my 30-second summary: 

  • The Torah barely makes mention of the idea of an afterlife. It often talks about death as a return to dust. (“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:19)  
  • Sometimes the Torah refers to a shadowy underground place called Sheol to which all dead people go. This isn’t a place of punishment like later descriptions of Hell, just a dark silent  place. For instance, Job says, “As a cloud fades away, so whoever goes down to Sheol does not come up.”
  • By the time the Talmud was compiled around 400 C.E., Judaism had developed a doctrine of physical resurrection – that someday when the Messiah comes, the dead will rise up and God will restore them to their bodies.
  • There are various historical theories about why the resurrection doctrine developed – for instance, during an era of massive oppression and killings of Jews by the Romans, it filled a psychological need for justice. Bodily resurrection as a doctrine had its opponents (the Pharisees were pro-resurrection, while the Sadducees believed that once dead, you stayed dead). But whatever its genesis, resurrection of the dead ultimately became a key point in Orthodox Judaism.
  • Meanwhile, the Greek concept of an immortal soul that is distinct from the body was also incorporated into Judaism. Maimonides included resurrection of the dead among his Thirteen Principles of Jewish Belief, but  gave much more of his attention to immortality of the soul:

“In the World to Come, there is nothing corporeal, and no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies…. The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body.”

  • There are lots of inconsistent, sometimes conflicting, ideas about afterlife running through the past 2,000 years of Jewish thought. There’s even a Jewish version of reincarnation in the Kabbalah  – gilgul neshamot, or “revolving of souls”!
  • When Reform Judaism arose in the 1800s as an effort to bring a modern, scientific world view to Judaism, it renounced the doctrine of bodily resurrection. The Reform liturgy removed the traditional wording praising God for giving life to the dead (mechayei hametim), and instead praised God for giving life to everything (mechayei hakol).

Rather than bodily resurrection, Reform Judaism followed Maimonides’ lead and focused on the immortality of the soul. Some Reform thinkers went even further and treated immortality as an abstraction – i.e., we live on after death through our good deeds or through people’s memories of us.

Recently, though, Reform has stepped back from its historical antipathy to the language of bodily resurrection. In a bow to tradition, the latest version of the Reform prayerbook gives congregants the option of saying mechayei hametim instead of mechayei hakol.

Yow! Maybe we’ll get some zombies into this blog post after all.

 Zombies in the synagogue social hall! Zombies in the sisterhood gift shop! Zombies on the JCC basketball court!

(Although I do need to add that the Reform movement doesn’t intend for people to take the revived mechayei hametim language at face value. “Most Reform rabbis don’t accept bodily resurrection literally,” my rabbi said. “Instead, they’re talking about things that are inside all of us — parts of us that may feel dead but we want to resurrect.”)

In any case, this is all historically interesting. But what does it mean for me personally? Not much.

I can’t even begin to take the idea of dead bodies rising up from their graves seriously. I don’t buy into ideas of heaven (Gan Eden) and hell (Gehinnom). Nor do I believe that I have a soul that will live on after I’m gone, although I’d be happy to be proved wrong. And the abstractions about living eternally through good deeds or others’ memories? That always feels like empty rationalization to me – no one short of a Shakespeare or a Lincoln is really remembered beyond their children and grandchildren. And in any event, I don’t want to be remembered: I want to be alive!

Ironically, the Jewish description of death that most speaks to me is the oldest and least sophisticated one – the Biblical one.

We return to dust.

To me, that is eloquent in its stark honesty. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything or succumb to wishful fantasy. It forces us to face the painful fact of our mortality.

And as a corollary, it challenges us to live a meaningful life since it is the only life we have. That’s kind of existentialist. It’s also very Jewish – do good, be just, be kind, not to win rewards in some future heaven but because it is the right way to live life here on Earth.

It also reminds me of the song When I’m Gone, by the brilliant, under-appreciated late folk singer Phil Ochs (download it! download it!):

Phil Ochs' I Ain't Marching Anymore (1964)

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
You won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t feel the flowing of the time when I’m gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I’m gone
My pen won’t pour out a lyric line when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I’m gone
Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here
And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

Since posting this blog entry, I learned from my old college friend Eliot that Ochs was half Jewish on his father’s side! (See the comment section for this entry.) He was not actively Jewish, and I suspect he looked at all organized religion with a jaundiced, crap-detecting eye. But that song (I’ve included  just a partial excerpt) is one of the most moving and spiritual statements I’ve heard. It belongs in a siddur.