In the blessing "Asher Yatzar," we Jews thank God for the miraculous workings of our bodies. I think of this as my mother is hooked up to machines in the hospital. My dad has been in and out of hospitals for years, but here we are because as my mother told the doctor, "I'm just a little stressed."
The older physician said, "I've got news for you. This is the severest case of anemia I've ever seen. You should be about a 12 or so and you're a 5. Oxygen isn't getting to your body. I'm sending you to Intensive Care and you need a blood transfusion."
My 71-year-old mother said okay and whispered to me, "You'll give me your blood, right?" Then Mom determined she didn't want my blood anymore because I once contracted hepatitis in Israel. "No, it's dirty. I'll get Daddy's blood."
The staff convinced her that using our family's blood would take much longer, that the Blood Bank was safe, and so they ordered blood. Like take-out. What's your blood order, light or sweet? Meanwhile, the second doctor asked Mom her symptoms.
"I'm just run-down from taking care of my husband after his many operations," she explained. "That and lack of sleep." Although she was told she had anemia and was about to get the first of four blood transfusions, the old story reappeared. When asked if she had any shortness of breath, fainting, etc., she coolly answered no.
She'd gasp for air, was hot then cold. Something was severely wrong. Yet, here was my fierce Jewish mother giving some kind of Academy Award-winning performance.
I thought about her hyperventilating, unable to catch her breath in the car on the way over. After two steps up the stairs, she'd sit and rest. When walking somewhere, she'd lean on a trashcan or a car because she was so tired after a few feet. She'd burp with indigestion, gasp for air, was hot then cold. Something was severely wrong. Yet, here was my fierce Jewish mother giving some kind of Academy Award-winning performance.
The nurses and technicians had come and gone, but then one handsome doctor sat down, as if to stay. He was friendly, warm and asked many questions. "Can you walk?" he asked.
My mother believed if you were sick and complained, you wanted sympathy. That was weak. "Of course, I can walk," she said. "My daughter just wanted me to use a wheelchair to come in today."
Though her face was pallid, her brown eyes twinkled. Was this another reality? Where were my sisters, my dad and my son to vouch for the truth? It took her an hour and a half to get dressed that morning and walk two steps with my help. But the lady who refused to pay senior prices at the movie theater to avoid admitting her age was sitting perfectly poised like a beauty contestant in her red lipstick. Nobody or no bodywas going to take her joy away.
When they told my mother her lungs had filled with fluid and that she had had a heart attack at some point, she went into an anxiety or panic attack. I was confident I could calm her, but I couldn't. Hours later, she rallied, but this was the scare that shook her. This was the scare that made her aware of the limitations of her body.
"God will help," she said. But would she help herself?
Rapping the Turkey
I went outside and looked at the sky that seemed unnaturally blue. It was a few weeks before Thanksgiving, but Mom wouldn't care about the turkey, yams or cranberry. God forbid we weren't together as a family, though, or we forgot the joy. Deuteronomy 30:19 says, "I have set before you life and death...therefore choose life." My mother chooses life. No, my mother rejoices in life.
The overweight grandma with that 50s spit curl asks about her 14-year-old grandson and tells me to check on him. "Mom, focus on you," I remind her. We are in palm tree-swaying San Diego where we all live and I wonder if Southern California has made her deny her own body, ignore too much. Was it the lack of oxygen? Then I realize she's a Jewish mother who puts her family and their wellbeing before herself. Do I do that, too? Don't all Jewish mothers put our families before ourselves?
She'll never be in the kitchen stuffing a turkey when the crowd is in the living room.
For Thanksgiving, she'll suggest going to a restaurant as "who wants to be stuck in the kitchen?" But my sister ends up cooking for us every year, much to our relief. Although not domestic, my mother remains the Jewish mama, the center of our family. My son and my mother will offer my sister Risa a backdrop of rap music to baste by. "Make it louder. I like this song!" And the music will be so loud and my mother will probably grab my hand and before long, she'll stand up, and we'll dance up a storm. Whether things are up or things are down, her love for life is fierce. She'll never be in the kitchen stuffing a turkey when the crowd is in the living room. What? And miss out on everything?
Mom was moved to the cardio wing and was doing better. Before long, most of the nurses gravitated to my mother's room as if it were a life force. She asked the nurse to sneak in an ice cream for her because she wanted a treat. The Talmud says, "In the world to come, each of us will be called to account for all the good things God put on earth which we neglected to enjoy."
Does that include all the gifts and precious moments we skipped past? I get it now. God is asking: Do we partake in unbridled joy? Do we notice the good things? Do we stop in between work and illness and cooking and caretaking to experience the pleasure of life, the beauty of the unexpected?
My mother seizes the moment. Even in the hospital, she lightens the air. She jokes with the nurses. I watch from a distance and time how long it takes for the person she's talking with to smile. It's less than 15 seconds. I'm not saying she's predictable, subtle or always easy, but she does make life fun. I saw a vanity license plate that said, "I'm alive," and thought of my mother.
Bring on the yams, but don't forget the joy.
This Brooklyn-born tough girl is the quintessential Jewish mama. She encourages and supports and she'd do anything for her three daughters. And she finds the happiness and music in anything. I realize that wherever we go, she is the music. In Ecclesiastes 9:7-10, I read, "Go eat your bread in gladness and drink your wine in joy, for your action was long ago approved by God." I often forget that God exhorts us to remember joy. In between preparing for the Jewish holidays or a Thanksgiving feast, studying our heritage, rebuilding the world through tikkun olam, do we revel in the gladness our religion brings?
Bring on the yams, but don't forget the joy.
I've learned so much about motherhood and Judaism from her. What would life be without the love she confers? Her own mother was "crippled" and confined to their Williamsburg tenement; her handsome father from Vienna couldn't make a living. My mother slept on a cot in the living room and worked in Woolworth's while attending Brooklyn College. From local radio host, to publisher of a Who's Who, to commercial real estate broker, she's a survivor. She could have turned out bitter or resigned. Instead, she made every day an event, taught me to perform good deeds and acts of loving-kindness, and reassured that God always listens. God always helps.
I explored motherhood in a novel I wrote and created one particular exuberant character. I wanted this mother to have the power of my mother's spirit, to know how to jumpstart a stadium with her energy. I wanted this mother to be over-the-top, explosive with life, the woman in red. But nobody could ever be my mother.
Mom is home from the hospital now. On Thanksgiving, I'll be thankful for the miracle of my mother's body and her spirit. I'll be thankful for my Jewish mother just being alive. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes 9:4, "For to her that is joined to all the living there is hope."