Press: A yahrzeit for my mother in these dark times

I don’t know what colour the grass will be at the unveiling ceremony of my mother’s headstone. Before the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the world, the service was meant to take place on a spring day in Toronto, when the grass would have flashed shades of yellow and green.

It was during shivah last May that we planned to hold the unveiling ceremony on April 12, in the 11th month of my mother’s death, just shy of the first yahrzeit.

My father, siblings and I (and our families) live in five cities in three countries. We chose this day of hol ha-moed Passover, so that all 25 of us could come to celebrate the seders in Toronto and be together for the unveiling service.

There was no way of foreseeing that this COVID-19 epidemic would align with the end of our first year of mourning.

The question for my family in Tel Aviv of whether we should move up our flight in order to be in Canada in time for the unveiling quickly replaced itself with how many of my siblings, who live closer to my father in Toronto, would be able to attend the ceremony – if one could even be held.

Israel was one of the first countries to impose strict isolation rules.  Canada and the United States didn’t take long to follow suit and shut borders.

We were and are locked out. We are also locked in.

Just writing these sentences seems so bizarre. Especially as during my mother’s illness, we all made the trek back and forth to Toronto repeatedly.

Until a few weeks ago, I was to be able to fly out of Tel Aviv on a moment’s notice.

And between October 2017, when the diagnosis of multiple system atrophy/Parkinson’s plus had been made, and May 2019, when my mother passed away, I flew back on many a moment’s notice.

The first time my mother was intubated, I flew on the first flight out. Those 11 hours of not knowing whether I’d be heading to hospital or going to a funeral home were extremely stressful.

The second time my mother was intubated, I was called back to say my goodbyes. Again, I took the first flight out for an 11-hour zero-communication flight.

And in between, the flights that followed each defeat this rare neurodegenerative disorder had over my mother’s body, I flew back-and-forth on a moment’s notice.

My family in Israel. My family in Canada. A devastating predicament of living far away from your parents: not being here, not being there.

During this year-and-a-half of frequent travel, as the disease transformed my mother into a shell of who she was, not knowing if it was safe to fly back to Israel meant not knowing if I’d get another chance to say goodbye. It had nothing to do with a grounded airline industry or fear of contracting a deadly virus.

It simply meant the doctors and palliative care team couldn’t say how much longer my mother had to live. And as such, I often kept an open-ended flight ticket, sometimes deciding to return to Israel only the night before.

I wasn’t in Toronto the day my mother passed away. I flew in with my family the next day.

At the funeral, we were all there. Of course, we were. The airline industry was flourishing, and COVID-19 hadn’t come into being yet.

The novel coronavirus outbreak, however, has split families. The effects of government shutdowns are innumerable. On a personal level, this virus has made the physical distance between my family in Israel and my family in North America much more real.

Technology helps keep us in touch. But until most recently, we always knew that flights were available, and we would plan get-togethers.

Just as we planned the unveiling ceremony for April.

There is no stopping time, of course. And the first anniversary of my mother’s passing is fast approaching. We cannot change the yahrzeit. Our year of mourning will come to an end,  coronavirus or not.

But we have chosen to delay our unveiling ceremony. The headstone in the cemetery, which has been up for some months, will remain covered in a veil until we can all visit together.

There are no halakhic rules for an unveiling ceremony. Rather it is traditional to hold the service within the first year after death so that the mourners can reflect together.

My mother always focused on living meaningfully and aimed toward what can be done.

So, we will wait for the skies to open again. And we will each mark the yahrzeit in our own way.

It may seem out there but amid my swirling thoughts of grief, family and life, the colour of the grass at the cemetery grounds is in my thoughts.

It is the very green, shiny grass that remains etched in my memory on the day we buried my mom in May 2019.

I remember other bits and pieces about that day, of course. But the manicured green grass was shocking.

Having lived in Israel for more than 20 years, and having attended funerals here, I never realized until my mother’s burial that the cemetery grounds were even memorable.

There is a reddish-brown dust cover on the ground at Israeli cemeteries. There are also stones everywhere. And when walking to the burial plot, there’s never enough room for the foot procession of mourners to stay on the path (if there is a path).

In Canada, the orderly funeral procession was a jolt to my system. There were no stones – mourners need to bring their own, to put on the gravesite. The lush grass at the cemetery surprised me, too.

The grass was so inviting that some of the little kids even played in it. My mother, who loved her garden, would have approved.

I won’t be able to pay respects at the gravesite on the first anniversary of my mother’s death. But it will be springtime and the earth will be coming to life again with fresh grass and blooming buds. I hope the grass will gleam in shades of yellows and greens.

My mother would have liked that.