Meeting My Mother At Gehenna

A year after my mother dies we don’t kiss hello, not even in my dream. My mother finds me in Gehenna, the Jewish land of the after-life, which in my dream is a white-walled terminal. There are no benches. There are no chairs. There are no coffee shops or newspaper kiosks or candy stands or fast food restaurants where you can stop, rest, wait for a moment and no longer. People are everywhere. They walk down white floors, never stopping. They wear black pants, brown jackets, those dark, sensible shoes you wear on a long trip, while your real clothes – – the turquoise and silver-threaded scarves, the plum colored ties and plaid shorts, the sunflower print tee-shirt – – are snug in a suitcase.

My mother doesn’t carry a suitcase. No one here does. My mother has become thin and slight, but not withered.  Her skin is white, her cheeks red and without wrinkles. She’s spry and happy and reminds me of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a woman who shares none of her values. Gone is the copper-red hair lacquered into waves and showing grey roots. Now her hair is pulled into a pony tail and dark brown as from those photographs from the 1940’s and 1950’s, those good, brief years of courtship and then marriage with my father, before his decades of illnesses, each worse than the last, before her miscarriages, before my sister and I were born.

But I’m unchanged. I spent the first year of her death in my life and not anywhere else. I did not sit shiva, the weeklong mourning period. I did not rip my clothes, nor cover the mirrors with towels, nor say kaddish, the prayer for the dead, nor burn a candle, nor call out her name in temple during the High Holy Days, nor follow a month of shloshim, the prayer and isolation that gradually yields to a return to community life. The day my cousin called to say my mother had died, my husband and I went to our favorite coffee shop, and I ate a brioche pastry with pineapple filling, which I’d never eaten before and was not as creamy or sweet as I expected, and we talked about how we’d spend the inheritance, which turned out to be less than what I’d hoped.

Now in my dream, I duck behind the bodies of strangers. (Or am I in some place other than my dream?) I hide behind their flesh-and-blood wall. (Still flesh? Or bodies? Or blood?). My mother sees me in the small, open spaces between strangers. She proclaims: “I ran here!”

The mother I knew had fat, aching legs mottled with varicose veins, and rarely walked in the last few decades of a nearly century-long life.  The mother standing before me was well dressed for running, wearing white pedal pushers, a white t-shirt, and white Keds.

“I’m moving to Pembroke Pines! There are Canadians there!”

The mother I knew spent over twenty years at the Tamarac house she eventually died in, a few years at the Delray House, and before that, over two decades at the East Atlantic Beach house.

“Why not just move to Canada?”

My mother looks away. Once again, I’ve advocated a change beyond what she wanted or needed, a step too far, a rejection of who she was, and what she could do. Pembroke Pines was a far enough distance, and she was on her way.

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Days later, I will look up what Jews believe about the afterlife. In keeping with what I love most about my religion, the commentary is contradictory and raises more questions than answers. This seems right to me. The point of life is the one we have, not the one beyond our knowing whether it even exists. Gehenna, I will learn, is the name of a real valley outside Jerusalem where pagans used to sacrifice children. Now it’s one of the names of the afterlife. Belief in resurrection after death and even reincarnation can be found within traditional strains of Judaism, as is the belief that all of us (except for the most righteous) spend a year in hell enduring temporary punishments, and then we all go on to heaven, also known as the world to come.

I don’t like to think of my kind, good, and luckless father spending a year in Hell after surviving cancer, after losing his spleen, after losing three children from my mother’s miscarriages (which harmed her more than it did him, if only because she didn’t believe in God, whereas he did), after more than a quarter century living with the unending tremors and near paralysis of Parkinson’s disease.

Maybe my father in Hell was just how the world works, some inexorable mechanism, like evolution, that changes life whether life wants to change or not. I don’t like to think of my mother spending a year in heaven any more than I like to remember growing up in a house echoing with her screams and threats, witnessing her beatings, hearing her insults, which still churn my guts when I try to remember them decades later. Maybe my mother in heaven, which I assume is where she’s headed once she leaves the Gehenna way station, is just the way the world works, like the shifting of tectonic plates that changes the landscape on which we walk.

The wall of strangers breaks apart.  They move on to wherever they are going next. There’s only the lively, constant bustle of bodies (if that’s what they are) and lives moving on and on, up the staircases, down the escalators, down the hallways, turning one corner and the next, disappearing from sight. My mother leans toward me. She’s smiling and eager to talk. She looks up and tilts her head, eyeing me like a bird about to take flight. There’s no tree for her to fly off to, no grass or bushes, just an even, white light surrounding us. She’s not here for long; we both know that.

Did we say, “Goodbye, I forgive you?” I’ve been angry with my mother for more than half a century. I can’t remember each cause, every justification. My anger is like the wrinkles on my face; the scars on my abdomen; the other markings of ongoing life. Although I’ve heard that your skin sloughs off, day-by-day and cell-by-cell, until every seven years the flesh between you and the world is as new as an infant’s. My mother and I don’t kiss goodbye. I’m sure of that. We didn’t in life. Why should we in a dream?

Yet, this woman who’s on her way isn’t my mother if my mother was only the woman I knew. My mother was always more than the woman I knew. And this woman in my dream is different yet again, burned down to a seed about to germinate in Pembroke Pine’s new ground. What’s goodbye, anyway, but a wish for a good journey onward? My mother journeyed during her year in Hell, the punishments (if that’s what they were) instructive, rather than hopelessly cruel. More than that, my mother did teshuvah, reflecting on her life, and making changes in attitude and action that returned her to some essential self, the woman she would have been (perhaps) if her parents had not divorced during the Great Depression, if her father had not abandoned her and her siblings and mother to survive as best they could on their own, if she could trust she had the love she always demanded from those around her.

For a moment, my mother stands still, thin arms at her sides, yet slightly outstretched, open and waiting to embrace. She loves me; she doesn’t need me to love her in return; she wants me to love her; she’s a woman I could love, a woman setting off with eagerness and joy; she’s at peace when I don’t love her. Or can’t. Or won’t. I can’t remember her ever looking at me like this before.

And then she’s gone. Perhaps I was joyful: she’s not who she was, after all, and we’ll never meet again. Perhaps I did say goodbye. It’s not a word that changes the past; it only changes the future like stones scattered after a trailside cairn crumbles. Perhaps I yelled to this stranger so eager to take that next adventure,  “Bon Voyage! Here’s to Canadians in Pembroke Pines!” Perhaps there were other words too, but I’ve forgotten. I forget so much of my dreams. Or maybe the dreams shift and become that other story I can’t quite remember. Or maybe I don’t remember because my mother had places to go that didn’t involve me. Maybe she ran onto the escalator going up and skipped through the glass doors that opened as she and millions of others crossed the threshold towards some far away glow just as I was waking up, the fading darkness not yet dawn, and I was shaking my head, throwing off the covers, and starting my new day.