The Three Mothers

Let me tell you what I wish I’d know when I was young and dreamed of glory.
You have no control – who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
  - Hamilton

My iphone, on random setting, played me this song on the way to the cemetery and I was already weeping – fighting for control so I could be the rabbi – one of the rabbis (thank God not the only rabbi) on this tragic morning. There is nowhere like a cemetery to feel the power of these words. We truly have no control over who lives, who dies, who tells our story. If we’re lucky, our loved ones tell our story. Our rabbis tell our story. 

And so, I write:

You know, when you are a rabbi and the daughter of a rabbi, that there will be hard deaths – hard funerals. You remember your father burying children. You remember being the stand-in for your father when another young mother died. Hugging her little girl on your teenage lap, you learned early – that these are the moments you are called to hold. But no one can prepare you – they can only tell you, and you can try to believe – it doesn’t actually get easier. 
This one was the worst so far.

The Young Mother

The Young Mother was beautiful and vibrant. The words repeated by everyone who spoke at her funeral today were about the light that shone from her. She and The Young Father had me over for dinner when I first got here – one of the first homes I visited. With their breath-taking view of the ocean. With their beautiful love story. They weren’t married yet – possibly not even officially engaged. But planning to be. She had just finished the conversion course with the group that I taught when I interviewed a few months before. The first group of people I felt close to in the shul. And they seemed like a golden couple, with a golden fortune and a golden future ahead of them. We never know. And they got married, and they came to shul, and I saw them a lot in the first year. And then she was pregnant. And then COVID. And I didn’t see them for the 2nd year but we sent well-wishes when the baby was born. And then I did see them, just before High Holidays, the 3rd year, in the park, and we took pictures with the Torah, and she was pregnant again. And it was still COVID when the 2nd baby came – a boy this time – and so I didn’t see them again. I never saw her again. Because one day she was alive and the next day she was dead, and there was no warning for anyone. She just –  stopped. 
And the news came over whatsapp and we gasped and I was with Jonathan and I couldn’t quite believe what I was saying as I told him about it. And there was an autopsy and there was Shabbat and so it took a few days and it still wasn’t real when we got to today. And in the meantime . . . 

The Older Mother

In the meantime, The Older Mother decided she had had enough of waiting for cancer to fulfil its promise, so she took control and ended things herself. The Older Mother was the first person I visited in the hospital here. Gill drove with me because I had never been to that hospital (or really any of them, yet) and she waited in the car when I went in. The Older Mother was fragile and kind and had a sweetness and gentle eyes and she welcomed me warmly and we talked about ourselves and about her prognosis and whether or not she was going to fight. They had said she had 6 months and that the chemo was probably pointless. She did the chemo anyway. That was two and a half years ago. She got better and then she got worse again. As it goes. And I visited her and called her over those years, but not often enough. As it goes. 

For The Older Mother, death came so slowly that in the end, she had to hurry it up.  For The Young Mother, death came out of nowhere.

We have no control – who lives, who dies – not over any of it.

So, back-to-back funerals for the rabbis it would be.

And The Young Mother’s was as horrible as you’d imagine. Sobs and The Young Father being so sad but also strong – drawing on the strength of all the incredible people around him holding him up. His sister at his side every second. The Young Mother’s family – her sisters and brothers. Her brother who spoke, who looks like her. The way the whole crowd broke a little when The Young Father said, “I love you” and used her nickname that I had never known she had and would never now know her long enough to use. And it was a big crowd. The biggest since covid. No zoom. The whole of her conversion class there, but most of their faces I couldn’t find because of our masks. But I knew they were there. And knew they were already organising meals, and night-nannies and breast milk for the baby. Because we had taught them about community. But not so they would have to do this so soon.

The cemetery was filled with young people when I got there. Too many young people. And I know I’m not young anymore because I am older than them, thinking they are too young to be there. All those shiny bright couples who should be at work, and home with their young children, and at work running their non-profits, and finance jobs, and whatever else you should be doing when the world is normal and your young friends aren’t dying. I kept thinking about how the cemetery is not a place for so many young people.

While Malcolm reads the prayers and talks, I suddenly imagine The Young Mother there, with The Older Mother next to her, waiting for her turn. These two women who didn’t know each other, bonding over this morning as they watch together, their loved ones coming to say goodbye.

When we get to the grave there are two holes in the ground – side by side.
And on the other side of The Young Mother’s grave –

The Old Mother

I did The Old Mother’s funeral in January. I don’t actually know much about her. Her daughters didn’t want to speak at the funeral – they asked for a moment of silence instead. The Old Mother died on her 92nd birthday, or something like that. Possibly 95th. You get the idea. Her three daughters were all strong, aging women, who were loving and affectionate with one another. Getting through the sadness of their loss together. It was a small funeral and quiet but lovely in its own way and in the way that the sisters’ so obviously loved one another and their mother. They told me what I often hear when I officiate for older women who have died, “Our mom would have loved knowing a woman was the rabbi today.” 

Last week, before the one sister went back to Israel, we unveiled the stone – earlier than usual, but so that the sisters could be together to complete the ritual. So The Old Mother’s stone was there, in place, next to the two empty graves this morning. 

As The Young Mother went into the ground, as I stood with my hand on the back of The Young Father’s sister, while she stood with her hand on The Young Father’s back. I thought about how The Young Mother would be in between these two older mothers. One who lived a full life, one who did not, but who at least lived to see her daughter grown. All of them, mothers of daughters. And I thought – they will take care of her. These mothers of daughters on either side of her. 

The Older Mother’s daughter is fragile and bird-like, like her mother. When we went into the room with the casket to say goodbye, she spent several minutes just smoothing out the black velvet covering, which of course, you can never get completely smooth. But her last act for her mother was to want it to be just right. And we gave her the time to try. And then we stepped out when she lay her arms and head over the box.

By then I was so raw. I tried to follow Wise-Daddy’s advice to take earphones and listen to music and walk in between. To help separate the two funerals in my head. To reset myself so that I could be present for The Older Mother and her family and not carry the horrible sadness of the first funeral into the second. And the breathing meditation and music on my mediation app definitely helped, although when I first turned it off, the silence was so deafening that I had to put it back on and walk with it until I was close enough to people again for the murmuring of comforting words to fill the space when I turned the music off again. But of course there was no way not to come to The Older Mother’s funeral completely clean and present and ready. Andi suggested for us to wash our hands in between, and that also helped, but not enough.

Going back to the graves was harder the 2nd time. Seeing the mound of earth where we had JUST buried The Young Mother not an hour before. Stepping carefully around that mound to shovel dirt into the second opening in the ground. The thumps of the sand. The smaller crowd where the larger had just been. Eleven years of funerals as a rabbi – three countries, two continents, one global pandemic – but nothing prepared me for the way it felt to go back to a grave we had just filled and fill up the one next to it. May I have few and far between mornings such as this.

In the car I played the music from the mediation app all the way home and all the way into the house and all the way into the shower, which was where I went straight away. Washing my hands at the graveside wasn’t enough. I needed to be completely clean of the proximity to death – the sweat, the heat, the heaviness of it all – I needed to rinse it off as badly as I needed to soak the muscles that held me up while I was holding that space.

When I dressed, it was in white pants and a white top with pink and blue flowers. Needing to feel wrapped in light and purity and a clean start. And with the music still playing, I sat down and ate the leftover meatballs and cauli-noodles that Jonathan and I had last night, and promptly spilled sauce on my white pants - which was how I knew time had restarted and that I needed to turn the music off, and move into the rest of today.

-Rabbi Emma Gottlieb 2022
Scroll to Top