I started saying the Shema prayer at bedtime with my daughter Ariella when she was four years old. “Listen, O Israel. Our G-d is One. You shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might . . .” It was awkward at first. Growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, I wasn’t very familiar with praying – and certainly not outside the formal structure of the synagogue that we sporadically attended. “We are fiercely Jewish,” my father would respond if asked about our family’s religiosity. By that he meant that we supported the State of Israel come hell or high water, that we took pride in the accomplishments of the Jewish people and counted each year how many Nobel Prize winners were Jews, that we celebrated the major Jewish holidays by briefly attending synagogue and eating the appropriate foods with the appropriate relatives. We felt connected to the Jewish people and our heritage, but we did not talk a lot about G-d, and our lives were not infused with prayer. When I married, my husband and I went in a new direction. He had grown up in South Africa, with the same general level of religious observance as I, and it did not feel substantive enough to us. In our new home, we kept kosher, observed the Sabbath, and became part of a religious community centered on the synagogue.
The nighttime Shema was part of the whole package – bringing prayer and a recognition of G-d into many aspects of our lives. When Ariella got into bed, she and I would say the prayer together, always holding hands under the blankets. Sometimes I would lie down with her, and often I would stay until she fell asleep. Other times, it was more perfunctory – I would sit on the edge of the bed, and race off as soon as the prayer was over to finish clearing the dinner table or reviewing a brief I was working on. We did not pray together every night, but we did most nights for years.
One night when Ariella was twelve, we had just begun to say the words when I suddenly remembered I had had a dream the night before. “Ariella – I dreamed that I was an old person, with very wispy white hair.” Seeing it again in my mind, I continued. “I was propped up on pillows in a bed like yours, and you were holding my hands and leading me in the Shema. Your hands were very cool and soft. It was very comforting.” She started to cry. “Why are you crying?” I asked, alarmed. “It was a beautiful dream,” I said. Ariella shook her head, trying to wipe away my words. “No. That’s what you do when someone is dying. You say Shema with her,” Ariella said. She had learned this in school – I did not know. I settled her in her bed, assuring her that I was not dying.
Not long after this, my mother came to stay with us. She had been postponing having a cataract operation, and I convinced her to have it over the Jewish holidays, so I would be home and available to help with the recuperation. But there were many complications, and what was a simple procedure turned into bouts of congestive heart failure and the infection that would quickly compromise her heart valves irreparably. Maybe because we were all acutely aware of the precariousness of her health, we focused on every detail of my mother’s time with us, from making sure we had a stockpile of jars of her favorite gefilte fish on hand, to suggesting novels she might enjoy reading while I went to work several days a week. She was 85 years old, and in the eleven years of her widowhood, my mother knew an independence and a competence she had not experienced in years. My parents were married in the early 1950’s, and my mother gave up her career in college guidance soon after to stay home with my sisters and me. When my father died suddenly, he had left her well taken care of financially, but with a morass of different bank accounts, life and health insurance policies, and business dealings that all needed sorting out. She spent the first few years making sense of it, with business acumen and a steadfastness that seemed to emerge from nowhere. “How are you doing this?” I would marvel. “You do what you have to do” was always her answer.
When my mother came to stay with us, she was suddenly, without fanfare, dropped into the midst of our minyan, a group of fifteen or so men that convenes in our home for evening prayers on Friday night. When the men arrive, they pass through our kitchen and go down a few steps into our family room, which is set up for the service. These are men who, for the most part, have spent their week in the jungle of Wall Street, with all the malice and hardball and politics that entails, and when they come together on Friday night to welcome the Sabbath, they are sincerely grateful for the blessings of family and friends.
Each week my mother would ask “Is it okay if I sit at the kitchen table in my bathrobe when the men come in? Won’t they mind seeing me like that?” And each week I would tell her, “Ma, they are just glad to see you are still here.” And they were. They would file past my mother, stopping to chat. “Good Shabbos, Mrs. M. How are you doing this week?” and “Good Shabbos, Mrs. M. Is your daughter treating you okay?” My mother never recalled anyone’s name despite my frustrated prompts, “Ma, you know Steve, he lives two doors down.” The men were genuinely happy to take some of the oppressive worrying off of me for a few minutes, to lighten the moment and remind my mother she was still in the mix.
On the last Friday night she slept in my house, my mother did not come down before the arrival of the minyan. “I’m too tired. Call me when it is time for dinner.” When dinnertime came and I looked in on her, she was still sleeping, and I did not want to bother her – she was not eating much those days anyway. When more time passed and she did not join us, I checked on her. She was breathing rapidly and with great difficulty. We practically carried her out of the house, largely incoherent as her heart deprived her brain of oxygen, and sped to the hospital, too afraid to wait at home for an ambulance to arrive.
My two older sisters and I were with my mother in the ICU day and night for seven days. The ICU was quiet; my mother had her own room in the back corner, and the visiting hour rules and the restriction to two visitors at a time went largely unenforced. She was weak, but lucid, and she used whatever strength she had to communicate with the three of us. My sisters, both physicians, were responsible for talking to my mother’s doctors, discussing a potential hospital transfer, reading lab reports and MRIs. Although my ignorance left me frightened, it was also liberating. I was free to just be present.
On the third day in the ICU, it began to sink in that my mother was not likely to get better. The three of us were around her bed – I stood, holding her hand as she dozed, while my sisters sat in the hospital guest chairs, one on either side. Suddenly, my mother’s eyes were open. She started to speak urgently, but quietly, focusing intently.
“Do you believe me?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I answered ”Of course, Ma.”
“Are you listening to me?”
“Do you trust me?”
“Do you understand me?” I held her hand as she fell back asleep.
Neither of my sisters looked up during this exchange. I don’t know if they did not hear what she was saying, or simply respected my mother’s need to express to me how she felt at that moment.
Over the next few days, my mother continued to deteriorate. Her words came back to me repeatedly. I tried to block them out, unable to extract the kernel of emotion from the strange way she had framed her thoughts. But as my mother slipped further away and the grief became palpable, the words reformulated themselves into a prayer she had composed for me. She had shown me, through articulating the aspects of our relationship that had sustained her, a way that I could approach G-d in the difficult days that would follow. If I would believe in a G-d who was in control and cared for me, if I could listen for G-d’s voice in myself and in unexpected places, if I could trust that G-d had my back, then I would understand my place in the world, the pain I would inevitably endure, but also the joy.
On Friday night, one week after we had taken her to the hospital, my mother died.
Several days after we buried my mother, Ariella came home from school and sat on the couch next to me. She asked me if I had remembered to say Shema with my mother when she was dying. I had not. I was distraught. I had learned of the custom through the dream that Ariella had interpreted for me, and yet, when the moment came, I missed it entirely. When I explained what had happened to my Rabbi, he said “It is more important that you continue to say Shema with Ariella each night, than if you had said it once with your mother.” I knew he was right in some essential way. The living are more important than the dead. Yet his words did not absolve me. My mother had given me a prayer that comforted me as I remained in this world without her, and I had failed to give her the prayer that would comfort her on the way to the next world without me.
Reyna Marder Gentin lives in New Rochelle, New York. She and her husband, Pierre, who met in high school, will be married 25 years this coming September, and have two wonderful teenage children, Ariella and Micah. After twenty years of practicing law as a criminal appellate attorney in a public defender’s office, Reyna is now pursuing other interests, including taking courses in memoir and fiction at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently working on her first novel.