September 2, 2015

A Bumpy Landing

The airplane’s landing was bumpier than I thought. In more than one way. I was returning to Toronto for the first time since my mom’s passing. Living in a far away country had somehow made my loss less real.

When I got up from the shiva in Canada last November and flew back to Israel with a broken heart, a part of my mind filed my mom’s absence to a folder called ‘long-distance relationships.’ In this file, I imagined she would be there as always when I visited Toronto.

She would be counting down the days until our arrival as she always did. She would be so excited to see her growing grandchildren, to give them tearful hugs and just stare at them with love and pride. She would be there for me too as she always was. Patient, soft, gentle, glowing with love. Boundless love that only a mother can provide.

And when the plane’s wheels bumped onto the runway, the tears trickled, then flowed over my cheeks. This landing was my reality check. We, her family who left her to live in Israel, were here. And she was gone.

We took our luggage and drove to my father’s home, no longer my parents’ home. The last time I had been here, it was early winter. My mom was seriously ill and was in palliative care. We were doing 24-hour shifts to make sure she was comfortable and felt loved until it was the end. And so I left. And so I return.

My father hugs us all at the front door.  He marvels over how tall the children are now. I peer over his shoulder and there is no one. Her chair is empty. No novel or reading glasses on the coffee table. No slippers by the front door. She is truly gone.

The following day we all go to the cemetery for her unveiling.  Her grave is covered with a cloth. My father, my brother and I approach the stone, and with trepidation we tug at the covering. It gives way, revealing the stark letters of her name engraved in stone. It is real. Too real. The letters are too deep. These etchings I cannot erase. She is gone from us.

This past year of grieving, I tried to connect with her and invited her to share in my life in Israel. I healed through my hikes, to the silence of foot treading upon the earth, of the infinite feel of rock.

And so she ‘accompanied’ me on my hikes. And on each hike, I picked up a rock or two with the intention that I would bring them to her grave.

And now the day of returning the rocks is here. Each person at the unveiling picks out a rock and I read:

When we visit a Jewish graveside, we place a rock on the grave and not flowers. Why is this? No one really knows the origin of this ancient custom. One theory is that flowers eventually die, but stones do not. Instead they symbolize permanence of memory and legacy.

A second thought regards the Hebrew word for pebble. Tz’ror.  This also means bond in Hebrew. In El Ma’ale rachamim, the prayer we recite at a funeral and today at the grave side, we ask that the deceased be bound up in the bond of life – tz’ror hahayyim. So we place the stones to show we have been there and that the memory of our loved one continues to live on through us.

The rocks that I am passing around are no run of the mill rocks. They have a story and a history.

Since my mom’s passing, I felt a deep loss and emptiness. The only thing that truly gave me comfort and filled me with spirit was hiking. It was my way to be alone in nature and with my thoughts, in the open and the quiet that, for me, signified my mom’s essence.

Hiking became my way to heal. This past winter and spring, I hiked the deep canyons and dry riverbeds of the Eilat mountains, where we crunched over soft red sandstone, and past black, red and green mountains.

Although my mom had passed, I felt she was with me and as I put on my hiking boots I would say “Come on Mommy. Today we’re hiking. I know you think I’m a bit crazy, but you’ll love it.”

Eyes to the ground I would pick up a rock or two on every hike. I found basalt, quartz, granite, flat slate stones, marine sediment rocks and limestone. Some of these stones are millions of  years old.

We also hiked in central Israel, past spring poppies and cyclamens, along where winter rains fill the rocky river beds.

My son Shaya often ran 10 km to the beach, picked up a shell or sea glass for his Grandma and ran home, depositing a prized seashell in front of me. We had my mom in our minds on all our outings and have now brought our tzrorim and konchiot, our treasured pebbles and shells, back to my mom’s resting place.

My mom loved nature. She loved Israel. She loved her family. And we loved her. This is our small way of connecting.

 The day of returning the rocks came. And passed. I am back in Israel and am still in my 12 months of mourning, a time that forgives, allowing the loss to be real and giving us space to  heal. I do not go to weddings or parties. I stay home where I feel I should be.

Tonight my husband is at a wedding. There is singing and dancing and much joy. For me, I still feel introspective. So I sit with my tears, my words, my healing, my very long-distance relationship. And I miss my mom.

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