It is time I let you know what is going on in my life right now.
Several weeks ago, I was told my mum is terminal with cancer in her liver, bones and brain.
I scrambled to get organized to be fully prepared to leave upon notice.
While my brothers and cousins all made sure to arrange a comfortable hospice care at her home. She started to regain some strength after spending two weeks in the hospital, at the same time as the worst heat wave has been hitting Paris in years. As you probably know it, the old City of Lights might be beautiful, it is not built with A/C in buildings. Houses are made of stone, so they can keep some freshness inside better than wood for sure, but still, it is hot in the city, plus polluted and noisy, with windows open and trying to get some air circulating is a pain.
My mum, although born and raised in a hot Mediterranean shore (Algiers in North Africa) hates it when it is hot. She has never been sick in her entire life and until the last minute when she actually collapsed, she has been trotting and doing long walks and taking care of herself like the lady she is. After my father’s death, she had indeed started to slow down and experience the blues, but you cannot say that this is her ways, and even when she was first diagnosed at age 87 with cancer, she took it with utmost philosophy.
After my father’s death, she and I had taken upon the very sweet habit of talking daily on the phone. This was not happening before, because my father and I were both ardent users of the Internet, and we would email back and forth as needed, sometimes several times a day, commenting on everything, from the most mundane stuff to heated political debates, as we were not always of the same persuasion, if not completely opposed on religious ideas for instance. But my mum has never shown interest to the screen, and never wanted to understand the Internet at all. It felt probably a bit surreal that sometimes her husband would call her to participate to a chat on Skype.
She enjoys it for sure, but is still not very sure where to position herself to be seen on camera, and becomes much more interested in exploring what she can see of the background than listening and talking in a conversation! She would exclaim that she does not recognize what kind of throw is on my bed, or wonder who gave me that t-shirt I am wearing, or what are the piles of books she sees on the side table, or the mess that I would have forgotten to hide from the view! Typically mom.
Because my father was not here anymore to facilitate those connexions, we turned to chatting on the phone, and because she did not have to cater to his needs we took our time. She was also slowing down because age taking its toll on her, memory being affected, and some blurriness apparently in the thinking. But we have enjoyed fabulous conversations, especially going to talk about all the “unfinished business”, recalling people or stories and getting deep into them with no complacency.
But this is all over now. She has lost independence and is resting for all these years of having been so busy, but she still enjoys getting my daily phone call, except that the time we spend together has gradually reduced to a couple of minutes.
So it is time for me to book my plane tickets and go be by her side, as she is ending her life. She deserves to have all her children around her. I will be leaving now and am planning to help her stay as positive and peaceful as she has always been. It is a very strange and difficult time, when one day at a time is becoming one minute at a time and when I feel I sometimes am overwhelmed by sadness and panic that I have not been a good enough daughter to her, and sister to my brothers, and to my family, because I left and stayed to live in a foreign country, to raise boys who have become strangers because they were never raised in France.
I am wondering how this journey is going to unfold, I am learning to go with getting prepared to anything when there is nothing I can control anymore as to the life of who gave me life. It is a very unsettling feeling.
There is so much to say on the Hallmark holidays! I am fortunate enough to be able to pass on Mother’s day celebration with a quip saying that we French Jews don’t celebrate because of the reminiscence of Vichy government who installed it (true fact but long forgotten in France too) and that it coincides with my mother’s and my own birthdays very often.
Holidays (the real ones) can already be difficult for many but they still have a meaning and can be sensitive to everyone’s circumstances. Hallmark holidays are not. Thank you for Rabbi Ruth Adar’s marvelous sensitivity and the way she expresses it, making it possible to redeem the hurt and bring a spiritual dimension to the calendar.
Have mercy on Mother’s Day
for not everyone has a Hallmark life:
Some want with all their hearts to have a child to hold
and they can’t, just can’t.
Some yearn for the child who is gone
and their heart breaks over and over like clockwork every day.
Some ache for the children taken from them by politics
or murder, or a drunk driver, or bad luck.
Some gave a child up – it was “for the best” –
and now they wonder every day: where is she? What’s she doing?
Have mercy on Mother’s Day
because not everyone had a Hallmark life:
Their mom was sick or selfish
or she went missing one dark night and never came back
or she lived on her own private planet
perhaps some kind of hell.
Or it hurts even to be in the room with her because she bites, like an…
Today is my father’s yahrzeit ~ the anniversary of his death on the Hebrew calendar. Tradition has it that you light a special candle that will burn for twenty-four hours. Since the Hebrew day starts at sundown, I lit a Yahrzeit candle after Shabbat yesterday evening and it has been glowing all night long.
Then, this morning I went to shul (the synagogue) to recite the Mourners Kaddish with the congregation during the morning service.
Since it was the first year after my father’s passing, I had been going daily to recite Kaddish for exactly eleven months, as is the tradition. This religious ritual is set up as a way to “elevate the soul” of the departed, when you are a strong believer, and it actually acts as an amazing source of help in the mourning process.
For each time I was setting myself to go to recite Kaddish, every evening was taking the time of a personal journey, an island in my daily chores and obligation, during which I was allowed to be thinking only about my loss and how I was processing it. Some days were easier, others not so much. Grief goes and comes, and seems to have no real rime or reason. It took me many weeks, even months before I could actually shed uncontrollable tears, tears of sadness but also tears of relief.
During this entire year, several of my friends lost their parent, sometimes even both parents because this is a natural time in my generation. Some other tragedies happened when I had to feel the pain of the loss that was befalling on people I knew. And a month ago, our congregation lost our beloved Cantor very unexpectedly. The period of mourning ended at the very same time as my personal period of mourning for my father.
Tonight, I will not be a mourner anymore for at least the time being. I will step up in the next stage and I know that it does not make the grief and sadness, and pain of the loss go away. There is nothing mechanical to it. It is just that from now on, it won’t be the first time without my father, not anymore the first time I am waiting for Spring, not anymore the first time this or that is happening and I cannot talk about it with him. No more a new date that he has not shared with us. Soon my mother who was younger will be older than him. Soon sharing his grandchildren’s success will be without his commenting on the accomplishment because they now have taken roads he has never known they were taking.
My father was born in 1926, in Paris France. His parents were divorced in 1929 which was a rare thing at the time, that a woman would have to raise a child as a divorcee and have to work. So her mother helped raising him, and he grew up as an only child with the two women.
He studied from 1931 until 1941 in a famous parisien school
and was friend with B. Hirsch (who became the famous urbanist who built the town of Cergy-Pontoise) and was a classmate of V. Giscard d’Estaing (who became President of France in 1974 ~ but they were not friends). His childhood friends remained close until very late in their lives, even after their death and he kept mementos that we found after he passed that showed how important their friendships had been, like articles in newspapers when controversies tainted the reputation of said friends, as it had been the case with his very close friend Alain Bombard.
After the invasion of France and the signed armistice of 1940 that marked the beginning of Nazi occupation, he found refuge in a small town south west near Rambouillet, then in Brittany and then returned to occupied Paris until 1942, when it became mandatory to wear the infamous yellow star. His mother, who had been banned from her work as a Jew, had him leave and cross the occupied line in May 1942, while she stayed behind, as she was taking care of the Jewish community as a social worker.
His grandmother died that summer, some time after he passed the first part of the Baccalaureat.
He then spent several months going from one place to another, sometimes by bike with his cousins who were blacklisted on the Gestapo lists, so it was too dangerous to travel otherwise. He boarded a high school for his senior year in Briançon, where a life long friendship was born with Michel Couetoux.
Around Easter time in 1943, he sneaked into occupied zone with falsified papers to go see his mom and went back to Briançon to take the Baccalaureat exams. He graduated in June that year. In July, his mother was arrested, and eventually taken to Drancy. She was deported beginning September to Auschwitz where she was assassinated. At that time, the fate of the deported was not known to those who were left behind. My father started his higher education while still going from places to others as they were getting occupied by the Nazis and they were fleeing from them.
He was living most of the time with his older numerous cousins, who were actively engaged in resistance. In 1944, some of these cousins were arrested and deported, like Ginette Salomon. My father was studying and also working to make ends meet. Food was scarce and he was not very big. In the end of August 1944, Paris was liberated and in October he returned with his cousins to their home. Everyone managed to dissuade him from entering the Free France Forces so that he could be ready to welcome his mother’s return from deportation.
He started studying to become an Engineer in electricity.
The year 1945 was spent waiting for his mom to return after the camps were liberated. They learned about Ginette’s death three days after the Soviets liberated her camp. And eventually they learned of his mother’s death, as well as the other cousins Germaine and Georges Salomon.
The head of the family became the elder cousin, who was in her twenties.
My father graduated from the Engineering School in 1947 and went to post-grad school Sup-Elec. He also started to teach electrotechnics in an all female post high school, teaching what he had basically just learned and mastered right before he had to deliver the class but would love the experience and gain skills that he would use all his professional life long, as a very pedagogical manager.
His father died in 1950. They had been mostly estranged until he found out that he was sick and dying and he took care of him. He stayed friend with his brother and other family members on that side of his family, but his close family was all on the maternal side mostly.
He started working as an engineer at Alsthom in November 1950. He traveled very frequently. In 1953 he met my mom, they did not date because she told him she was studying for an exam to become a professor and he said OK. She regretted it and pursued him later in November. They got engaged in March 1954 and married in July. My older brother was born in June 1955 and I came in 1958, nine months after one of his return from a long-distance trip to China. My younger brother was born in 1960. My parents remained in love until the last day ~ that is for sixty full years.
My father was the most faithful to his ideas. Family came first, loyalty was paramount to everything he was undertaking and honesty guided him always. His love for his wife came above everything, and he would be ruthless when he had to take her defense. Stories about this would take many more blogposts.
He was never very strong physically, mostly because of having been malnourished during his teenage years during wartime. He also suffered from back problems pretty often until 1980. After a bout with hypertension a heart anomaly was discovered in 1981: I called him the “man with a broken heart” after he died, as his mother’s deportation left him with this hole that only his wife’s love was able to console. He then found in the physical traits of his daughter (me) the resemblance that made him remember my lost grandmother Thérèse.
His entire career took place in the same big corporate. After succeeding at being an engineer (he was said to have “built” the TGV, the very high speed train, but that was a team work of course), he became a manager of a plant and remained at the C level until his retirement in 1989. During his career, he traveled to the USSR, China, Mexico, the USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and of course all over Europe. He taught and supervised council at his grad school until retirement.
He was passionate about politics and history. He loved following the news and commenting. He was reading the newspaper and playing crosswords. His personal library contained hundreds and hundreds of biographies and books about historical periods. He kept repairing electricity with very basic tools, his favorite being a broken match, that according to him could fix any mechanical issue. The state of his home office was an ocean of cables and screens after he retired, but under the apparent mess, his organization was stellar because everything had been carefully thought and rationally probed.
He would never take a decision without consulting people who might be involved in the consequence of such decision. His sense of fairness was extreme and even when his plant workers went on strike to claim for better wages, his huge popularity as a manager was palpable. He turned out to be an excellent negotiator and social justice was extremely important to him. At the family table, discussions were not only allowed but encouraged: we learned politics as children and how to disagree while being true to ourselves.
After I started living far away, we would still talk every day, emailing back and forth. I would be discussing politics from a new point of view and we would still enjoy having very different opinions, especially about religion. He started developing a very particular friendship with my youngest son through their shared love of strategy games. He taught him many tricks when he was 10 or so.
The memories are now just that, memories that I want to keep and remember with words and images and stories that we talk about daily with my mom on the phone. They will not replace the smile and embrace, the sound of his voice and how he would frown or beam. But they are what I have to cherish now and forever.
I am stuck at home on yet another snow day
I am stuck in my head and in my body as I am struggling with yet another bout of severe depression
I am stuck here and there and it feels it is forever
I am stuck not making any decision
and sharing with others just things that are not likely to unstuck me
because I am stuck in being afraid to be even moved from where I am stuck
Because being stuck feels painful but oh so much safer than being on the go
I am stuck in fear and sadness
I am stuck in this terrible place that feels like walls are closing on me
And that the force needed to stop them from doing so is beyond my abilities
I am stuck and it hurts to realize it so it is easier to close everything inside of myself
Not to talk not to share not to move
I am stuck in time that is passing by without me
I am stuck in the sameness of time and words and actions
I am stuck in a dimension that is separate and disconnected
I am stuck in a place that feels it is not in the same dimension and not in the same world as the others I have to interact with
I am stuck in my head and it feels like it is shrunk
I am stuck in a place of emotions that struggle to break free
I am stuck in a very thin place of madness that is scary and lonely
I am stuck despite the intense will and desire to break free
To bring peace to myself so that I can bring peace to others
To share the joy of being alive and to share the gifts that were given to me
In an unique fashion that I have to recognize and not waste
Because now is the time and now is the place
And not what has happened or what will happen
Just what is happening right now
Here and there
Where I am stuck for the time being
New Years are opportunities for clean slates. This is why we love it to make goals and resolutions that we generally forget one or two weeks later, if not less, after we have made them.
I am ready for changes but I fear them so much.
I wonder what is so scary in my letting go of bad habits, of clutter, of useless papers or old clothes, and most of all, of letting go of my paralyzing fears.
Four years ago, I started a new business and I was very excited about it. Because of my previous experience with small business, I knew that if by the end of the third year I was not making any profit, said business was to be considered as a hobby, rather than a business. I managed to make profit at the end of the first year, but never enough to hire myself in my own business. The end of the third year has come and getting my books ready for taxes is scaring me, because I am afraid it is showing my failures and my shortcomings, when in reality I should be really proud of myself.
But I come from a culture where I was taught how to spot mistakes rather than catch successful endeavors, how to improve and strive for the perfection, rather than to value the effort and the enthusiasm.
It is very hard for me to let go of those cultural messages, to shake my bad habits of judging myself harshly all the time.
At the same time, I was getting so enthusiastic about my new venture, I started to log in a lot of data, in the move of self-quantification and some amazing transformations occurred because I did so: I was able to lose 40 and some pounds, I managed my bouts of severe depression and hypomania to an acceptable level of function among the most remarkable feats.
Logging data was not the solution to the underlying problems I have with my food or mood disorders. It was merely a guide for me to not bury my head in sand and then realize when it is too late that I have sunk at the bottom of a pool or smashed into a wall because of speed. And I am forever thankful for the apps that help me keep my life in check that way. Otherwise I really can’t say how I would have navigated those years.
But what happened about transforming myself was also too scary, obviously: when I was slimming down, people were taking notice, everyone was but me. I was not feeling different. I was feeling lighter and flattered of course, with the compliments and encouragement I was receiving, but I was most of all feeling annoyed by the attention it was getting me, as if it was signaling some looming doom in the future because of that.
And I knew it exactly when it happened. Like a switch one day, the binges were back.
I fought them for twenty-four months. And on the second anniversary of that fatal switch, I kind of gave up, feeling like it was a lost battle.
But this is a new year, a new slate, and I know that the mental negative messages that I keep hearing inside my head are just that, mental negative messages. Not any reality. I can replace those messages with positive ones, like if I have done it once, I can do it twice (and thrice, why not! oh do I love the word thrice!!)
So for a first start in 2015 I will transform the look of this blog and change its theme, because it is time.
As I was preparing for this series of blogposts, I wrote the prompts first as they were written and then proceeded to translate them into French, as my intention was to publish for my own blog, and benefit from the spiritual exercise, which is – believe it or not – easier for me to do in my native language (I wonder why: not! thinking in a different language brings different thoughts and thinking in English brings me towards action, rather than reflection, whereas thinking in French is much more an exercise in introspection).
Once I had written a couple of blogposts, I stalled because sometimes words do not translate well. That is when I decided I could pause and use my blog in English (here) to also play #BlogElul and bring the challenge to the next level, that is to use multiple media / languages / formats, etc to illustrate the broadness of what can be done starting with a simple prompt: just do it!
That is when I realized that I had accepted the prompts to be verbs in the infinitive form, to do, and not imperatives: “do!” because I would never try to guide my readers as formally as giving them orders, advices, or compelling inspiration.
And now, I realize that I could be stuck in paralysis just because of that. Looking back at a full year – an incredibly difficult one it appears – and getting ready to account for my mistakes and shortcomings when I arrive at the time of the Days of Awe is a scary task for someone who struggles with depressive moods, a strong tendency to ruminate and see the negative in anything she does, while wanting to be a role model and inspire others in positive outlooks on the world and on life.
Just do it!
Rather than fearing all that could go wrong and backlash, go with it and see what happens next. After all, when I all started this, blogging and everything, I opted for the “One day at a time” mantra, knowing all too well that this is all I can actually take.
“Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”
I have always understood this inspirational quote as a call to just be oneself, and just do it!
If the fear of not doing it right, or doing it as intended, or doing it as well as the others is simply preventing you from being yourself, that is the biggest mistake or biggest sin, because it prevents the world from having your deeds to be inspired by.
I keep having this fear of not doing the right thing. It brings me regrets. There is always a choice, and the inability to make a decision because of this kind of fear is extremely crippling. If I practice the “just do it”, I am hoping to feel more at ease with it. After all, this is only the first step.
This blogpost is inspired by the #BlogElul project created by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer of Ima on (and off) the Bima in preparation for the start of the Jewish New Year which is traditionally a time of reflection and soul searching. Whether you are Jewish or not, religious or not, feel free to comment and/or participate in these universal themes and add to the reflection and inspiration. Also feel free to see how I was inspired by the same prompts on Un Jour à la fois, if you can read French.