Monday, July 25, 2016

The Cicadas' Song

When my mom used to euphemistically refer to death as saying "bye-bye" someday, my response was always "but not yet". We had a little call and response thing going. I thought of it as a bit of a negotiation, only to learn that I was merely being humored in that conceit.

I am in the town that I grew up in, perhaps for the last time. There are no more parents to visit save in the graveyard, soon there will be no childhood home. I am here for the unveiling of my mother's tombstone. In the Jewish tradition an unveiling happens approximately one year after a person dies and uses the Jewish calendar to determine when that is. Although my mother died on the Fourth of July, on the Jewish calendar it is actually July 23rd this year. Why so different?

It turns out that the current year on the Jewish calendar is a leap year, the Hebrew term actually means "a pregnant year". Periodically they add days to catch up and assure that holidays fall at the proper season. The year following my mother's death has indeed felt pregnant, laden with meaning, heavy and transformational, as I integrate her physical absence with a new understanding of her emotional presence. I didn't have to think of it when I had her here, occupying space on this earth, yet with her physical absence I am oddly much more aware of her presence. It is a comforting weight I carry within me, the weight of nineteen days, perhaps the weight of a lifetime.

I find that I am not only saying goodbye to my mother, but I am saying goodbye to the town I grew up in, to friends with whom I renewed friendships, to my childhood home and to a part of my history. In the intervening years since my father died, I have made regular trips to see my mother, reconnecting with the community as I created new memories with my mother. Now I am leaving both of my parents in a cemetery 500 miles away from where I live. They are surrounded by many of the people we knew growing up, a roster of familiar names. The lady who lived down the hill from our home now lies in the ground down the hill from their tombstone. There is an odd symmetry that has been maintained. They are in good company.

We arrived at the cemetery on a blistering hot day. At the back of the cemetery my parents' tombstone was wrapped in a blue tarp. We have a small immediate family, my parents' three children, two grandchildren, two great grandsons. My husband and several friends completed our gathering. Our family is spread around the country, planes and often lengthy drives deposited us at this plot of ground where our parents now reside. The two young children brought a certain leavening to the occasion as the youngest threw himself over the tombstone, almost as if he were climbing into my mother's lap. "She would have liked that," I thought. I remembered her holding him as a newborn at a Thanksgiving just two years earlier.

My niece spoke movingly of my mother's honesty and kindness, traits that captured her well. She was an authentic person, honest to the core and the embodiment of kindness. The rabbi had us pause in silent prayer as a chorus of cicadas filled the silence with song. My niece helped her young nephews remove the tarp, walking around the tombstone as she tugged the duct tape loose. Meanwhile I stood there in silent prayer, praying that the text and dates would be correct, sighing in relief as the carved stone emerged without error.

We placed small stones upon the tombstone, another Jewish tradition, representing our presence and love. Next to the stones, my niece placed a cicada shell she had found on the tarp. She remembered my mother, a nature lover, finding cicada shells with her and her sister on nature walks. Cicadas live underground as nymphs, often at depths of 8 feet. When they mature they emerge from underground, shedding their intact shell, often leaving it clinging to a tree. Interestingly they are a symbol of immortality. Yet more symmetries. Shell above, shell below, preserved in memory, deeply embedded in each of us.

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