My Mom Has Dementia, and I Have Her Jewish Faith
I wish I had more time.
These six words sit with me every day as I watch my mother decline into dementia. At age 29, I never thought I would have to help my mom get dressed in the morning. I never thought I would have to cook for her and remind her to take her pills, or go driving through the streets of Tucson looking for a blonde woman who went wandering away when I wasn’t looking.
I never thought I would lose my mom so young.
I never thought I wouldn’t have time to have her see me get a first job, fall in love, or have children. I never thought I wouldn’t have time.
According to Jewish law, my Jewish identity and place in this world come from my mother. With a father who is Lutheran, she is quite literally the woman who gifted me with my Jewish faith. She's the reason I went to Hebrew Day School, became Bat Mitzvah, and visited Israel for the first time. She's the reason that, no matter how far I travel from home, I feel at home walking into a Rabbi’s house or Chabad home on Shabbat and sharing a meal and prayers with my extended Jewish ‘family.’
In watching her decline into adult childhood, as our family describes it, I came to realize that I was mourning a loss. Fortunately, the very Jewish faith my mother gifted me has offered me strength in its mourning practices.
Mourning in Judaism centers on respecting the dead (kavod ha-met) and comforting the living (nihum avelim). While my mother is far from dead, the version of her I grew up with has died. The woman who I could turn to for safety and reassurance is no longer complete, and the New York Jewish wit and sarcasm that once filled our home has been replaced by innocent joy over musical toys. While I still have my mother to hug, my Ima has, in her own sense, died.
Walking through my quasi state of mourning has connected me even more to my faith – and to my mother. At the first acknowledgement of her dementia, I engaged in a form of keriyah, tearing of the clothing over my heart. I quietly sat a form of shiva, honoring the memory of the mother I once had and reflecting on what I still have of her presence. And I took part in 30 days of reflecting on the gift of an incredible mother that God gifted me.
And then I took concrete steps of returning to life, entering a new normal. I focused on being grateful for what God has given me, which has been instrumental in maintaining my faith. It has opened my eyes to what I still have: the impact of a mother on a child.
When I was scared, sad, or even joyful, I would turn to my mother. I would seek her comfort and reassurance, even into my twenties. She provided me a sense of safety in this world. She was home. And that home, in a spiritual sense, has stayed a part of me as much God is a part of me.
I know exactly what my mother would have said when I called her with news, good or bad. I know exactly how her hug would have felt. That knowledge will never leave me. Those memories sit in my heart as a part of me. My whole life I've been gathering gifts from my mother.
In Judaism, rather than turn against God after the death of a loved one, we stand up every day and reaffirm our faith in God despite this loss. Mourning the mother I once knew, I stand taller in gratitude and faith. With Judaism as my guide, I feel my mom, along with God, is always with me.