Planting a Tree of Life
Cremating my mother was the worst decision I ever made. How could I make it up to her?
When I asked myself where I would like to spend the secular New Year’s Eve 2000, the answer that came was "Why not in the Land of Israel?" I figured that there was no better place to welcome the new millennium than in the cradle of three of the world’s recognized "major religions."
I came from a completely assimilated Jewish family and had no interest in Judaism per se, but saw Israel as the world’s center of multiculturalism and spirituality. When I heard about a free Birthright trip to Israel leaving on the first of January 2000 — provided Y2K didn’t mark the end of civilization — I signed up. I booked a flight with a return date two months later and started packing my bags for the Holy Land.
The only problem was that my mother was seriously ill, in an advanced stage of breast cancer. None of us, including her, took it seriously, and we were all confident that she would get better. The alternative wasn’t even an option.
Although my mother was in the hospital when I left for the airport, I assured her that I would be back soon. I was young, twenty years old, and anxious to see the world. If I had known what was about to happen, I never would have left.
From the moment I stepped off the plane in Israel, something started to stir within me; a familiar yet totally foreign feeling welled up me. I had felt like an outsider my entire life. Yet walking the ancient cobbled streets of Jerusalem, I suddenly felt something I had never experienced before. A voice rose up from within that said simply, "You are home."
I resisted, struggled, stayed up late into the night arguing with the rabbis I met, but to no avail. My Jewish spark had been ignited. I had come home at last.
My 21st birthday fell on my first Shabbos in Israel — my first Shabbos ever. As soon as Shabbos came to an end, I ran to call my mother. She was in too much pain to speak to me. She couldn’t even wish me a happy birthday. It had taken her an hour to walk to the bathroom in our apartment, assisted by my sister, a friend, and a walker. The next day she was taken back to the hospital in an ambulance. Her doctor assured me that everything was okay and that I could continue with my travel plans, but I wasn’t about to take any risks. Although my trip was just getting started, I decided that I had to return home.
"It’s a good thing you came home," the doctor said. "I’m sorry — there’s nothing I can do.”
I flew back to America on the next available flight and went straight to the hospital despite jet lag. As I approached my mother’s room, I literally bumped into her doctor as he was leaving.
"It’s a good thing you came home," he said. "I’m sorry — there’s nothing I can do. It’s started to spread to her vital organs."
I was in shock. Just days before he had said everything was fine.
"She doesn’t have long to live," he continued. "Maybe just a few days."
That was the last time I ever saw him.
I stumbled into my mother’s room in a daze. Nonetheless, I mustered up the biggest smile I could manage and acted as if nothing was amiss.
She was so happy to see me. I didn’t say a word to her about the dire prognosis. I could keep it from her for the time being, but I had to notify family and friends. Since my parents were divorced, the burden fell squarely on my shoulders. Breaking the news to my younger sister was the hardest part of all. She was seventeen at the time, in her senior year of high school. She cried during the entire taxi ride home from the hospital – fortunately my father was there to help comfort her. I don’t think she stopped crying for at least a year and then some.
The next day we had my mother moved to a hospice room so that we could be alone with her. As we walked her down the immaculate white hallway in her hospital bed, it felt like a funeral procession. My sister was wearing my mother’s pink silk robe. Her icy face was as pale as the whitewashed hospital walls, with the exception of her cheeks, pink like the robe, which were warmed by the steady flow of hot tears that poured down them.
My mother lay in her bed and whispered in a barely audible tone: "Where are we going? Am I going ... to die?" She was paralyzed with fear and could barely utter the word. As an atheist she had never made peace with the idea of death in a Godless world, yet at the young age of 53, it had hit her squarely in the face.
I will never forget seeing her hug my sister for the last time. Unfortunately, my turn never came.
When we got to her room, her friends had already decorated it with rugs, tapestries, and plants from our house. It felt like home — at least as much like home as it could be in a sterile hospital.
The next day family and friends came to see her, to say goodbye. My mother had a long, moving talk with my father. At last their years of anger toward each other started to dissolve. My mother made him promise to make sure that my sister finished high school and got accepted to a good college. I will never forget seeing her hug my sister for the last time.
Unfortunately, my turn never came. I was too busy taking care of last-minute business — frantically running around speaking to doctors, making calls, and dealing with the will. When I got back to my mother’s room, she was sleeping. Little did I know that she would never wake up again.
That night, I told the nurse not to give my mother any medication. "I want her to be present with us in the last moments," I said.
"Don’t worry. This will just help her sleep," the nurse said, blatantly ignoring my wishes.
And sleep she did. My sister and I tried to sleep on the floor next to her bed. Each of my mother’s breaths seemed miles apart. Every wheeze was like the crash of an ocean wave on the shore. She was struggling to stay afloat.
The ebb and flow of our mother’s straggling breath was no longer audible. It was over.
In the middle of the night, I felt an overwhelming need to say goodbye. When I mentioned it to my sister, she starting crying hysterically and refused to get up. I tried to comfort her for over an hour. At last she calmed down. Only then did we realize that the room was eerily silent. The ebb and flow of our mother’s straggling breath was no longer audible. It was over.
We approached her bed in awe, unable to move and unsure how to react. On one hand, we were devastated beyond comprehension; on the other, a tremendous burden had been lifted. I wanted to cry but didn’t let myself. I was in charge; I couldn’t break down at a time like this. I felt that if I started crying, a floodgate would open and I would never be able to stop. My emotions stayed bottled up and only began to leak out, one drop at a time, over many years to come.
I felt the urge to speak to a rabbi, to find out the proper way to do things. Should her body be moved? Should she be alone? What prayers should be said? Unfortunately, the hospital’s Jewish chaplain was out of town that day, and I had no choice but to allow the hospital staff take her away.
We finally left the hospital building, feeling as though we had forgotten something very important inside. But as we drove uptown in silence, there was a tangible feeling that my mother was flying high above, looking down at us from the clear blue winter sky. It felt as if she had become one with everything, and miraculously, the red lights seemed to turn green just for us.
Ashes to Ashes
We scheduled her funeral for the next day. My mother’s wishes were that she be cremated, as her mother had been before her, and her father after that; it seemed like it was a custom in our family. It was another way for her to avoid thinking about death. There would be no remains; she would be gone. She had had no desire to think about the slow process of disintegrating into the ground.
Cremation was another way for my mother to avoid thinking about death.
The morning of the funeral, I got a call. It was the rabbi from the Birthright trip whom I had met the week before. "I was just calling to hear how your mother is doing," he said. The silence on my end provided him with the answer. He asked what we were doing about burial, and I told him that she had requested cremation.
"I think she has changed her mind about that now," he said. "I think you should give her a Jewish burial."
It was too much to ask. I wasn’t about to go against my mother’s last wishes for something I had just learned about. I decided to stick with the original plan.
The moment we escorted her coffin out of the funeral parlor, I regretted my decision, but it was too late. The image of the fiery furnace about to sear her body haunted me. I imagined that her soul would scream out in agony as it watched her body burning to ash. There was nothing I could do. The papers were signed. Her last wishes would be met.
A few days later we received my mother’s ashes in a small metal box. That box sat in the living room for months, until my sister and I finally took them up to the country and buried them next to a forest stream. A few years later, we buried our cat in a similar location. It definitely seemed more fitting for a cat.
A year later my mother’s father passed away on Shabbos and was cremated before I even got the phone call. I took his box of ashes to Israel and had them buried in the kibbutz that he volunteered on for several summers according to his last wishes. The anti-religious kibbutz was shocked that he had chosen cremation and they had to receive permission from a rabbi to have his ashes buried there.
The only lasting memorial my mother had was a magnolia tree we planted for her in the park, a block away from our house. To this day it produces big, beautiful purple flowers each spring, followed by broad dark-green leaves.
Letters of Fire
I started going to synagogue every day to say Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, and little by little I began to become observant. Six months after my mother passed away, I boarded a plane for Israel once again — this time to study in yeshivah. Six years later I was married to a wonderful young woman, and we decided to settle in Israel. During that time my sister came to visit me in Israel and never left. She also got married a few years after me and settled in Israel.
Shortly after my marriage, my rabbi suggested that I do something for my mother since she had never had a proper burial. According to Jewish tradition, burial provides the soul of the departed with rest and also gives the family a sense of closure, a chance to say goodbye, and a way to stay connected to their loved one.
”A Torah scroll will provide her with a resting place in this world."
"If you can afford it," he said, "the best thing you can do is to have a sefer Torah written in her memory. A Torah scroll brings light into the world by transmitting Torah to future generations. Every time anyone reads from it, your mother’s soul will be elevated more and more. Furthermore, it will provide her with a resting place in this world."
Although a kosher Torah scroll is extremely expensive, we came up with a feasible payment plan. We found a talented scribe who was willing to do it for an unusually affordable price. We also found a Chassidic community that desperately needed a Torah scroll for their shul and were willing to pay for half of it in return for its use.
Every month it was a challenge to get the money together, but somehow we always seemed to manage. Finally, four years later, the Torah scroll was completed.
Laying to Rest
Hundreds of chassidim gathered on my mother’s yahrtzeit to complete the last letters of the Torah, and the Rebbe wrote the final line. When it was finished, we escorted the Torah to the shul accompanied by torch-bearers, dancing in the pouring rain. In the shul, a live band played energetic music, and the entire community came together, dancing and singing ecstatically for hours on end.
At last it was time to return the Torah to the holy ark. I held it tightly in my arms and danced toward the ark. The excited chanting rose up like a wall behind me, and everything disappeared in a blur of sound. I closed my eyes as I placed my head inside the privacy of the ark.
"Mommy, we did this for you," I whispered. "This is your Torah." Suddenly, without warning, tears filled my eyes and started to pour down my cheeks. Loud sobs emerged from my throat; a primal scream of years of unreleased pain leaped out, only to be swallowed up by the blaring music. I forgot the room and the crowd. I don’t know how long I stood there with my face inside the ark. I didn’t care.
In Hebrew the word for coffin is the same as the word for ark — aron. This was her coffin. At last I was burying my mother — she was finally getting the peace she deserved. I ended my meditation with a deep inner prayer to the Heavens: "Watch over her descendants! May her tree continue to bear fruit forever!"
I placed the Torah inside and was instantly pulled back into the crowd. I danced wildly in the center of the circle, without reserve, while the chassidim cheered and clapped all around me. I felt as if a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. My mother had finally been laid to rest.
A Living Tree
My mother’s Hebrew name was Elana Chaya — literally, "living tree." The Torah is also referred to as a "Tree of Life" because it is the foundation enabling the Jewish people to stay connected to their spiritual roots. The Torah is the secret of Jewish survival throughout the hard and bitter exile.
My mother’s two monuments will endure: the magnolia tree in the park near our house, a living tree, and the Torah scroll, the Tree of Life. Even greater, however, is the fruit she left behind: her two children, who have both grasped the eternal branch of their heritage. They are by far the greatest testimony to her life. May their fruit — their children, and their children’s children — continue to bear fruit for many years to come, elevating her soul to greater and greater heights.
This article originally appeared in Hamodia Magazine.