The Final Farewell

February 14, 2021

3 min read


We don’t get to choose the departures of our loved ones.

Jews have a hard time saying goodbye. Getting off the phone or leaving a Shabbat dinner can be a major project.

But the sudden passing of my father-in-law didn't give us the chance to say goodbye. We went from planning a road trip for a weekend visit with him to rushing to his funeral in a matter of seconds. Saying any kind of goodbyes, sadly, wasn’t in the cards. We felt we were ghosted.

We wished in vain that we could have said goodbye. Have some closure. I wish I would have called more often, and encouraged my kids to do the same. I wish I would have surprised him and put some baked goods in a box and shipped them to him – just because! I wish we would had visited Thanksgiving weekend and not wait until the winter break because by then it was too late. I wished I could have thanked him one more time for raising my husband to be the man he is today. There were so many words left unsaid.

What a contrast all this is to my mother-in-law's passing. Proceeded by a prolonged illness and ending in a prolonged departure, we kept saying goodbye. Each holiday during her illness, we celebrated and quietly wondered, is this her last Sukkot? Is this her last Hanukkah? Each visit ended in emotional goodbyes and silent musing, is this “the” goodbye?

When the illness took over her body and the end was imminent, she could no longer communicate and modern medicine was artificially performing for her major organs. Each day a family member would say the shema and viduy confession, the parting prayer for Jews from this world to the next.

We sang, we cried, we talked to her, we played her favorite music. We sprayed her signature scent perfume, we hung pictures. Her holy soul wasn’t ready to leave her failing body. The days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months. And we kept trying to say goodbye.

We started switching our goodbyes into permission to go. Mom it's okay, you can let go, you fought a good fight, we love you, ve’ll stay close, we’ll take care of Dad. We encouraged the whole medical team to do the same, but Mom hung on.

I removed her red gel polish pedicure. My mother-in-law, a member of the Chevra Kadisha, certainly wouldn’t want to inconvenience the women performing her tahara (Jewish purification ceremony that prepares the body for burial) with the extra time and labor of dealing with that. So acetone was brought into the ICU and I played manicurist. Sans red gel, mom prevailed.

We kept saying goodbye in every way we knew how in what seemed to be the longest farewell.

It's debatable whose departure was better – the sudden passing of my father-in-law or the protracted farewell of my mother-in-law. In any case, we don’t get to choose our departures or the departures of our loved ones.

In the weeks after my father-in-law's passing I felt an increased awareness to seize opportunities, to prioritize my relationships with the people who matter the most, to stop procrastinating.

This is why the Talmud tells us to repent one day before you die. Since none of us came onto this earth with an expiration date stamped on our wrist, Jewish wisdom tells us to live with a focus of living our best version of ourselves, of loving ourselves and the people around us and deepening our relationship with God each day, because we never know if today will be our last.

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