Motherhood, yahrzeit are both in the mixed bag of life

My friend Jane and I met for dinner last week and had a good laugh about death. California's political campaign season is just commencing and we were discussing, in an offhand way, what my husband, an attorney, might have made of an upcoming ballot proposition, were he still among us.

"It's amazing that he's still dead," I said, without quite knowing what I meant.

Simultaneously, Jane and I let out a roar, a "yipes!" of astonishment, as people do when they touch something hot, or come too close to the sitra atra, what kabbalists call "the other side."

"It's a bore, isn't it?!" Jane said, rising to the occasion. "Still dead, after all this time."

Jane's father, Harold, is still dead, too. He died years ago of a painful illness. He was a large, strapping former football player who exuded robust physicality and wisdom — one of those men who add extra wattage to the earth's light.

"It's impossible that he's really gone," she said. "I want to say to my father, `Enough already. I've learned to live without you. I'm not mourning anymore. It's safe for you to come back.'"

It's yet another yahrzeit, this one. And strangely, I, too, feel safe. The brutal purple blossoms of the jacaranda tree no longer assault my eyesight as they did for years after the funeral. Our daughter, Samantha, has burst out of childhood and is almost ready to drive a car. The icicles of loss don't shiver down my grieving back any more.

And Burton himself is ancient history: He died before the advent of fax and modem (though he was the among the first to own a car phone), or self-stick postage stamps. We are living in two different worlds, he and I, the Before and the After. The dead don't grow or expand their horizons, you know.

But they do call to us, in their own time. And each May, at yahrzeit, death comes for a visit, bringing its own pots and pans to prepare its own food, much like my grandfather, who kept kosher, long ago.

Death drinks its shnapps out of a yahrzeit glass and sits down at the table to talk for the 24 hours or so until the candle of memory is consumed. And I, like a character in a Kafka short story, wait on death and clear the crumbs of its wisdom off the tablecloth, trying to glean a message from this force beyond my control. As a temporary visitor, death has its charms, after all.

By an accident of the Jewish calendar, Burton's yahrzeit always falls around Mother's Day. The conjoining of the two by now seems right to me, though it is hardly the sappy vision of suburban complacency that the makers of Hallmark cards had in mind. Each year I try choose which to honor, birth or death. But inevitably the two come together, in the mixed bag that is life.

That last year on Mother's Day, Burt called our cousin Willie from the hospital and had her buy me a necklace of tourmaline hearts. I sat with him on his narrow bed; the hearts stared up threateningly at me. Two days later, Burton was gone, and my life as a single mother began.

But death has always been present at my family's Mother's Day.

When I was a child, my mother spent the day in a kind of mournful haze recalling her own mother who had died when she was 12. She felt cheated, and there was nothing I could do to make up for it. Death sat at our breakfast table where my brother and I served her homemade pancakes. She was appreciative, but distant. Dead, my mother was thinking. Still dead.