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A Prayer for the Dead

Jan. 1, 2023

by Dr David Fialk, Editor / Publisher

I'm not an observant Jew. But I do work six days to publish my Friday newsletter, and then rest, or, rather, collapse, on the seventh, Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. In the course of that work, compiling events last week, I learned that Jaime Valle, jazz guitarist extraordinaire, was playing at Café Rama last Friday night.

Last Friday night found me attending a Sabbath-Chanukah dinner; after which, riding my bicycle home from that early evening at the rabbi's, filled with good spirits, both the religious and alcoholic varieties, not drunk, but, as the Jews say, "happy," I made a slight detour, arriving at Café Rama at what must have been a little before 9:00.

The Bobby Kapp Trio regularly performs to a full house every Saturday night. Victor Monterrubio has been sitting in on drums for Bobby, who's been in New York. And now Jaime was filling in for the regular pianist. And last Saturday night being Christmas Eve, they move the gig to Friday. All in all it was an unusual night.

The place was almost empty, either because fans didn't hear about the day change or because they were already too busy with Christmas. In the big room, where the band played on, there were only three of us in the audience. The whole scene was rarefied. The music was more subtle, ethereal, still with a lot of soul, but lighter, almost angelic.

I made the acquaintance of the lady eating at the next table, a new face in town, asking her if I could borrow her phone to take a few photos. I explained that I wanted images to illustrate an article I intended to write. Mission accomplished, after some brief conversation about how to send me the photos, D. graciously allowed me to join her at her table.

Visiting San Miguel for the first time, D. was from San Francisco, where she is a teacher of children who have been abandoned at an early age: "They never get over the trauma." When I suggested that they could "compensate" for it, she asserted authoritatively, "There is no way to compensate." We agreed, however, that there was a benefit, an improvement, just from becoming aware of the trauma, of re-membering it, putting it together.

With that I launched into my own maternal trauma:

"My mother would tell any friend of mine she met that, as a baby I would always 'puke on the last mouthful.' The idea of not feeding me that last mouthful, of feeding me less, somehow never occurred to her. Then, what must have been her attitude when, stuffed to the gills, I vomitted? Anger, at the wasted effort of feeding me and at the mess she now had to clean up.

"I was too young for memories, but, knowing her as I do now, I am sure she scolded me bitterly. I am also sure that, with some horrible frequency, she did not replace what I had ejected, 'You wasted that, so you don't get any more.' Mom told me that when I was four-years-old I was so skinny that the doctor wanted to have me restrained in bed.

"When I was in my forties, after my accusation of the fact, Mom admitted that she didn't touch us, her children, enough: 'I know I didn't touch you enough when you were kids, but that doesn't mean I didn't love you,' bursting into tears mid-phrase. At the moment, I embraced her, trying to comfort her, but she was rigid and cold in my arms, without warmth and hard, like a statue. I could have, but didn't reply, 'Unfortunately, to the child, that is exactly what it does mean.' The little baby that I was, knew that there was something existentially wrong, a matter of life and death."

There, at our table in Café Rama, some very short while after my tale of childhood woe, D. offered me the second half of her grilled eggplant sandwich. I don't think she consciously thought, "This poor kid was hungry, so, I'm going to feed him now," but, that's how I took it. Mythically, symbolicly, that's what happened for me.

Certainly, if D. and I were on stage, and you were watching in the audience, that would be what you saw. She was a surrogate mother feeding my yet hungry inner child. Her passing me the mustard, as she did, would provide the much-neede comic relief: "Everything is better with mustard."

The next day, Saturday, I went back to synagogue for the morning service and the lunch they have after. That day, the seventh of Chanukah, happened to be my mother's yartzeit, the day on which she died. On that anniversary, those of us left behind say the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Traditionally such is said only with a minyan, a quarom of 10 Jewish men, during a prayer service.

That evening I wrote D.:

"Hola D., It was great meeting you.

"Today was Mom's yartzeit. I said kaddish at shul today with a minyan, which was a rare occurrence, both the yartzeit being on Shabbos and there being a minyan.

"Thanks for the sandwich (it really hit the spot), for the photos(!), for the conversation in general, and especially for your insights about childhood trauma.

"I lay down for a late afternoon nap today, and waking with night coming on [the Jewish day ends when the third star appears in the sky], remembered to say a final kaddish for my mother, and in chatting with my daughter about the experience wrote, 'Forgiving my mother is really critical to... Well, it's critical to just about everything.' Our meeting last night was a corroboration, a blessing in that direction. Thanks."

We Jews recite, the kaddish, our prayer for the dead, with the hope that the soul of our dearly departed will be elevated to a higher heavenly state. The good we do here on Earth continues to accrue after we have left the scene, and, each year, on the anniversary of their death we ask God to consider that additional good towards the merit of their soul.

We Jews are famous for divergent point of views. My father, disagreeing with this orthodox point of view, as he did with most, told me, "Kaddish is not for the dead. It's for the living." Those of us left behind need some sacred theater to come to terms with our loss. As D. said, there may be no compensation, but there is some comfort in remembering, memorializing.

I believe that my forgiving my mother lightens her soul, wherever it is, in heaven or again on Earth. But I know, without a doubt, that it lightens mine.


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