My mother died four days into 2021. Zoom burial, Zoom shiva, and now, Zoom kaddish. Every morning, I log on and watch the usual suspects arrive at my synagogue’s Shacharit service. They pop up, one by one, in their boxes. Hi, everyone. Hi, S. who puts her earrings on before the service starts. Hi, A. whose library I covet. Hi to our chazzan or associate rabbi or one of our two dedicated lay leaders who daven yeshiva-style.
I’d like to think that if I were not mourning in the midst of a pandemic, I would drive the 15 minutes to recite Kaddish for my mom, like my husband did for his parents and sister. I would make note of who was doing the calling and who was doing the responding to the prayer, and I would forge relationships with fellow mourners. I would maybe hug or indulge in post-service Schnapps and mini bagels with the regulars. The pandemic, though, has created a unique mourning experience, one that has surprised me with a comfort I might not have known.
I Zoom on my desktop computer, which has no mic or camera, and not because I am vain and don’t want the crew to see me in my ugly brown Banana Republic sweater and pajama bottoms. For now, I am extra porous and don’t know that I have the capacity to hold other mourners’ grief. For now, I lean on them to hold mine. In the new days of my Kaddish, I want to be left alone with my mom. And God.
Here are some of the things I do while I listen and watch.
I make lists. Buy a chicken to roast. Change out of ugly brown sweater and apply lipstick in order to record: a birthday video for H.’s 50th, a goodbye video for K. who has since passed, and a video lecture on plot for my fiction students. Follow up on ordering my son’s graduation cap and gown. Make Tunisian stew for J., my rock, whose mom also recently died. Write my daughter a Valentine’s Day card. Call Dad to check on his reaction to the vaccine. Make a meat loaf for new neighbors who just had a baby. These are the ways in which I can manage to show up for others.
I moisturize my elbows with the Cetaphil I pump from a large container sitting on my desk. My mom stopped taking care of herself when she got sick, and her skin grew chalky. Once she patted her sock, and the air filled with snow. Quite a dusting. When I was little, she put a humidifier in my room during the dry, frigid Wisconsin winters and bought me tubes of Carmex and sometimes a bag of Brach’s watermelon-flavored Sparkles from Rosen’s Pharmacy.
I write thank you cards for the meals, banana breads, flowers and donations to two charities in my mom’s honor: the Wisconsin Food Pantry and Camp Interlaken. Neither my mom nor I went to that Northern Wisconsin camp. Instead, she signed me up for her beloved Camp Nakomis where her parents had sent her six-year-old self for nine weeks to shield her from the polio epidemic. She was probably disappointed that her summer sanctuary wasn’t a fit for me, a thought that makes me ache a little.
I file my nails. When my mom went into her first memory care facility, I commented on her freshly polished nails, first thing, when I saw her. When she went into the second facility, after getting kicked out of the first for swatting a resident with her manicured fingertips, her nails went rogue. When I visited her in the third and final memory care facility, she’d chipped off the hot-pink lacquer, a color she never would have worn. The last time we Zoomed, a few days before her death, I couldn’t tell the state of her nails because she slept the whole visit, her fingers curled like a newborn’s.
One Friday morning during minyan, I baked my two Shabbat challahs, one for my father and one for my family. I set up my laptop on the kitchen table and went to work: dissolving yeast and sugar into lukewarm water and then whisking in oil, more sugar, salt, and four eggs. During the silent Amidah prayer, I added the flour into the electric mixer. I counted the nineteen blessings and eight cups. It was meditative, contemplative, prayerful. And vital. I’ve lost count before and ended up with sticky dough that I couldn’t braid, which reminded me of the time my mom once volunteered to make Valentine’s Day cookies for my sixth-grade class party. She bought a heart-shaped cookie cutter, pink frosting from a jar, and Red Hots. She was a good baker — toffee squares, apple cake, and brownies — but she didn’t know how to make sugar cookies. The batter stuck to the rolling pin, so we added more flour and then it was too thick. She furrowed her brow and shook her head while working the beige blob. Finally, she threw hands up in the air, “We’re going to need to call a Gentile. They know how to roll out Christmas-cookie dough.” I brought the heart-shaped cookie bombs to the party, and nobody ate them. Except for me.
I recite Kaddish for my mother. I think she’d appreciate the gesture though she wasn’t much for the prayer. She hated Yizkor and emerged from the service every Yom Kippur with a red nose and swollen eyes. Nevertheless, I use the most productive hours of my day to Zoom into Kaddish, a prayer she never would have even said for her own children, God forbid. But that’s the point. She left me with the confidence and agency to forge my own path. “I’m going to make something of myself, Mom,” I wrote in a letter I sent to her in 1991, after I’d decided to move across country, from California to Washington, D.C. to become a storyteller. She bore witness to the pledge I’d made to myself, and this alone has buoyed me during the hardest times.
My mom hated funerals too. “It’s more important to be there for the mourner afterwards, when it’s quiet,” she told me. My mother shows up for me every morning and keeps me company while I recite my prayers for her. We used to do some of our best chatting in shul, so it seems like the perfect place for her to tell me to fight for what’s good to send a kiss to my kids, husband, and dad, and to assure me that I have made something of myself.
I committed to saying Kaddish for shloshim, the first thirty days of mourning. This milestone has passed, yet I am still showing up to my Maryland synagogue Zoom every morning. Sometimes, though, I meet up with my brother at his Manhattan shul that livestreams its Shacharit. We can’t see or hear each other, but it doesn’t matter as we reach for our mother in the quiet of the morning.
Michelle Brafman is the author of “Bertrand Court: Stories” and “Washing the Dead,” which was included in Book Riot’s list of 100 must-read novels about women and religion. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, LitHub, Tablet, The Nervous Breakdown, Lilith, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing in the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program.
On saying kaddish over Zoom