Tonight begins the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The more common knowledge about this holiday is that it's the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and that people fast, refraining from food or drink, if they are physically able to do so.
What people may not know is that in addition to taking stock of one's own personal inventory of blessing and curse, good deed and sin, is that the day is ultimately about rehearsal for one's death.
It's a shocking and startling concept, one which I never thought about too deeply. My religious observance was mostly out of obligation when I was younger. When I had children it became a matter of education. And over the past few years I have had the privilege to serve a congregation as a cantorial soloist--a musical worship leader. The complexity of my role--not just my job description but my public persona--is that I'm not of the clergy. Not ordained. On paper, this isn't my vocation. The music comes first.
My spiritual connection to the observances which I demonstrate for others is less important than how I serve them...it's my job to create an experience for them.
And yet, in following the example of my clergy, I feel compelled to examine this more deeply.
I'm examining the impact of my life as it stands right now. I'm not in danger. I'm a bit frightened of death as is typical of any person, but it's not something that weighs heavily on my mind as I walk out the door in the morning.
What are we? What is our life? These words are found in the text of the Yom Kippur services. Simple questions.
I'm a wife. I married young. I married a man six years my senior, to whom I was initially attracted partially because he already had his life together. We weren't good friends first; there was no long awkward period of regular interaction where I secretly pined for him and then finally one or both of us had the courage to make a move. My previous relationships were like that, and while I still enjoy watching that type of interaction on TV, I was just as happy to meet a person, talk a bit, and then go out on a few dates while not seeing him regularly over the course of the rest of my day. It felt as though his becoming a part of my regular routine was more special. Perhaps there was less risk that way--if it had never worked out with us, I wouldn't have had to see him.
He's a great person. He's a great partner. We take care of each other, and it's always been because we wanted to. As adults, we "could" take care of ourselves with no issue. As parents, we have assumed responsibility for three smaller incarnations of ourselves. His personal growth, and mine, has stemmed at least partially from our being parents. Despite our individual confidence in our own abilities as adults and as educators, we've become people whom we may not have recognized if our past-selves met them ten years ago.
So, I'm a mother. Sometimes as the parent of school-aged kids, that job description feels more like that of chauffeur. Or secretary. I wonder if I'm pushing my kids to do too much. Would they be just fine if they weren't playing instruments seriously and devoting energy to various sports? I guess the question is, what would they do? What would we talk about? How would they meet other kids, as other kids seem to keep the same schedules as ours do. They love us. They love each other.
Cancer. It's impossible to talk about my experience as a person, as a parent, without talking about the most ridiculous part of my history, in which my baby had kidney cancer. My first child. This gorgeous little person with light sparkling eyes and perfectly smooth skin. I thought I knew everything about being a parent. I breastfed. I pumped diligently at work. I practiced baby-led weaning for introduction to solid food and he ate healthy food. I carried him in slings and carriers a lot. I secretly thought that my kid was the most adorable. Because everyone thinks that of their kids. I remember taking him to for photographs after his first chemo treatment, before he started to look sickly or lose his hair, thinking, I need to capture the perfection of this child before the unknown. I remember a few of the early post-surgery photos, after he was out of the hospital. His beautiful midsection marred by a 4-inch scar where they removed 2 pounds of kidney-tumor amalgamation. Crawling around in a little froggy cloth diaper cover. Still smiling. I didn't know at that point that his treatment wasn't going to work and we'd need to change our lifestyles to accommodate more frequent scheduled and unscheduled hospitalizations. I didn't know anything about what would come next...just this constant feeling of dread and uncertainty.
Fast-forward through his journey and mine, through radiation which was really something of a break when his hair temporarily grew back like velvet and he finally started walking all the time at 19 months old. Through my pregnancy with my second child which happened before the treatment plan switched and we thought we'd be all clear by the time he, or she, arrived. Where we just gave up and left and moved in with my parents, which we should have done at least a year earlier.
Therapy. Arguments. Misery. Lack of purpose.
The day our pediatric oncologist "broke up" with us and said, we're stopping treatment because his body isn't recovering fast enough, but it's pretty likely that he'll be cured because he's already had a lot of it. And we wondered...and waited...and his hair grew back and his brother got bigger. And they kept getting smarter.
Then, surprise, another chance. Another child. A little person who looked just like our oldest...but without the cancer. An opportunity to see what he might have been like...except he is the way that he is.
Three young men. Three different personalities. One with scars dividing his midsection so that it resembles a diagram. Another with scars in his soul, probably from us dividing our attention in those early years and him coming out with very little. When he was born I felt like he was my little mistake and no one else really wanted him. This golden child, who excels at everything and is loved by everyone, feels something big that he can't explain, and it manifests in his still sucking his fingers, in public, for comfort. A third child, who never witnessed any of this and was born into a world where he had four adults at his beck and call, and the Pirates were in first place in the NL Central.
I was a teacher. I taught music, probably to 1,000 children all told, if I had to run the numbers. I wasn't great at being socially involved with my colleagues, because I was different. But I was ultimately respected for my talent and intellect and well-liked for my diplomacy and work ethic.
Now I have a different role as a music educator--in Jewish music. Maybe the music comes first. But really, it's the people, because without the people, there is no music. My musical partners inspire me, lift me up, make me better, make me believe. Make me feel like less of an imposter, that I belong. My husband, my partner in life, believes in me and supports me with his time and his actions. I direct two dramatically different ensembles, and I care deeply for all of my singers.
If, heaven forbid, some force of nature or tragedy were to take me out this year, there would be several varieties of job postings, because I'm very busy.
We have no control. That's essential to understand. We can do our best. Eat better. Exercise more. Try to reduce our stress. Or try to give ourselves more direction. But we never know, who lives and who dies. The thing about stressful lives is, they can often lead to increased eloquence. Small sample size, really more anecdotal...but comedians and songwriters don't often write material about how awesome their lives are. It's an oddly gratifying experience to be asked, "How are you?" and be able to sigh lightly and say "I'm doing well" and mean it. The light sigh is a quick half-second reflection about all the elements that have been malfunctioning and now they're okay. Or at least somewhat. "You know, I'm doing just fine." And a closer friend would be able to fill in the blanks. "Thank G-d I'm not spending most of my time in the hospital with a cancer-stricken toddler." "Thank G-d I have fulfilling work to do." And we're thankful when things are going well. Even if it means we have fewer stories to tell.
I'm prepared to take this emotional journey on Yom Kippur. I'm not an emotional person. I'm not a crier. I didn't cry at my own wedding. I don't get upset easily. I'm more of a person with an occasional temper--if I'm losing it, it's serious business. At Kol Nidrei, we renounce our vows. We take ourselves through the fast of Yom Kippur and at the end, we mostly pick ourselves up and go on with our lives. But that's our choice. Whether it is this rehearsed experience of Yom Kippur, or a real-life trauma, we take ourselves through it somehow and we choose to keep going. And we rehearse for the time when, whenever it happens, we actually don't come out the other side. Or someone we love doesn't come out the other side. I'm remembering all the people who were here before and are not here now.
The world continues to turn.
When you see me tonight, on the pulpit or on video, I'll be in white, and I'll be wearing little to no makeup. I'm not getting dolled up this year. No fancy hairstyle. I'm taking it seriously...because...what if?