Inadequate Kaddish

by Nathaniel Hellerstein

dedicated to the memory of

Marjorie Hope Schecter Hellerstein

Dec. 9, 1924 - Jan. 5, 2005

It was only afterwards, coming home, that it hit me.

A week after, long long after that phone call;

After the shock and the confusion;

After conference calls and plans and tickets;

After packing and driving and curb-checking and boarding;

After the long, long plane ride;

After the all-day reception at home;

- with family and friends, neighbors and colleagues

a huge noisy crowd from all over the country

so many people loved her so much -

After the memorial service;

- the rabbi was smooth and poetic, he didn't know her,

my wife spoke for me, I was too stunned to speak,

my father wept difficult tears -

After the burial;

- my best friend and I stood at her grave,

"A great lady," I stoically intoned,

he agreed, then embraced me with a lover's caress,

I am so grateful -

After the sleepless night;

After the repacking and the long talks and the awkward goodbyes;

After driving and curb-checking and boarding;

After taxiing and waiting and taxiing and waiting;

After finally, finally the engines powered up

and the plane hurtled forward and leapt upward

and blasted out of icy Boston at 400 miles per hour;

Then and only then, with all work done

with nothing left to do but sit and hurt

swaddled in the privacy of turbine's scream

Then and only then was I able to wail.

* * * * * *

Oh Mom, Mom, what are you doing there?

What business have you in that hole in the ground?

You were only eighty years old!

What keeps you down there that's better than us?

Your five children, your five grandchildren

that huge crowd of friends and colleagues

your house full of art and music

your two published books, your electric typewriter

that box full of half-finished manuscripts

and above all your verbal sparring partner

your beloved and your equal

that brilliant, difficult and passionate man

who now feels so lonely and so cheated;

what has death to offer you that he has not?

Yes, of course I'm being unfair, it wasn't your idea.

None of this was according to your plan.

Judging by the scowl on your corpse's face

you didn't approve of the bright orange paint

that the mortician smeared on your lips

and you didn't approve of the coffin

and you didn't approve of death

and neither do I.

But what right have either of us to complain?

Your life was good, and so was your death.

No suffering, no debility, not even any symptoms.

You were utterly yourself right up to the end.

One moment quietly taking dinner with Dad

calmly chatting of music and art

and the next moment gone, just like that.

Pulse irretrievable despite medical heroics.

O enviable exit!

Death was supremely easy on you, it was only hard on us.

Therefore I do not mourn for you, the dead;

I mourn for us, the living.

You were always 100% genuine, 0% nonsense

so let me be no-nonsense too

and say that I am selfish enough to want you back.

I want you in time, not eternity; suffering, not at peace

and I want you to endure these dreadful things

for the worst possible reason;

because I love you and I miss you

and I'll never see you again

and I want my mommy back.

You left behind a hole in the air

and it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.

I miss my mommy,

I miss my mommy,


* * * * * *

Stop it, Nat, stop it.

Control, control. Chin up, soldier on.

These good people listening to you;

they don't want agony, they want poetry.

They want rhyme and rhythm, not sobs and sighs.

And if you must inflict free verse on them

then at least amuse them with a story or two.

Show, don't tell.

Don't just say she was beautiful, brilliant, generous and brave;

Prove it!

Expound upon a memory revealing all!

Recall and proclaim some definitive incident!

But that's just what I cannot do.

I strain my brain but draw a blank.

My mind finds nothing in particular to reveal.

Ask a fish about water, ask a bird about air;

they cannot tell you, they know nothing in particular;

they only know everything.

Now ask me about my mother.

* * * * * *

And so, kindly listeners, I cannot entertain you.

I offer you no tragic drama, no wry wit, no mystic insight.

There is no culture here for you.

O you distant witnesses, you calm counsellors, so safe and serene;

You do not understand.

You cannot understand, and neither can I.

It happened, but I still don't believe it.

I still want to send her this poem,

this inadequate Kaddish saying nothing but nothing.

So seek my mother within the ecstacy of emptiness.

Show's over, folks.

Move along, move along.