When Death is Like Rocket Fuel

April 7, 1991 Akihiko and Liane tie the knot at the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo
April 7, 1991 Akihiko and Liane tie the knot at the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo

What makes an epic memoir epic is the sad fact that people die. Here in my wedding photo the only man left is Akihiko in the front row. His uncle Susumu, his father Toshihiko, my father Carol, and my step-father Leon have passed. And now the latest and dearest family member, my mother, has gone to meet her maker as well.

In the Wagamama Bride, the departed who were very much here in the times I write about, help me make sense of the past. But with my mother’s recent passing, I’m experiencing something unimaginable, the outcome of years of connecting with Chabad and the kabbalistic wisdom inherent in the Hassidic traditions. I’m getting intense study in the sparks of  Torah that set the agenda in death.

For instance, it would never have occurred to me to hire a Rabbi to pray for my mother’s soul every day, three times a day, in a minyan of ten, for the 11 months following my mother’s death. But Rabbi Binyomin Edery’s message at the gravesite in New York was precisely that–to make sure that someone, a man, a Jewish man in the family, committed to saying the prayers. And if there was no one able or willing to do so, then he would take it upon himself to find a man to do so.

Death is like rocket fuel. Within minutes he found a rabbi affiliated with 770, the Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights Brooklyn and paid in advance a traditional donation–$1800 for the daily prayers. I paid him back immediately because in death, there’s no time to waste. This is a surprise to me, this sense of urgency, of not dilly-dallying.

The prayer recited three times a day is the Mourner’s Kaddish, which is believe to save a parent from certain judgment. What that judgment would be, Lord knows none of us are perfect. But the very idea that we can be saved by having loved ones pray for us struck me as a downright relief. So there is hope after all.

In my memoir, I write about my father-in-law’s recent death, and the more distant memory of father’s death,  not only because they were life-shattering evens, but because the experience of death when you are on the other side of the world is a hazy memory of a relationship that died a slow death years earlier.  For in truth, when you live so far away from a parent, there are the phone calls, the occasional visits, the exchange of gifts, but that feeling of loss, the empty hole created by a parent who is in your life day in and day out, who you sit down to eat with, who knows your every little habit and foible, this is a memory from so long ago, from a childhood stretching back through the decades, that the heart can’t quite place the feelings.

Maybe this is why saying Kaddish is so important. The rocket fuel not only goes up but takes me back to those memories of our interconnected fate on this planet. Nobody anticipates enshrining deaths  in a memoir. But in the Wagamama Bride, a tale that unfolds over three decades, it just happens. It simply happens. And the soul of the story is revealed.


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