May 20th, 2010, was my mother’s 82nd birthday. She was in a quiet room in Hospice by the Sea, fading fast. Her angry, haggard, bitter upstairs neighbor slipped a card under the door that morning, wishing her a happy birthday and wishing her many more years of health and happiness. I brought the card to the hospice and gave it to my sister.
“She’s nuts,” said my sister handing the card back to me next to the bed where our mother was asleep, the expression of death already on her face. Toward the end of her birthday our mother slipped into a coma.
A religious Jew my mother had long known, and fought with regularly, but with great affection, called to check in on her. I told him she was in a coma.
“It’s the mark of a tzaddik (righteous person) to die on their birthday,” he told me. A woman who didn’t believe in God, intensely disliked the often false piety of religious people, was dying as a tzaddik. The thought gave me a smile, would have tickled my mother, perhaps.
I told the man that we’d decided to honor her wishes and have my mother’s body cremated. He tried to talk me out of it, saying she’d want her skeleton to repose forever next to her husband’s in the plot reserved for her. I told him she’d talked about her desire to be cremated several times over the years and recently expressed a terror of being buried and eaten by worms and insects. I had assured her this wouldn’t happen. He told me that Jewish law was against cremation, and so on. To his credit, he didn’t insist beyond a few short arguments.
When I mentioned that the cemetery where their burial plot was forbade burial of ashes (many Jewish cemeteries allow this practice) he said: “that doesn’t mean you can’t bury her ashes there” and described a stealth burial. I liked him for that.
My mother, always somewhat stubborn, refused to die as a tzaddik. She truly didn’t believe in that kind of thing. She breathed through that last night, into the morning, and died today, one day after her birthday, five years ago.
I don’t recall feeling gloomy or somber on the previous anniversaries, perhaps I did. But this one has got me a little bit glum, I have to say.
Happy Birthday, Mom.