Kaddish in the Time of Covid

by

05/16/2021

Neighborhood: Berkshires, Midtown

What is it about anniversaries? Is it that the earth is again in the same place relative to the sun, and that we are occupying the same spot in the cosmos? You were here, but differently. Something has changed from when you were at this position before: you got married; planes hit the twin towers; you stopped smoking. The sameness marks the difference between then and now.

A little over a year ago, we were heading into February after a winter light on snow. The news of the virus hitting China seemed not particularly relevant. There is a photo on my phone of a man waiting on the 34th street downtown C platform. I had taken it in derision of his protective gear: goggles and what looked like a respirator you’d use if you were sanding sheetrock.

Three weeks later, I was far less smug. On February 29th, the first U.S. death by COVID was announced; on March 3rd, the first case was reported in New York; on March 8th, New York City issued guidelines to avoid densely packed buses, subways, or trains. On March 12th, Broadway shut down, and, on March 13th, Mayor De Blasio declared a State of Emergency for the city.

It happened so fast.

But there is another, slightly earlier, anniversary that vies for my attention. On February 26, four days before New York’s first COVID case, I was lying next to my mother, holding her hand and playing music for her on my phone, as her breaths grew less and less frequent, and, finally, stopped altogether.

My mother had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for 12 years and was 94, so the death was not a surprise. It was, in many ways, a blessing; she weighed less than 70 pounds and often seemed to be in pain. But, until just a little before then, her eyes had still lit up with her spirit, and her smile had still been delighted. I’m an only child; my father died half my lifetime ago. Losing her was hard.

Back in the city a few days later, I tried to plan a memorial as I waited for the ashes to be shipped to me. But suddenly people were leery of gathering, and perhaps the denial I had about her actually her being dead interfered with my plan-making skills. And then people were dying everywhere, the city was shutting down, and my grief seemed frivolous. At least I’d gotten to be with my mother at the end; look at all these people dying alone. I was lucky that she had died when she did. I knew that. And that knowledge short-circuited my mourning. Her death was subsumed for me in the larger loss that followed.

But the larger loss was also subsumed by my loss of her. For some part of me, the pausing of the world, and especially the closure of New York, was an acknowledgement of her death, the response, the sign.

My mother was born and grew up and worked in New York.  She lived here until her Alzheimer’s forced her to move up to the Berkshires where her partner lived. For years, my mother had been commuting back and forth. Until Alzheimer’s rendered all assumptions laughable, it was a given that she would never relinquish her city.

And, in fact, she never really did give up New York. She’d call me from the Berkshires house and tell me that she was coming back because she’d been offered a job and that she’d stay with her parents (dead for over half a century). One night, her partner woke up to her side of the bed empty. He found her walking down the country mountain road in the dark, trying to get back to New York— which led him to relocate her to an assisted living facility. 

The staff there eventually had to move her to the more secure “enhanced” unit because she kept walking out the front door to head back to New York on foot. The facility was just off a busy 50-mile-per hour feeder route; it’s a wonder that she wasn’t hit by a car.

Katie and Nancy

On Monday, February 24th, 2020, the hospice nurse called and told me I should come up. I spent Tuesday with my mother. She was lying in bed, eyes not closed but not seeing. I lay down next to her and talked to her about her life and played music from Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies on my phone. Every once in a while she would raise an arm and arc it above us, as if she were dancing. Her legs would move too. I wondered if they wanted to lead her out of the room, the building, the state, and back to her city.

On Wednesday, her mouth was fixed half-open, like she’d been in the middle of saying something and the video had paused. I played Pete Seeger songs on my phone and told her all the places we were going to visit in New York: Joe Allen’s and Lincoln Center, MoMA, the Met. All her favorites. She didn’t move at all.

The hospice nurse told me I should leave before the people from funeral home came, so I did.

When New York began shutting down less than two weeks later, I became one of those who fled. At first I planned to go only for a week, so that my son would be able to have somewhere to go now that his college was closing. The day before, Mayor De Blasio had declared the state of emergency and rumors were flying that no one would be allowed into the city. But my exile continued for a while, though I intended every month to come back home. 

Maybe it was easier for me to stay away because my mother was gone. Maybe I needed to stay away because she was gone.

Of course, I was lucky, again. Lucky that I had a place to go and that I could work remotely. That I could watch New York 1 on television every morning from the relative safety of northwestern Connecticut and have the luxury of feeling homesick and grief-struck and ashamed of leaving my city.

But now I’m back. I walk around this most resilient of places, smiling big under my mask at the messiness of the city, its grime and its life. New York survived, of course. It had no other option. When my friends who had remained here would tell me to stay away because it wasn’t the New York I knew, I never believed them. You could just as easily say that the New York of the 2000’s was not the New York of my childhood or adolescence, or even my early adulthood. 

New York is a place of its own, an island, with a topography (granted shifting via development of the waterfronts), a position on the globe. The pull of the East and Hudson rivers, the schist, valleys and hills, even the sewers and the subway tunnels, fix the physical city. And its incarnations, the palimpsest nature of the place for anyone who has lived here for even a year, are what allow present and past to jostle for attention in the lovely, wistful, aching way that is an essential part of what it means to be a New Yorker.

The landscape of the past year has been one of incalculable loss, and we mourn as we note the return to this cosmic spot and look back over our shoulder at the last time we were here.

But an anniversary also invites us to turn our thoughts ahead and to anticipate a happier next year, a future vantage point where we are better off than we were last year. Spring is here, the vaccines are here, the infection rate is down. Do we dare to be hopeful? We are all moving into a future, which, like  New York, will be different, but will still be ours. 

In Jewish tradition, the anniversary of someone’s death, called the yahrzeit, is marked by lighting a candle and saying a prayer called a Kaddish. Our family was non-observant to the point of ignorance (I just had to Google to find “yahrzeit”), but, still, I wanted to mark this day for my mother, here, in her city.

So if you saw a woman standing outside, say, the Actors Studio, or by the clock in Central Park, or MoMA, or Joe Allen’s, with her hand in her coat pocket and her lips moving, that may have been me, sprinkling some of my mother’s ashes from a hole in my pocket and, finally, saying goodbye.

***

Kate Neuman is a writer and actor. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Iowa Review, The Independent (UK), Juxtaprose, The Citron Review, and The Village Sun. She was born in New York City and has never lived anywhere else for long.

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§ 2 Responses to “Kaddish in the Time of Covid”

  • TSB says:

    “For some part of me, the pausing of the world, and especially the closure of New York, was an acknowledgement of her death, the response, the sign.”

    Really beautiful, this whole thing. Thank you.

  • Geneva Mckvickers says:

    What a gorgeous and resonant piece. Thank you for writing this.

§ Leave a Reply

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