Posted by: drrozkaplan | December 26, 2009

Bah Humbug

I don’t mind Christmas Day, but I hate Christmas Eve.  And this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I am Jewish.  I hate Christmas Eve because it is the anniversary of my mother’s death 19 years ago.  I was 30 and my first-born, my son, was not quite 4 months old.  She died swiftly and suddenly, leaving her family shocked and bewildered.

Each year, this anniversary has been different for me.  As a Jew, I am supposed to commemorate the day on the Jewish calendar, as “Yahrzeit”, by lighting a candle for 24 hours and saying a prayer called ‘mourner’s Kaddish’.  This day falls each year on a different English calendar date, since the Jewish year goes by the lunar calendar.  I do this, but, maybe because my mother’s death fell on a holiday, I seem to react more to Christmas eve as the anniversary.  This year I got a double whammy, because for the first time I can remember since her death, Yahrzeit fell on Christmas Eve.

The first few years after my mother died, I cried on both the date of Yahrzeit and on Christmas Eve. Then some years I threw myself into working, taking inpatient on-call so my Christian colleagues could enjoy their holiday.  After more than  a decade had gone by, I forgot the meaning of Christmas completely one year, when we took a vacation over the kids’ winter break. Yahrtzeit came late that year, and I dutifully lit my candle and said kaddish when I returned.  There was a year when both my brother and I missed a Yahrzeit that came before Christmas eve.  We spoke the next day.  I had decided to light my candle a day late.  He, being an Orthodox Jew, said that he could not do that, and that he would have to speak to his rabbi, that perhaps there was a punishment for having forgotton.  I didn’t understand; we had not been raised in an Orthodox tradition. To me, it was honoring our mother, and it was never too late to do that.  I didn’t think she we want us to be punished for kindling her light on the wrong day.  But that was my way of looking at things.  I had to allow my brother his.

This year, I was acutely aware of the coming of Christmas Eve, and Yahrtzeit, and the passage of time early in the week.  I had written a short piece in writing workshop on Monday about just this issue- how I had been watching the moon and the stars but not the sun, so I had forgotten it was Winter Solstice that day.  But that I was aware of Christmas, and of Yahrzheit, and that I was fearful of forgetting to light my Yahrzeit candle.  Since Yahrzeit was on December 24, I was to light it before sundown on the 23rd.  And despite that acute awareness, and the fact that I wrote that piece, I DID forget to light the candle!

In fact, I came home from a day of seeing patients on Wednesday, the 23rd, feeling exhausted and depleted.  It hadn’t been a particularly long or bad day.  I couldn’t explain my malaise, and I didn’t really try to.  I wasn’t thinking about anything specific, least of all my mother.  The thought had flown completely out of my head.  My son, home from college, was out with his friends, and my daughter, on break from high school, was at a sleepover party.  So just my husband and I were home.  We ate dinner, and I decided to lie down and watch TV, something I do that early in the evening only if I am sick or have had an unusually awful day.  I ended up falling asleep, and sleeping all evening, getting up only to put on pajamas and brush my teeth and then going back to sleep.

I got up on Christmas Eve morning, still exhausted, my head and body aching.  Maybe I was coming down with something, I thought.  Maybe the flu.  But I had no fever, no cough, no sore throat.  I didn’t really feel like I had an illness.  I got ready for work and went in to the office; I had scheduled a half day for sick patient visits and to review lab studies and return patient phone calls before the holiday weekend.

I dragged through my morning.  Once things were settled in the office, I did a couple of errands and picked up my daughter from her friend’s house.  I still felt tired, achy and out of sorts.  Once home, I couldn’t bring myself to exercise or do the editing I’d hoped to get done.  I moped around until dinnertime, when my husband, our kids and I headed out for Chinese food (yes, Jews really do eat Chinese food on Christmas).

Halfway through my shrimp and scallops in lemongrass sauce, it suddenly dawned on me.  Christmas Eve.  Yahrzeit.  I hadn’t lit the candle.  I hadn’t said Kaddish.  I hadn’t thought about my mother, or her death, for even a second.  I’d completely forgotten.  At least my conscious mind had.  Maybe, just maybe, my ‘sickness’ was my body’s way of dealing with the anniversary in place of my mind.

After dinner, I went home and lit the candle.  I said Kaddish.  I thought about how strange it was that nineteen years had somehow passed since I last saw my mother.

I woke up this morning with plenty of energy.  Nothing hurt.  I walked the dogs, cleaned the kitchen, scrubbed the bathroom and cooked a dish to take to the potluck dinner we were invited to.  I went to the gym, folded the laundry and edited a couple of chapters that are due next week.  I felt like a weight had been lifted.

Over and over, I am amazed by how the mind and body are really one.  This was just another example of how our bodies and our physical health cannot be separated from our thoughts, feelings, circumstances, and stresses.  Just another example of why the whole person must be considered in medical care.

Another year has just about gone by.  Another Yahrzeit, again different this year than any year before.  I wonder what next year will bring.  Maybe when enough time has gone by, I’ll learn not to hate Christmas Eve.

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