By Susan Esther Barnes
It’s Friday evening, almost a week since Rose died. The Mourner’s Kaddish is supposed to be said for her by her next of kin every day for eleven months, and every year on the anniversary of her death. It requires a minyan, ten people, to say, because mourners are not meant to be alone; they ought to be surrounded by their community.
Before she died, Rose gave me permission to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for her. I asked because her surviving son is not observant, so we both knew he would be unlikely to say it, other than perhaps at her funeral. Someone ought to say it for her, so I offered to take on the responsibility. Tonight, Shabbat evening, is the first time I have been in a minyan since her death.
When the rabbi asks those who are in the first seven or thirty days of mourning to rise and say the name of the person they’re saying Kaddish for, I feel hesitant. I am not related to Rose; I don’t want to appear to be fishing for sympathy I have not earned. I’m not convinced it is my place to do this thing I promised to do.
I rise, I say Rose’s name, and I stew in my doubts while the names of those recently dead and those who have died at this time in years past are recited. I wonder whether I will be able to say the words, or if the jumble of my thoughts will cause me to falter.
When the time comes, I start to speak, and something completely unexpected happens. As each word forms in my mouth, it transforms into something solid. Not something sharp, with hard edges to chafe and cut; but something soft and rounded, like a rosebud.
As each word solidifies, as its leading edge reaches my lips, it feels as if it is being snatched away and borne swiftly upward, away from me. I don’t know what is happening, but as each word is formed and flies upward, I realize it is being pulled out of my mouth by a force over which I have no control. I have no choice but to continue until the end of the prayer. It appears I was mistaken; saying Kaddish for Rose is not voluntary.
Later, I imagine the words were being pulled out of my mouth and carried upward by angels.
In my mind’s eye, God is surrounded by the dead as the angels fly in from all directions, depositing the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish in neat little piles at their feet.
Some of the words bear the mark of close family, some of friends. Some come from the lips of cantors or rabbis or other prayer leaders who speak for those who have nobody else to pray for them.
As the last word arrives, to be laid reverently on the last stack, Shabbat arrives in heaven, and it is time for God and the angels and the dead to rest.