On that first Monday in August, after I obtained a copy of the Vidui (deathbed confessional) from the local synagogue, I arrived in Mom’s room eager to help her get that sense of oneness and wholeness that is inherent in the prayer. When I entered her room she was dressed, hair done, wearing a fresh coat of lipstick, sitting up in her wheelchair. We chatted a bit. I didn’t wait long before introducing her to the Vidui. She showed familiarity with the term as applied to the High Holiday confessional. I reminded her that it says in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that you are to repent one day before your death, and since none of us knows what day that will be, the rabbis say we should live each day in a state of repentance. (Later, I would discover that a bedtime vidui is, indeed, a daily practice among more observant Jews.)
I read this translation of the Vidui to her:
Lord my God and God of the Universe, Creator of all that lives: although I pray for healing and continued life, still I know that I am mortal. Give me courage to accept whatever befalls me. If only my hands were clean and my heart pure! But, alas, I have committed many wrongs and left so much undone! And yet I also know the good I did or tried to do. May that goodness impart an eternal meaning to my life. Protector of the helpless, watch over my loved ones in whose souls my own is knit. You are my Rock and my Redeemer, the divine Source of mercy and truth. Into Your hands I commend my spirit, both when I sleep and when I wake. Body and soul are Yours, and in Your presence, Lord, I cast off fear and am at rest. . . .
Sh’ma Yisra-el Adonai Elohaynu Adonai echad.
Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One!
The last sentence, the Sh’ma, so core to Judaism, are ideally the last words pious Jews utter with their final breath. I asked Mom how she felt. She said she was fine. “God and I are at one. . . . Isn’t that what we’re trying for?”
I was amazed at this uncharacteristic statement. No doubt it was indicative of a greater underlying piety than I ever knew Mom to have. I informed Mom that I would be sharing our thoughts of these days with Jeff and with others. She replied, “It’s very important that you and I share it with God.”
That evening, the one that potentially would be her last, as I eased Mom into sleep, I sang an old campfire song to her, one I used to sing to my children as part of their bedtime ritual . . . . I hugged her and sang Sh’ma as I also would sing to the kids. Mom kissed the top of my head. I tiptoed away and sat in meditation for fifteen minutes. I sat contemplating it all for fifteen more . . . .
I called home and filled Debbie in on the day’s events. I told her that I had helped Mom go to sleep—whether she was to awaken was in God’s hands. I didn’t know what to pray for.
The closeness Mom and I had experienced that evening—it was the sort of dialogue that shouldn’t end just as it was beginning. But could we even hope to connect in this way again? Was I asking for too much? I thought of the wisdom of Deepak Chopra—to act with “focused intention with detachment from results.” My intention was peace, love, healing—I would wait and see what form it would take.
In the last week of August, Debbie and I flew down to Riverside. Mom’s color was better than I expected. Her speech, on the other hand, was largely incomprehensible. The few words we could discern made it clear to us that she was ready—at some level—to die. She seemed ahead of her body in this regard. The spirit was willing, but her flesh was a bit too strong. . . .
Mom said she felt she was already dead. She said she wanted to do some work. I didn’t quite know what she meant by that. My eyes fell upon the photocopy of the Vidui lying on the bottom shelf of her nightstand. I picked it up and sat close to her. This might be the last time I would read it to her. She must have been listening more attentively this time. She bristled at the words . . . although I pray for healing and continued life . . . So, I stopped and offered her an alternative way of reading them—that healing might be merely spiritual, and not physical, and that life might be continued through others or in a life to come. We worked on the whole prayer to make it more reflective of her condition and her feelings.
Mom was so ready. Her breathing was irregular—eight or nine deep breaths followed by very shallow breathing. Debbie, a nurse, recognized the pattern. She was so attentive, trickling water into Mom’s mouth. Debbie asked me what Mom’s favorite song was, thinking a tune would comfort her. I couldn’t think of any. I put the radio on to the classical station. Debbie prompted me to hold Mom’s hand. I turned down the radio, and, perhaps hoping for too much, got close to Mom, held her hand, and softly sang Oseh Shalom (Maker of Peace). I chanted its Hebrew words. It seemed appropriate—a song of peace that I know she loved to sing at temple long ago when I was regularly at her side.
Praise for Unthinkable Dreams
“At the heart of this story is Jean Ballon, a woman of extraordinary contradictions—willing to astound and confound with her unbridled independence and salty language, while beneath the surface lie her passionate humanity and deep reverence … It is little surprise that her departure from life would be the source of this deep and revealing tale of conflict, compassion, forgiveness, and love.”
—David Saperstein, former US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
“In reading Unthinkable Dreams, I fell in love with this family! I observed their devotion to their ailing mother, their grief after her death . . . and their subsequent sibling squabbles. Ballon delivers a touching and unvarnished story of a family physically and emotionally divided. It was inspiring to witness the journey of faith and love that ultimately reunited them.”
—Maggie Callanan, coauthor of Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying
“Ballon tells a passionate tale of his mother’s life and death. It is a personally unique and universally human story of a family wrestling with the complexity of love and loss. Interweaving personal narrative, ritual practices of Jewish tradition, and the reality of life immediately after the 9/11 tragedy, this book is profoundly relevant for all of us dealing with death and grief today.”
—Simcha Raphael, author of Jewish Views of the Afterlife
“Ballon offers many insights into how families handle the death of a parent … Many Jewish families who have dealt with death will recognize themselves in the particular dynamic of Unthinkable Dreams, but non-Jews, too, will relate to its deeper themes of grief, family tensions, the urge to reconcile, and the power of religious ritual.”
—Mark Edward Brennan, Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston
About the Author
Yeshaya Douglas Ballon, spiritual mentor, teacher, artist, and retired architect, received certification from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal as a Mashpia Ruchani (Spiritual Director) and as a Vatik (Sage-ing(R) Mentor). He is editor and author of A Precious Heritage: Rabbinical Reflections on God, Judaism, and the World in the Turbulent Twentieth Century (2017). To learn more about ‘Yesh’ and the spiritual direction he offers, check out his website at YeshIndeed.