Days of Awe

September 13, 2010

The ten days that begin with Rosh Hashanah and end on Yom Kippur are often referred to as the Days of Awe. It’s during this time period that the Book of Life is opened and the fate of every person is recorded and sealed for the upcoming year – who will be born, who will die, who will prosper, who will suffer, and so on. I don’t know if this “book” is literal or metaphoric, or some mystical combination of the two, but the idea that you are being judged and your fate determined is humbling, to say the least. This year, as I pray for complete healing from cancer, the holidays are particularly poignant.

The first Yom Kippur after my mother died I went to services at Havurat Shalom, a small funky egalitarian Jewish community that’s located in an old Victorian house near Tufts University. Having just lost my mother, I was already in a time of introspection and mourning when the holidays came along. I thought a lot about God. I thought a lot about my mother’s spirit. Where was she? What happens when we travel on? During the lay-led service, I prayed with newfound devotion, taking in the words of the holiday for perhaps the first time in my life.

What used to be the living room and dining room were packed with people wearing all white, some with their faces entirely concealed in their white prayer shawls. The mood of the day was somber, as is fitting for Yom Kippur, but far from morose. I remember it was warm for October, and the room felt close and stuffy. I should mention now that I am far from being a literate Jew, and only began having my own adult relationship with Judaism in my late 20s by way of a spiritual path that took me through Quakerism, Women’s Spirituality, and Tibetan Buddhism.

Standing there on Yom Kippur in that crowded sea of white, I davened with my whole heart. I felt raw and vulnerable from losing my mother less than two months earlier, and having fasted for nearly 24 hours already, I was empty like water. My heart and spirit cracked wide open and the prayers reverberated through my body like an electric impulse. We were reaching yet another collective crescendo— Adonai Adonai el rachum v’chanun—when I felt myself suddenly transported.

I was no longer in this house in Somerville, Massachusetts, but in a place I can only describe as a clear space outside of time and physical reality. I continued praying to God to be granted forgiveness for all of my shortcomings. I imagined seeing myself with the eye of God, the compassionate vision that takes in all of the goodness and all of the smallness and ignorance and misdeeds. And then in that place of no time and no space, I turned, and saw my mother. She looked so lovely, the way I remembered her before cancer ravaged her beautiful face. She was also wearing white. And she too was praying for her soul before Hashem. We didn’t talk or otherwise interact. We were each engaged in our own intensely intimate moment with God, the living and the departed brought together on Yom Kippur in parallel activities. I realized—it was so obvious how could I have not known this before—that by atoning for our transgressions each year we are, among other things, given the chance to prepare for death.

It was so sweet to be with my mother again. But at some point, the mood shifted. Someone was talking into the microphone, and I could hear the distinctive rustle of people finding their seats. I opened my eyes and returned to the reality of the room with great reluctance. I missed my mother, and the awareness of her loss swept through me all over again. In the ten years since her death, I have met my mother on numerous occasions in the worlds of dreams, meditation, and prayer. But that was the only time I felt like my life and her life had actually intersected. We were doing the same exact thing at the same time.

As I enter my fourth cycle of chemotherapy, death and dying are not far from my thoughts. Even though I feel remarkably well for someone who has endured natural childbirth, a major five-hour surgery, and chemotherapy within the last six months, and don’t feel in the least as though my death is imminent, a cancer diagnosis is reality’s way of slapping you in the face. Wake up!  How have you been living your life? More accurately, how have you been hiding from your life? What has gone so radically out of balance? I’m not saying that people create their diseases—that’s a slippery slope of blame and shame I have no interest in—but I am utterly convinced that if I don’t do the work of deeply searching my life for the ways in which I have lived out of truth and harmony with my spirit that I will not heal. Perhaps cancer is asking me to do the work of Yom Kippur, not just for one day, but as a lifelong query.

Driving to my sister-in-law’s for Rosh Hashanah dinner last week we passed an old cemetery with tall, thin slate headstones scattered throughout the grass. Toby, our three-year-old, asked: “What are those gray things?” I explained that it’s a cemetery, a place where people are buried after they’ve died. He was silent for a while, so I knew he was thinking hard. “I don’t want to die,” he said finally. It was the first time he really understood the concept of death. “I don’t want Leo to die, or Mama to die, or Papa to die,” he said in the same demanding tone of voice he uses after we tell him “no” to something. As his mother, I felt the immediate impulse to assuage his fears: “Don’t worry,” I said, “we’re going to be around for a long time. Besides,” I added, “it’s just the body that dies. Your spirit lives on and on.”

Even as I spoke those words with tenderness and levity, I was aware of another voice inside myself, the one that asks: “Are my children going to grow up without a mother?” How do I come to terms with this question? How do I get up each morning and face this exquisite uncertainty?

In a household with a three-year-old and a six-month-old, there isn’t much room to wallow in fear or despair. I get up because I hear Toby running at breakneck pace to grab a banana out of the fruit bowl. Some mornings, he pads downstairs to the playroom, where I’ve been sleeping on the extra bed, and begins playing with his favorite school busses. When I ask him to lower his voice, he responds by making even louder beeping sounds that ring through my skull like an evil alarm clock. So I tell him he has a choice: he can go upstairs or snuggle in bed with me. The next thing I know, he’s nudging my head over to make room on the pillow and I have my arms wrapped around his warm little body.

In other words, I show up because I am needed. And I show up because I told myself a long time ago that showing up for life, for all of its beauty and all of its tragedy, is the only way to really be here. I am so grateful to this cancer for challenging me to drink it all in, to open my heart more fully and deeply, to be more honest about my feelings and less apologetic for my existence. To realize how deeply I am attached to my loved ones and to show them this love regularly. Not on birthdays, not on anniversaries. Now! Now! Don’t bother with waiting. Run to your life. Meet yourself with open arms. And when you do find yourself, love yourself with all of the tenderness, compassion, and forgiveness of a mother’s love. Of God’s love. This is the prayer I return to over and over again this Yom Kippur.

Sometimes I find myself narrating my life. Maybe it’s a curse of being a writer. A few weeks ago, Toby, my sister Pam, my niece Maddy, David, and I were dancing in the kitchen to our family’s newest favorite CD. “Smile by smile, day by day, love gets stronger in every way, love won’t stop, love goes on like your soul, like your soul, love goes on like your soul…” Toby was throwing purple and blue silks in the air. “This is the way we make the love grow…” David grabbed Maddy’s hands and spun her in circles to the music. I thought to myself: I’m happy. I think I even said it out loud.



  1. YOU are AWEsome,
    I love you,
    and am grateful for the words that pour from your soul.


  2. […] Shira Shaiman has cancer. Her mother died of cancer. She is also a mom with young children. This week she wrote about the Days of Awe, her illness, and a miracle. I hope she will forgive me for including a lengthy snippet. I hope you will visit her blog and read the post in its entirety. […]

  3. Dear Shira,
    Thank you for sharing so much of your heart and light. While this blog may be therapeutic for you, your words also inspire healing for many of us.
    L’Shana Tova, my beautiful friend.
    Sending you love and healing thoughts daily,

  4. Yes, just keep showing up for yourself, your babies, your life. The love that wakes you up is a guiding force of healing right here, right now.

    Your writing, how you hold your healing-wholing- holying journey, blesses us all. Thank you. And please. More.

    Apples and honey to you and yours my love,

  5. Hi Shira,
    My cousin, Staci, sent me the link to your blog. Your words moved me deeply. Thank you so much for your sharing.

    I teach 9th graders Jewish Ethics at an after-school religious school program. Your post reminded me of the ancient words of Rabbi Nahman of Bretzlav:
    “When a person can be peaceful about her life-whether things are good or bad-then she can always find a way to love other people. This is the way that peace will spread through the world.” (Likutei Maharan 22.1)

    sending warm wishes,

  6. Dearest Shira, May I wish for you in the Heavenly Body we call Stars & Moons…and, of course Angels Wings , a closeness to G-d for you and your family. May the SPIRIT of good Health gently fall upon your shoulders as if a Wish was granted. Happy and Healthy New Year filled with great Insights and Joys to you and yours.

    I do think of you often….both with empathy and healing love, Linda

  7. Shira dear, I’ve said it before and will say it again: your words are a blessing to us all. The strength and beauty of your spirit shines infuses your writing with the same lovely, warm, grounded nature that makes you such a comfort and a joy to be near. You continue to inspire and amaze. I am grateful to you for sharing your journey with all of us. May you always be guided and accompanied by love and honey light, sweet woman.


  8. As for me, I’m welling up with tears (of joy and sadness and all of it!)

    I love you.

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