A day of atonement that changed one life

September 30, 1998|By Liz Visser

AS JEWS around the world celebrate Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the religious calendar, I think about the Viennese grandmother I never knew. And though she lived only to age 39, her life, and her suicide hours after leaving Yom Kippur services in 1934, have affected me profoundly -- so much so, in fact, that some 60 years after her death, I found myself on a shockingly similar path.

My mother tried to shield her four children from the disturbing truth by telling us somewhat cryptically, when we asked, that our grandmother had been sick a long time before she died, when my mother was 10.

When I was a few years older than that myself, I learned the harsher truth -- that my grandmother's illness was chronic depression, that she had tried in her teens to kill herself, that she frequently used threats of suicide as a weapon in her unhappy marriage, and that in the middle of the night of Sept. 19-20, she walked into her tiny kitchen, closed the door and stuffed towels under it, turned on the gas and died, while her daughter and husband slept nearby.

Family secrets

For years I tried to draw some meaning from her death. I mourned the damage she had done my mother and, in turn, my siblings and me. I alternately raged at her cruel and selfish decision, and felt compassion for her and the pain she must have felt, recognizing that if she had lived in a different time and place, she might have been treated with anti-depressants and psychotherapy.

In my early 30s, as I fell into a depression of my own and a growing dependence on alcohol, I wondered grimly how much of my suffering came from flawed genes. At times, especially around the High Holy Days, I found myself obsessed with my grandmother, trying to make sense of her destructive act. I consulted friends, therapists -- even a rabbi, who advised me to pray for my grandmother's soul, laughable advice for someone who rejected, as I did, the notion of a God.

In my mid- to late 30s, I found life unbearably bleak. My drinking had advanced and my circle of friends had shrunk proportionately. I became bitter, angry and lonely. I could not imagine a point to living, and I began to contemplate suicide.

I discovered one insurmountable obstacle, however: As hopeless I felt, I believed that taking my own life would kill my mother, that she -- that no one -- would be able to bear that double loss in a single lifetime. I simply couldn't do that to her. And so for a few years, I circled endlessly on the loop of I-want-to-die-but-I-cannot.

Three years ago, shortly before the High Holy Days, I impulsively decided to attend Yom Kippur services for the first time -- not out of any religious conviction, but out of a curiosity that I traced to my grandmother.

I wanted to know what connected the Day of Atonement, when observant Jews seek forgiveness for the misdeeds of the past year, to her suicide. I also decided to take part in the ritual fast, so shortly before services that evening, I ate a large meal and drank more than my usual generous allotment of alcohol because it was to last me until sundown the next day.

In a drunken fog, I arrived at First Christian Church on Roland Avenue, where Congregation Beit Tikvah holds its services, and found a seat near the door. The sanctuary was dim and filled with worshipers, the atmosphere reverent.

Not long after the service began, the congregation was invited through prayer to gaze upon God and ask to be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year.

At that moment, I became suffused with an intense feeling of shame and unworthiness, a shocking realization that I was squandering my precious life on suicidal wishes and self-centered longings and regrets. I felt like a stain on the universe, a mistake.

In those few seconds of excruciating clarity, I was stunned sober. And in fear and awe and shame, I fled the service before it was half over.

My spiritual awakening, if that is what it was, did not cause me to begin immediately to transform my life. Another year passed before I was ready to give up alcohol and start taking responsibility for my actions. Two weeks ago, I marked my second anniversary of sobriety, one day at a time.

I have come to see that, paradoxically, it was my grandmother and the pain her death caused that kept me, in my darkest and most hopeless moments, from following in her footsteps, allowing me to reach this intensely satisfying stage in my life. Today, I am deeply grateful to her for showing me the path to life.

Liz Visser is a copy editor with The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/30/98

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