Gittel Rivka—Mom’s Hebrew name. During Mom’s last months, last days and hours, it was Gittel Rivka whose hand I held and whom I sat with. Trudy Driker, the articulate, competent persona, was all but gone. Her physical life was pretty much a shell. She was emaciated, hadn’t stood or walked in months, had labored breathing, and could barely speak. But she was there. Her neshamah, her soul, was there.

In a way, I shared more of my real self with Mom during those winter and spring months than I ever had been able to before. I shared my real world, which her persona and more conscious self would have dismissed as gibberish—because Trudy didn’t believe in souls or any The articulate, competent persona was all but goneother nonrational, nonquantifiable beings.

We switched roles. It was my turn to tuck her in, with sweet whispers on the evening breeze. As she drifted to sleep, I sat by the hospital bed (and later the nursing home bed) and sang Yiddishe lullabies—Jewish words and melodies. I sang Shema, the basic prayer we say at the end of each day—and at the end of life—affirming our connection to and belief in one G‑d. I guess I was trying to arouse her soul, to feed it, water it, give it vitamins and nourishment, much as we kept trying to get another sip of Ensure or another spoonful of yogurt into her body.

Ess, mein kind—“eat, my child”—the timeless urging of the Jewish mother. As her body was clearly diminishing, coming ’round the curve to the finish line, I wanted to give nourishment to her soul. I wanted to make it feel safe, acknowledged. It was like teaching someone a bit of the language before they take a trip abroad. Her soul knew the language, of course—it’s inherently there—but it had lain dormant for so long that I wanted to befriend it and guide it along. I wanted Mom to be with a loved one, and I wanted to be the doula—coaching and encouraging her as she transitioned to a different realm.

Before, we could only discuss the kids, the weather, books, politics, and other common ground. But now, I could let that superficial veneer go. We could meet on a soul level; this would be our common ground.

Who was running for president, or which book was a New York Times bestseller, was irrelevant here, in this bed in this modest room under the alcove, with this wizened woman laboring for another breath.

Her blue-and-gold-striped quilt, a touch of home, had been crocheted by Bubby Faygie. A few other personal belongings were scattered here and there. But the little corner room had few amenities: a bed, an armchair, the oxygen tank and a dresser. More or fewer things didn’t matter at this point. The plant her friends had brought sat forlornly on the windowsill, ignored, unable to give her the desired perk at this late point.

This once-sophisticated woman was now just her bare essence, soon to leave this world from the sparse nursing-home bed. Her carefully chosen art, her lovely furniture back home, were of little use or comfort now. I tried to shower her with the kind of love I could offer: praying, ushering, escorting this rational nonbeliever over the threshold to join her momma and daddy, to let her neshamah free.

I held her hand and talked to her as she dozed. I forgave her for whatever hurts I’d held on to, and I asked her to forgive me. My eyes welled up as the words stumbled out.

“Mom, I probably hurt and disappointed you with my different choices. I chose a life that’s hard for you to understand. I’m not the daughter you thought I’d be. And I know I was too I forgave her for whatever hurts I’d held on to, and I asked her to forgive mebusy with the kids and my world, and I didn’t visit or connect with you enough. But I did it out of love for you, wanting to honor you the best way I knew how, and I hope you will have real nachat, real satisfaction and gladness from it.”

My confession tumbled out and surprised me. Someone had advised me to ask for her forgiveness, so I started it somewhat routinely, because it was a good thing to do at this juncture—and then I stumbled into a well of feeling.

I didn’t usually think about her perspective that much, but there must have been a hurt, an empty hole, for many years. I lived far away. My future as a professor or therapist was never fulfilled; I spent my days mumbling ancient blessings and having one baby after another. I wasn’t able to compare notes on travel and shopping. We both shopped, of course, but Mom frequented Saks, so I didn’t think she’d want to hear about my finds at Walmart. I couldn’t even go out to eat anywhere but at the local kosher pizza store, so I couldn’t share Mom’s simple pleasure in enjoying a gourmet meal and fine wine at a great new place.

As my older kids started leaving the nest, I came to know the emptiness that lingered in their space. How much emptier it must have been for her, with both the four-hour drive and the contrasting worldviews that lay between us.

It seemed like Mom squeezed my hand a drop. Perhaps on some level she was acknowledging and accepting my words. I sang Jewish songs, prayers and psalms, mumbling and chanting, hoping that the Hebrew syllables were a balm, a gentle massage to her being. In my extreme mindset, as I sat by her side, every psalm seemed to be full of heightened meaning, alluding to souls coming and going.

“Even if I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me . . . Only goodness and kindness shall follow me . . .”

If this wasn’t the valley of the shadow of death, I didn’t know what was. Fear no evil, I emphasized, saying it a bit louder, a bit slower, as though my words were a command to her. Dear Gittel Rivka, sit up and take notice! G‑d is with you, my dear Mommy. Only goodness and kindness, only sweetness, for you—an end to the darkness and confusion of this perplexing world. Please G‑d, I begged, shower and comfort and protect this sweet soul in golden, soft goodness.

“The L‑rd bless you and guard you. The L‑rd make His countenance shine upon you and be gracious to you. The L‑rd turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.”

Please. Pour Your blessings on Mommy, and let her feel Your closeness, Your shining countenance, Your innerness. For some reason, You’ve let me taste a bit of Your presence. It’s time to let her taste and know and get strength and comfort, too.

“Our Father, let us lie down in peace. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace. Shelter us in the shadow of Pour Your blessings on Mommy, and let her feel Your closenessYour wings; and guard our going out and our coming in for a good life and peace from now and for all time.”

The image of men quietly praying under a tallit has captured me since I first saw it. I’ve painted the soft folds and mysterious shadows, the Shechinah (Divine Presence) that seems to be hovering under there. That’s something like what I imagine the shelter of Your wings might be like. Just protect and love this innocent little-girl soul; let her sit close to You, like a child in the shadow of her mother’s skirt.

I wanted to be awake and with her when Mom would pass on. She was agitated, and clearly approaching that moment, her breath rattling and irregular. I reached through the bed railing and held her hand—not too tight, but there. Kept dozing off and pulling my eyes back open. But around 11:00 PM, I collapsed into an exhausted sleep in the recliner that I had pulled close to her side.

With a sudden jolt, I sensed the nurse coming to check her at 1:00 AM. One glance and I knew, before the nurse could utter the words.

“She’s passed.”

Mom was gone. That tiny remaining bit of enlivening life force had left.

I was shocked and frozen. She looked like an empty shell, like the newly deceased women I had helped prepare for a traditional burial. I sat there for a moment, then picked up the phone to call Dad, hands trembling.

Almost a year later, close to her first yahrzeit (the anniversary of her passing), I had a dream about my mother. She was dressed like a radiant bride, glowing, yet ethereal. There, yet not quite. She was surrounded by dancing young girls in pastel gowns, who seemed to represent her progeny. I woke up, just knowing. Mom was in a place of truth and light, having nachat, reaping from all she had sown. I treasure the soul moments we shared as her life ended. And maybe, hopefully, they helped ease her transition to this good place of truth.

(Excerpted from Painting Zaidy’s Dream: Memoir of a Searching Soul)