My father died eight months ago. He was everything to me: a teacher, a friend, a confidante, and a guide. I have been reciting the Jewish ritual prayer of mourning, the Kaddish, as much as I can for the past eight months in a minyan (a gathering of 10 adults). I am choosing to dedicate my life to learning and cultivating patience for prayer as a testament to his memory.
Some of the rituals of Jewish mourning involve rabbinical distinctions between the things we do during our year as mourners and the things people who aren’t mourners do. Typically, during that time, observant Jews refrain from attending weddings or other merry-making celebrations, and don’t listen to live music. Some refrain from singing, listening to recorded music or playing instruments.
As a musician and someone who shared 39 years of musical experience with my father, the restrictions around singing, hearing or playing music are very difficult. Many have accused me of “torturing myself” or “wallowing” in my sadness, but for me, observing these rituals and restrictions reminds me in a healthy way that something has been lost to this world, and that I am not done processing the loss. And to every thing, there is a purpose under Heaven. A time to sing and a time to refrain from singing. This is that time. Times to sing and play will come again. I know they will.
Problems With My Voice
About 4 months after my father died, I started being plagued by recurrent throat problems. I – like my father – have a raspy voice and -like my father- use my voice a lot for my job. Apparently, for some of us with raspy voices who use our voices a lot, over time we can damage our vocal cords. Stress – such as losing one’s father – can exacerbate the problems.
After ruling out polyps and reflux and other such more significant problems requiring more significant treatments, a very kind doctor (who is the ENT to pretty much every singer I have heard of or seen sing on singing-based reality shows) diagnosed me with strained vocal cords – misuse, overuse, abuse; whatever you call it, my voice was in trouble – and prescribed therapeutic sessions with a vocal coach.
Realizing that I am “not Hollywood” (which I take as a compliment!) the doctor referred me to Rachael, a down-to-earth coach who had recently had a baby and who specializes in strained vocal cords. She is kind and gentle and has this beautiful voice; when I told her I have not sung since my father died she must have thought I was nuts . She also happens to be Jewish and was very sweet about the whole thing but warned me that the way we strengthen and repair my vocal cords is by singing scales and doing singing exercises. Fine.
Some Solutions & Some More Problems
Rachael explained the anatomy behind my problems, showing me instant ways to relieve the pressure on my poor vocal cords. I did my exercises all week in the car and by the second session, my range had improved, I was in less pain, and I saw a light at the end of the voice tunnel. I hugged her and wanted to cry.
At our third session she informed me that singing trains our voices to get stronger, because singing is more like speaking than scales are. I was really nervous: what if I couldn’t sing anymore? And was it even acceptable to sing, even in the safety of a voice studio, according to Jewish law!? Many things that would otherwise be forbidden are often permitted for medical reasons, I was pretty sure that would be the case here. So we chose the songs I most recently had been singing before my father died: Adele’s “21.”
Hearing Myself Sing
It felt very strange to hear myself sing after not singing for so long. Rachael had strengthened my voice so much, my range was better. My voice was stronger. I sounded better, and I knew it. I wanted to laugh, and I wanted to cry. My voice had been hibernating in grief for so long, and now it was being drawn out of me in ways that felt out of my control.
The irony! To have the need to sing to heal my voice, and to hear it sound better than before! Maybe grief also made my voice better? Maybe absence made the heart of my voice grow fonder: the longing for my Abba, and the longing to share my heart through song. The ironies kept building.
Rachael even seemed surprised at how my voice came out of me, and she told me to practice singing during the week. She even told me that because I was a pianist, I had a distinct advantage: rather than simply singing along to a recording of Rachael playing piano, I could better focus on notes that troubled me by pausing and holding them out as I played them.
But I wasn’t so sure I could do this alone. It felt so…like the biblical concept of ervah (nakedness, or being exposed and vulnerable). I waited another week until I sang again. At the next lesson, her studio felt safer. We tried braver songs, with range far broader than I ever could sing. And I could sing them. Not perfectly, mind you. But I felt stronger. There was more to me than ever before. After having hidden my voice away, it emerged with guns a-blazing!
My sons – ages 7 and 10 – knew that I hadn’t been singing or playing piano since their Zaidy (grandfather) died, so I explained to them why: this was to help my throat. Mama has to sing.
Departure from Silence; Return to Song
The first time I sat at the piano after all those months, it felt foreign. My hands were not as nimble, for they were out of practice. I made sure to not “go nuts” and start getting all happy and comfortable, as if I were doing this for pleasure. I stuck to the notes needed; I focused on what Rachael taught me to focus on and nothing more.
My younger son, who is very emotional and also very musical, heard me playing and frantically got dressed as quickly as possible so he could come hear and watch me play. He was very emotional: he had missed me playing. The first person who ever sang or played piano for him; the woman who played and sang with him stretched out across her lap, even nursing while she composed…this woman was playing and singing again.
The enormity of being a mourner hit me yet again. I am not just a mourner in isolation – I send out ripples of grief all around me. It affects how I interact – with people in the street, with people I love and with people trying to love me. It affects how I dress, and how I hold myself.
My children see me dressing mostly in black, or on rare occasion, grey – a T-shirt of my father’s I wear when all of his black ones and mine are in the hamper (I have mostly refrained from any bold colors since my father died). My children see me brought to tears when something reminds me of Zaidy, and hear my voice crack when I reach out in solidarity to someone else experiencing loss. My children heard my silence, and now they hear my departure from silence. I wonder if they can tell that my voice is different.
Do I feel the music more? Does grief give me access to pain and hurt and sorrow and longing and love that only music can convey? What if I had not needed to sing as part of my therapy? What then would have become of my voice?
Will it wait? is really the question. Will all of the things I have waited for because I am in mourning wait for me?
Will the people I have lost touch with wait for me to come back? Or will they lose patience even in their compassion?
Will the people I have pushed away knowingly and unknowingly forgive me? Or will they feel like they have been pushed too far, and stay at a distance?
Will my children remember me before grief and after grief? Or, 15 years from now, will they tell their therapists, “Then my Zaidy died and my Ima seemed to go away for 11 months…”?
Will my voice wait? The songs I had been composing when my father got sick, the poems I wrote to set to music, the voice I had then…will they all wait?
When I return, they will be different. Changed. Stronger, perhaps, but more experienced. This hibernation of my musical self will inevitably end and I will sing again, not just as therapeutic prescription.
But until then, I will let it out in a controlled fashion; the way light is contained in packets of photons and sound is contained in discrete packets as well, sent out along wavelengths into the air, into our ears, and into our hearts and souls.
Those wavelengths ripple out and out and out; gradually losing their intensity, but never their power.
My Abba is with me all of the time and all over this existence, because he is now in a place beyond time and space. And the memory of him starts the second he took his last breath and it ripples out across the universe; more intense at that moment; since, losing intensity, but never its power.
December 5 would have been Mayim’s father’s 73rd birthday. To read more of Mayim’s reflections on grief in her year of mourning, click here.
(This is part of an ongoing series by Mayim Bialik chronicling her journey through the year of mourning following her father’s death in April 2015. For previous pieces in this series, click here.)