Poem | Kaddish for the Living

By | Jan 26, 2024
Arts & Culture, Featured, Winter 2024

What does it mean to be “dead / but not”—marooned on the border between being and having been? In “Kaddish for the Living,” a daughter faces her mother’s disappearance into dementia (memory by memory, skill by skill) with heartbroken tenderness. Jacobs reminds us that the Mourner’s Kaddish makes no reference to death. Perhaps the power of the prayer lies in its context: as we say the words that countless Jews have said before us, we acknowledge the universality of grief while honoring our own singular loss.
Jody Bolz, Poetry Editor


While Abraham and Isaac were up on the mountain,
Satan dropped by to schrödinger Sarah,

saying her son was dead
but not—

unable to hang on that particular cliff, her heart
plunged over and, before the story’s end,

stopped. Stopped
as a perpetual motion machine

given in to its impossibility—
though how we love

the myth of them, how we believe our bodies are,
until they, abruptly, aren’t. Like the brakes

on my bike, which the mechanic said were
worn to paper, worn out

from working so well for so long. Like
my mother’s mind.

Like Isaac, my mother is dead
but not: the automatic operations

lost—driving, turning on a stove, following
a plot—while the ingrained etiquette

remains. Lawyer-wife-mother no longer
yet still a sweet shadow in the soundtrack

of every call home. In the Mourner’s Kaddish,
death is not mentioned, just praise and petitions

for peace. Though only noon, I tuck her into bed.
And though she breathes beside me,

I am saying goodbye.
There is so much guilt in my grief. But, oh,

I mourn her—I mourner—while I still hold her
in my arms. While I fit

my body to hers. Like a cloak. Like a shield.
Like she taught me.

Jessica Jacobs is the founder of Yetzirah, a nonprofit literary organization for Jewish poets. She is the author of Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going and Pelvis with Distance. Her third book, unalone—a collection of poems in conversation with the Book of Genesis—is forthcoming from Four Way Books in March of 2024. 

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