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Anticipating My First High Holy Days as a Widow

I feel the same way about Yom Kippur as I do about exercise. I dread it but know I’ll feel much better for having gone through it. Like exercise, Yom Kippur makes me uncomfortable–the fasting, the liturgy and all the introspection that comes with them.

“That’s what it’s supposed to do,” a rabbi once told me.

Well, it works.

Every year on Yom Kippur I find myself thinking of all the ways I’ve come up short.

Rosh Hashanah is different. That’s a guilt-free holiday, one that I look forward to, one that I enjoy. It’s a time of new beginnings. A time to get dressed up, to go to services and to reconnect with members of the synagogue.

But Yom Kippur is a scary holiday. The words of the service are powerful, the imagery awesome. Every year as the sun begins to set I see the Gates closing, finalizing the inscriptions in the Book of Life.

“Who will perish by fire, who by flood?”

“Who will live to ripe old age?”

And every year I wonder if, given the opportunity, I would peek at the names to see who’s there and who isn’t. But I wouldn’t. There are some things it’s better not to know, particularly when there’s nothing you can do about them.

Last year, you see, my husband’s name wasn’t inscribed in the Book of Life. He died in a helicopter accident on January 4.

Even though Joe wasn’t Jewish, Rosh Hashanah was one of our annual markers and a holiday we celebrated with our children. There was always a pot luck dinner with another family. We went to services. Our synagogue is a warm community, one that welcomes interfaith families and Joe always felt at home there.

For both of us, services were a meditative experience, something foreign to our regular lives. They were a time to sit with our thoughts, to allow our minds to drift as the beautiful music washed over us.

But everything is different this year. I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts. I don’t want to allow the emotion of the service to carry me away. I don’t want to sit in synagogue missing Joe and feeling vulnerable and crying. I don’t want to have Rosh Hashanah dinner with another family that isn’t missing any parts. I don’t want to join the clusters of people lingering on the sidewalk after services, visiting with each other and dissecting the rabbi’s sermon.

I don’t want there to be a Rosh Hashanah this year.

But I can’t prevent that any more than I can stop the sun from setting. So I worry and plan and think about how I’ll get through the holidays.

This has been a year of firsts for me. Everything I’ve done since January 4, no matter how ordinary or how mundane, is loaded with hidden landmines. Going to the supermarket and not buying Hershey’s chocolate bars with almonds or bananas. Sitting down to a family meal with only three places set. Reading a book that Joe read or that he never got to. Getting into bed alone and waking up without anyone next to me. There have been birthdays, our anniversary, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and our daughter’s graduation that I’ve had to get through without Joe.

As I have with all those occasions, I look forward to the High Holidays with dread and try to figure out how I’ll get through the day. I make plans, arrange to be with people who are easy and comfortable for me, try to anticipate the landmines.

And I give myself an out. If the day is just too painful, I’ll simply call it off and get back in bed.

Knowing that I have an escape hatch will help me. I’ll brace myself for an emotional onslaught that may or may not come. My experience has been that often the day of the anniversary or birthday itself is okay. It’s the anticipation and aftermath that’s the worst.

When I’m at synagogue, I’ll do my best to smile, talk, and tell people how I’m doing. That’s been the hardest question to answer because often I don’t know how I’m doing. But people ask because they care, and in that there’s strength for me. I’ll absorb the warmth of a truly caring community.

One way or another I’ll get through Rosh Hashanah and then I’ll worry about Yom Kippur.

Ronnie Caplane

Ronnie Caplane is a lawyer and freelance writer based in Northern California.