As I drove past the local Young Israel this afternoon and saw a parking spot, I instinctively pulled into it, though my destination was elsewhere. Only then did I look at my watch. As it turns out, it was 12:45; time for early mincha.
That's how automatic the process has become in my life after more than 10 months of kaddish for my mother, Sondra, who passed away early last year.
In less than three weeks, it will be over.
Of course, I approach the milestone with mixed feelings. Previously a religious slacker, I have somehow managed, as of this writing, to make it to shul every morning since March 27. Having a higher calling on someone else's behalf often motivates us far more than personal spirituality.
I haven't been as lucky with mincha, with the short window for that afternoon service, missing about a half-dozen, often because it slipped my mind during the busy workday until the point that it was too late. Overall, I think it will end up being a pretty good record, and one that does honor to my mother's memory.
Rabbis have advised me that once a day is the minimum kaddish requirement, and my brother and I have had a system of covering for each other to be sure that one of us could make it when the other couldn't.
Those days of regular shul attendance have benefited me as much as I believe they benefited my mother, as we are taught hat each recitation of the kaddish elevates the soul to another level. It was a boost in personal discipline, especially in these cold days when it's dark in the morning and tempting to stay in bed. I've witnessed nearly a complete yearly cycle of Torah readings and holiday observances and learned a great deal about the mechanics of the liturgy, such as under what circumstances the tachanun prayer is omitted, and how the whole day's prayers are affected on fast days.
I've reached the point where I can find page 52 of the ArtScroll siddur, the location of the first rabbinical (full) kaddish, with my eyes closed, and I've largely overcome my fear of leading the davening, though I still make plenty of mistakes.
As the completion of the mourning period nears, I wonder about the next phase of my relationship with my mother after this severing of another connection, leaving memory as the only enduring one. When she was alive I tried to be one of her advocates, always looking for doctors and therapists that could help her. The kaddish was a way to continue that advocate's role.
When it's over, I feel that I'll be searching for another role, and it makes me realize how little I knew about her. Unlike my father and other relatives, who could launch into a childhood story at the drop of a hat, she rarely spoke about herself, and around the time I realized how little I knew it was almost too late to ask. In her last two years, she couldn't talk.
One of the first things I think I'll do is read Sam Freedman's book, "Who She Was" about his own search for details about his mother's life, although he was much younger than I, 18, when she died. Over time, maybe I'll fill in some blanks, too.
The process of learning more about my mother's life won't take a three-times a day commitment, but hopefully it will be another important way to honor her legacy.