daily kaddish: a kaddish for mr. one-paw

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A guest kaddish with a guest “Kaddish” recording by David Mostardi

It’s a lesson I have to relearn each time: the hardest thing is the sudden deprivation of rituals. This is the last time Fuller will ever be on my lap. Friday was the last time Fuller played with his favorite catnip mouse. One minute he’s here, the next he’s gone.

Fuller, our handsome tabby cat, had been both losing weight and losing his appetite. One of his names was “Big Guy,” to distinguish him from his brother Gilman, the “Little Guy.” The weight loss snuck up on us, though: one day I picked him up and was shocked that he was lighter than Gilman. Blood tests suggested he was having kidney problems, so for two weeks we gave him subcutaneous fluids to flush out his system. We bought the yummiest kind of cat food to try and stimulate his appetite, but over the next two weeks his discomfort increased. His blood numbers were a little better at his follow-up exam, but an ultrasound revealed that Fuller had tumors on his kidneys and his liver. Cancer: the worst possible news. Suddenly, it was time to start thinking about when to let Fuller go.

When I got home from work the next day, Fuller was visibly worse. He was meowing strangely and couldn’t get comfortable. It was clear to me he was now in pain. I sat down next to him and cried until Arlene got home. I realized now that this was going to be much, much harder than I thought. We called our vet and long-time friend Carolynn, and arranged for her to come over the following night.

How do you spend your time when you know it is your cat’s last day alive? He can’t be made comfortable and has little appetite. So I simply tried to spend as much time with Fuller as I could. He had been spending almost all his time downstairs on the piano bench, but I was working from my upstairs office (driving into work was emotionally out of the question). So I took frequent breaks and visited him downstairs. But at one point Fuller hobbled upstairs and appeared by my side: his usual signal that he wanted to sit in my lap and rest his paws in front of my keyboard. I lifted him up into my lap and began sobbing again. This was our last keyboard lap.

When our previous cat Ariel died in 2002, we buried him in a quiet corner of the backyard and planted a fern above him. We decided to do the same for Fuller, so I went outside about two o’clock and begin digging next to Ariel’s fern. I didn’t cry while I was digging, I don’t know why. It was a dreary, foggy, drizzly day outside. Fuller’s grave was just under the eaves; half dry dirt and half muddy dirt. When I was done all my clothes were muddy too.

From five o’clock until Carolynn arrived at eight, I sat reading in a chair and Fuller lay next to me. Twice Fuller rested in his “Mr One-Paw” pose, like a sphinx but with only one paw extended. I want Carolynn to come, but I don’t want her to come. We adopted Fuller and Gilman when they were five years old, and they’re eleven now. Six years is not nearly enough time. What is Gilman thinking? He’s about to lose the closest friend he has. I want time to slow down, but then Fuller turns around again and tries to get comfortable. Carolynn knocks at the door.

We wrapped Fuller in a white towel. Inside I put Fuller’s two favorite catnip mice, “Calico” and “Treyf.” I carried him outside, laid him down and covered him up. We’d pick out a plant for him tomorrow. Amidst our tears, Arlene and I went to bed and held Gilman between us.

After breakfast, I put on my muddy clothes again. Arlene and I picked out a sword fern to put over Fuller. I carried out several bags of our gloppy clay soil and brought in several bags of compost. When I was all done with the planting and the trimming and the irrigation line, I spread the area all around with leaves from the Japanese maple, which are a perfect golden color right now.

I pictured myself finally getting out of my muddy clothes when an image leapt before my eyes. It was the imagery of the Avodah Service—that bizarre, oh-so-foreign yet oh-so-Jewish Avodah Service that we read only on Yom Kippur—where the High Priest removes his garments and washes himself between each ritual, then dons new garments in preparation for his next task. In that instant I knew how I would conclude Fuller’s burial. The cleansing ritual is for everyone, even the gravedigger. I would take off my garments, ritually immerse myself, wash myself and put on fresh garments. Fuller’s white towel now becomes his white burial shroud.

We don’t have a mikveh at home, but we do have a hot tub. Plenty good enough, I decided. If I were treating this as an actual mikveh, I could probably find some Jewish sages of yore that would agree that it really was a mikveh. As I took off my muddy clothes, it occurred to me that this would be only the second mikveh of my entire life: the first since the day I became Jewish, almost 28 years ago. All I could remember about that first mikveh was that I had recited the Shema and the Ve’ahavta. So I got in the hot tub, closed my eyes and recited the Shema and the Ve’ahavta. Then I went up and took a shower and put on completely clean garments. Fuller’s burial was concluded.

How to come up for air? Love. Hugs. Friends. Arlene and I went to see our friend Laurie later that day. Laurie has two dogs, and a third was staying the afternoon. I played fetch with Zola, scratched Nishka’s backside, and repeatedly shook hands with Annie. The boundless joy of a Labrador Retriever is a marvelous tonic. But when we get back home, Fuller is still gone. It’s going to take me a lot of time to get over this.

When we bring home a new pet, we do so knowing that we will outlive it. The day of sorrow will surely come. And yet we continue to invite these animals into our lives, because we know the years of happiness outweigh the days of sadness, and that our own lives are enriched.

Dedicated to the memory of Fuller the Cat, 1999 – 10 December 2010. Shalom, chaver.

Music notes

The bellows-shake leit motif of my arrangement is an attempt to capture the sound Fuller made when he was playing kill-the-catnip-mouse, a favorite game of his. He would trot up the stairs with the mouse in his mouth while uttering a loud growling noise, “Look at me! I’m King of the Mighty Hunters!” Then he’d bat the mouse downstairs and do it all over again.

About david

David is a musician, historian, and authority on Paul Elder & Company (San Francisco publisher & bookseller, www.paulelder.org). His personal blog can be found at davidmostardi.com. David's day job is as a systems administrator and Unix geek. David and his wife Arlene are active in the Berkeley Hillside Club (hillsideclub.org) and enjoy traveling. You have absolutely no idea how thrilled David is that the Giants won the World Series.
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11 Responses to daily kaddish: a kaddish for mr. one-paw

  1. Reb Deb says:

    Oh David. You know how it feels when you take one hand, spread apart your first and second fingers (that’s second and third, piano players), do the same with the other hand, and then push together the webbing between those fingers on opposite hands? That’s how it feels, waiting for a death that you have initiated. Painful, because things are pushing against each other so hard that both/all sides hurt. It is the most amazing and weird and awful feeling, holding that power in your hands, having made the decision and yet it has not come true yet — and yes, and yes, simultaneously wanting just to do those things that you love that you will never get to do again, and also to note them specially, to notice them and remember them … it’s all very complicated. When it’s the last time. Usually we are spared that knowledge. But with our pets, for whom we have this special responsibility about not suffering, and with farm animals when they are being (as two of our goats were this year) sold for Eid Al-Adkha, we do know beforehand. And I think that that is one of the most astonishing and difficult human moments I know of.

    With the farm animals, it also includes choosing “Who shall live and who shall die,” in addition to “When?” Further weirdness. Most of us just don’t do this in our lives, wield this power. Either of these powers.

    I have always wondered how it was/how it is/how it would be for me if I were caught up in something where I knew that I was going to die soon. Of course as a Jew, the Shoah (otherwise called the Holocaust) comes to mind immediately, but it could be anything. “Soon” makes it different. Besides any terror, how would I handle all those “lasts”?

    I utterly declaim (I mean the opposite of “claim,” and I know that’s the wrong word) any halakhic knowledge of when a hot tub is a valid mikveh, but I do know that some tubs and pools do fit the halakhic criteria. That’s just for the fun of it; you didn’t need any other validation than “it worked, ritually.”

    Z”l. Thanks for the writing.

  2. Reb Deb says:

    And I really like the Kaddish recording. Accordion is perfect for that deep-throated “Mighty Hunter” growl.

    And boy, you turn it into a niggun beautifully. I’d never thought of it like that. But it’s that Eastern European Chasidic thing all over. And get the harmonies just right.

    But that end! The cadence I surprising and I think it works. But I still can’t hear the last few measures before that hanging together right; I don’t understand how they work yet.

    Yasher koach. And again, may his memory keep on being a blessing.

    • Reb Deb says:

      Did you shorten the piece?

      • david says:

        Debora,
        Thank you so much for your kind words. Baruch tihyi.

        The decision to call Carolynn and say “it’s time, please come over” indeed haunts me. Carolynn is an old, dear friend, but Arlene and I also call her an angel. A vet is constantly enabling people to make that decision. Physicians deal with death every day, but they don’t deal with euthanasia every day.

        I was quite the folkdancer back in college, and later played lots of Eastern European music where flatted seconds and hijaz scales pepper the landscape. The musical phrases in Kaddish are straight out of this tradition, but they don’t correspond to any trope system I’m familiar with. When I first saw the sheet music, I wondered whether the Hebrew words could be sung alongside. I haven’t tried that yet, have you?

        I too was somewhat puzzled by the last three measures: the piece doesn’t go out in the same tradition as it came in. And no, I didn’t shorten the piece. I wrote my arrangement right on top of the music Erin sent me.

        It has been an honor to participate in the Kaddish Project.

        • Reb Deb says:

          David — It wouldn’t be trope anyway [for the uninitiated, that’s the system of brief musical phrases that link together to make musically punctuated phrases and sentences in chanting Hebrew Bible], it would be nusach. Nusach is a less exact system of musical motifs (motives?) that can be mixed and matched, or at least included and excluded and repeated, within some limits, in chanting Jewish prayers. (Disclaimer: I know about Ashkenazi nusach; I know that Sephardi and Mizrachi Jewish communities have their own systems of chanting prayers (and scripture, for that matter), but I know almost nothing there. Though I do have my grandfather’s multi-volume set of A.Z. Idelsohn’s magnum opus on Jewish ethnomusicology, which I think it’s finally time to rescue from my old office and bring here into the new one.) I finally have the music before me and it really reminds me of the attempt to notate nusach, which is necessarily inexact, especially rhythmically; it really helps to know what it’s supposed to sound like ahead of time (sort of, what the universe of sound is) in order to figure out how to interpret what the printed page is telling you. It was all oral/aural transmission up until recently, anyway.

          One of my responsibilities as project rebbe is to provide Erin with sung versions of Kaddish. Once the voice is recovered (which it almost is), I expect to start with the spoken Mourner’s Kaddish and proceed through as many different nuscha’ot (I think that’s the plural of nusach) as I know.

          I also remembered that a couple of weeks ago it struck me that this tune could be understood as a niggun, a Chasidic wordless melody. So I guess I had thought of it before, but I really heard it as a totally fresh idea upon hearing your recording.

          And yes and no re: putting words to the music. I’ve made brief forays. No more than a few seconds. It’s never clicked, so I’ve dropped it. Other than discovering, recently in the barn, that “Y’hey sh’may rabbah…” does fit exactly to the “stopped horn” passage. That’s in a comment somewhere earlier in these blog posts. Now that I have the music before me, I can try visually as well … but I really don’t think that that was Kogan’s intention. Then again … if I take a lot of nusach-y folk-transmission liberties with the notes, I think I might be able to create a Kaddish nusach out of it that still retains the recognizable outline of the piece. But then the “Y’hey shmey rabbah” line will come much earlier than that stopped-horn portion, and who knows what that will turn out to be? Might be illuminating.

          But I’ll say again, I doubt that Kogan was intentionally following the words when he wrote it. The feeling and length of the Mourner’s Kaddish, sure.

          Of course, here we all are assuming that it’s a Mourner’s Kaddish. As was posted somewhere toward the beginning of this project, there are actually 5 versions of Kaddish, of varying lengths. I think I may have promised Erin a .pdf of them. Better make a note for myself.

          I’ll have to listen to your recording and follow the music and see what happened that made me think part might be missing. Again, it was a beautiful recording and I’ve tucked it into my “Favorite Kaddish Versions” folder. Todah rabbah.

          • erin says:

            And once Her Rebbeness has started providing these recordings, I’m planning to try my hand at fitting the text to the music, too. I agree, it’s either nusrach or niggun. Kogan has a whole set of Chassidic Nigunim—fun tunes—along with the “Tfila” for horn and piano that I consider to be the companion to “Kaddish.”

            My thought, Deb, is that lining up your text candidate with the stopped passage might be accomplished simply by figuring out which earlier line(s) to repeat—a time-honored tradition in vocal composition, where emphasis is given to important passages by repeating them or taking more time with them through augmentation (slowing down the rhythm) or melismatic elaboration (cadenza-like flourishes of many notes per syllable) of the line. I don’t know how much this has tended to happen in Jewish psalmody (please comment), but as a Russian emigre, Lev Kogan would surely have been just as familiar with the Russian choral school—Gretchaninov, Tscheschnekov, and the boys, key players in the choral tradition that hears its echoes from a hilltop in Minnesota…

            While it’s true that we don’t know for certain that Kogan intended this to be a Mourner’s Kaddish, it does seem likely to me, from his choice of modes. More on this in my forthcoming (soon! to a blog near you!) post, “a musicological view of kogan’s ‘kaddish.'”

            Once “the voice” is recovered. Sic. Like “the knee,” not actually part of your body until it’s healed and behaving well again, right? And is it currently extra low and potentially exotic, or is it a wheezing creaky thing, as Mira’s would appear to be from her comments about gasping wordlessly between coughs?

            And yes, Rebbe, you did promise me your breakdown of the text in the five versions, along with your preferred translation in parallel. Toda raba.

  3. Reb Deb says:

    Sorry, “and you get the harmonies just right.” Don’t know where the pronoun went.

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  5. Reb Deb says:

    Well. Two funerals tomorrow. David, I’m listening to the Kaddish for Mr. One-Paw over and over; it’s just right, and for various reasons less distracting than many other versions. Thank you.

    I see now how you manage to get to the end without my noticing that it’s time yet; some very interesting interpretations of some of the passages, where we seem almost (but not quite) to gloss over them. I can follow it on the page and it’s delightful to see and hear what you did.

    Erin, I can’t make y’hey sh’mey rabbah and the stopped passage lined up. Your suggestion (and I would have put this after your comment, but I see no little “reply” button there — too many levels deep?) that I repeat phrases is out of the wrong performance tradition. It’s rabbinically frowned upon and uncommon in Eastern European nusach; a word or brief phrase, but no more. You’ll see — sorry, you’ll hear — when I start recording vocal versions.

    And even were I to depart from traditional practice to that extent, I’d still run out of music well before I ran out of text *afterward.* So no go. How many times have I said this? I don’t think Kogan was working directly with words here.

  6. david says:

    Debora, baruch tihyi, I am honored and misty-eyed. Involving myself in the Project has indeed helped in keeping Fuller alive in my mind.

    Besides the feline growling effect, I separated the piece into three sections: at the beginning and end I’m playing open fifths in my left hand, while in the middle I’m playing chords with major & minor thirds so as to emphasize the Eastern European flavor. The other Fulleresque bit I included was the sudden quick downward arpeggio in bars 14-15, because Fuller would suddenly run down- or upstairs when he was playing catnip mouse: pretty much the only time he ever moved quickly.

    And just now, as I was writing this and humming it in my head, I reached the end of bar 15 and got a sudden whiff of Birkat HaChodesh, one of my favorite rituals to lead from the bimah. (The tune I use comes from the singing of Julie Batz, who’s a cantor in Half Moon Bay.) It’s the first time any part of Kaddish has reminded me of a davening melody.

    Thanks again, Debora. It means a lot.
    David

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