Mother's Day

Leah Pisar and her son Jeremiah on his 7th birthday.
Courtesy of Leah Pisar

This Mother’s Day, What I Hope For Is Resilience

I was three months pregnant when my husband died. I tell myself now that as Jérôme slipped away, he knew he was not leaving me alone.

This year, May 8th will carry a particularly bittersweet tinge: Children who are lucky enough to have mothers will celebrate them; the free world will commemorate the end of World War II while Ukraine is ablaze; and I will quietly mourn the passing of my husband.

It was the spring of 2014, and I was barely three months pregnant, after multiple miscarriages and rounds and rounds of IVF. We were far from home, incredibly fortunate medical nomads in Portugal, where Jérôme, who had just turned 51, was being treated for cancer at one of the most cutting-edge institutions in the world. He had to be hospitalized very suddenly in a small local clinic, when his lungs unexpectedly collapsed. Still, the oncologists sounded cautiously optimistic. He was making good strides, they were devising a new treatment, and they were preparing to move him from the ICU into a private room, where I could stay with him, before we would eventually begin our long journey home. All I could do was hope, and count my blessings.

The evening before, I had euphorically informed him that the test results had come in and we were expecting a boy. Groggy from the morphine, he found the strength to place his hand on my belly, to break into a beaming smile, tears forming in his sparkly green eyes, and to say, in his native French: “How fantastic. I have some ideas about names!”

There is an old Jewish parable that if a funeral procession and a wedding procession meet at an intersection, the wedding party has priority, because we must look ahead and celebrate life.

I went back to the hotel and spent the night thinking about the future and how I was going to pull him out of there, get him back on his feet, and we would live happily ever after with the little critter that we had already nicknamed Centimètre.

The next day, when I returned to the Hospital da Cruz Vermelha, giddy from the morning phone report that he’d had a good night and was poised to exit the ICU, my favorite doctor, the cheerful and compassionate Maria-Joao, was not there. Instead, I was intercepted by the stern pulmonologist who, without an ounce of humanity, stopped me in my tracks, blurting out, “He just died.”

My field of vision went instantly dark. My knees began to quiver and everything started to spin. Then, suddenly, something happened — call it a burst of adrenaline, call it survival instinct, call it maternal superpower. I stood up straight, looked at the medical team, and said to them, in very approximate Portuguese but with incontestable authority, “Now I want you to do whatever it takes to help me keep this baby.”

The author, Leah Pisar, and her husband Jérôme on the day they eloped in 2011.Courtesy of Author

There is an old Jewish parable that if a funeral procession and a wedding procession intersect at a road crossing, the wedding party has priority, because we must look ahead and celebrate life.

In the eight years since, I have not mourned Jérôme in “traditional” ways. I have not set foot in the cemetery in Paris since his funeral, and have seldom gone into religious contemplation. Rather, every May 8th, I go to a museum and have an imaginary conversation with one of his favorite paintings; I get lost in his beloved books of poetry; and I listen to Schubert and Bach, because that’s what he loved to do.

These are very personal choices, and we must each find our own paths to coexist with grief. Mine has been to keep his spirit alive and thriving in my own ways, to sob when I feel the need to sob, and to laugh when I want to laugh. And always, every day, to continue to count my blessings. Most of all, it is to raise Jeremiah (his father never got to suggest any names, because that was our last conversation, so I chose one that melds both of ours), now 7 years old, to be happy, kind, and resilient. It’s not always easy, and the path is strewn with obstacles, but I tell myself that, as Jérôme slipped away, he knew he was not leaving me alone.

This year, as I ponder the coincidence of these dates — Mother’s Day, an anniversary of war and peace, Jérôme’s passing — what I feel most of all is gratitude, and the desire to celebrate him with utter joy for having given me the gift of motherhood, a gift that I try never to take for granted.

I know it’s not so easy to be joyful right now. The news is overwhelmingly negative, and many of us are also dealing with personal tragedies, large and small. I feel despair at the pain that so many must endure — parents whose children perish in school shootings, are targets of violent discrimination, or are afflicted by incurable illnesses; single mothers who struggle to put food on their kids’ plates; infants whose brave fathers never return from combat. We are all incredulous before the newsreels of mothers from Ukraine and other war-torn parts of the world losing husbands, parents, and children, having to flee their homes and leave everything behind, but somehow never giving up hope.

Where do they draw this resilience? What makes them keep moving to seek shelter and safety for their children? Because there is no choice.

German philosopher Theodor Adorno is often quoted as having said there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. Oh, how I disagree. There must be poetry, there must be beauty, there must be joy, and there must be love. This lesson was taught to me by my own father, Samuel Pisar, who survived numerous Nazi extermination camps, lost his entire family, and yet somehow emerged an optimist, intent never to lament, but to look toward the horizon and live a full life, a happy life, and to make whatever small difference he could in the world, for the better.

The author with her parents and her newborn son.Courtesy of the author.

I, for one, am determined that the sweetness must outweigh the bitterness. I have known great good fortune in life and also deep sadness. Within a 15-month period, I buried the man I loved more than words will ever express, gave birth to a child who delights me more than I could ever imagine, and lost my heroic father, who was the pillar of my existence. The greatest battle — and I feel that I am winning it — is never to feel sorry for myself.

Recently, I came across a verse by the ancient Persian writer Rumi: “If everything around you seems dark, look again, you may be the light.”

So, on this Mother’s Day, I have a message to all the mothers and fathers out there: Love your children, thank the universe for giving them to you, do your best to show them what is right, and try to teach them to be resilient. Not tough, but resilient. To strive for the light. This is the greatest gift a parent can give.

Leah Pisar is chair of Project Aladdin, an international nongovernmental organization that works to counter anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and racism and extremism through education and youth outreach.