Photo Credit: Loneman Photography
Baby Chana Laya

It was a moment that will forever remain etched in my mind.

Date: Tuesday, December 14, 2010.

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Time: 8:45 a.m.

Location: Seventh floor of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

My four siblings and I, along with our beloved father, stood around my mother’s hospital bed as she breathed her last breath. We prayed the traditional Jewish prayers when a soul is departing, we held hands tightly, and we sang a chassidic melody called “Shamil” as we said goodbye to the woman who was everything to us.

That morning we cried, we laughed, we tried to internalize, but in vain.

After her burial later that day and the weeklong shiva mourning observance, our family finally made it back home to the mountainous scenery of beautiful Bozeman, Montana. That Friday at our communal Shabbos table, I began with a l’chaim, a toast:

“We begin by saying l’chaim for our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, that as we have a peaceful Shabbos here in Bozeman, so should they; and for my mother’s neshamah – Chana Leah bat Reb Shimon – for continued aliyah.”

This tradition continued for six and a half years.

Nearly three months ago, on August 18, Chavie and I adopted our fifth child, newborn Chana Laya. I’d been waiting for years to have the opportunity to name a child for my mom, as my four siblings and many cousins have done; but in the world of adoption we really don’t know what to expect, if anything at all. I wanted this not only because it’s a beautiful name, not only because it’s a symbolic gesture, but because I believed it would fill a void.

It turns out I was right.

The author’s mother dancing with him at his wedding.
The author’s mother dancing with him at his wedding.

My mom and I were very close. She was my confidant, my mentor, my guide. We’d speak via phone every day, and since her passing I do my very best to keep in touch with the values she ingrained in me. Aside from a few visits with Chaya and one visit with Zeesy, she didn’t get to meet or know any of our other children. I wanted to be able to reference her name, Chana Leah, countless times each day, hoping it would bring me the comfort I so desperately desired.

I keep in touch with my mom’s close friends, visit her grave whenever I’m in New York, and love reading old cards and letters she sent me and I sent her, but I wanted a really tangible connection.

My Friday night l’chaim toast was my way of connecting. I recognized that life does go on after we mourn the loss of a loved one, and we do start forgetting a bit, so I was compelling myself to never forget the mother I loved and who nurtured me with such utter dedication.

Yet I needed more. So God gifted us with our Chana Laya – our little princess – a 24/7 living legacy of the woman who meant, and means, the world to me.

That first Shabbos after Chana Laya’s birth, I paused as I toasted l’chaim and said, “We are changing our weekly l’chaim. We have a Chana Laya. We don’t need the symbolic reminder because she is our living reminder. I will toast my wife, Chavie, and children Shoshana, Chaya, Zeesy, Menny, and Chana Laya, that Hashem grant them revealed good.”

My mom will always be alive in our home and is as relevant as ever. I am certain that every now and then I will shed a tear for her premature passing and in memory of her tender embrace, but mostly I will enjoy sharing her story with my five kiddos.

I’m not ignoring my beloved mom. I simply stopped mourning my loss, as her life is now instilled in our children, whom we will raise in the way she would have loved – with manners, respect, and a healthy Jewish identity.

As King Solomon wrote, “There is a season for everything…. A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time of wailing and a time of dancing.”

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Rabbi Chaim Bruk is executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. He can be reached at Rabbi@JewishMontana.com.