by Nancy Sohn Schwartz
Originally posted on Rabbitziona.com. Reposted with permission from author.
Three months ago, just after my 69th birthday, I went to the mikveh. It was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Ten years ago, while attending a CAJE Conference at Ohio State University, I was approached by a man, who told me that I should go to the mikveh.
“Mikveh is Tikvah (Hope)” was his mantra. This man approached pretty much every woman who attended the conference. I was in a hurry to get to one of my many classes so I simply said “Okay. I’ll go.”
Given the fact that I was close to 60 years old at the time, and had been to the mikveh only once in my life, just before my wedding day, I didn’t believe it was going to happen. It was just easier to simply say, “I’ll go,” and then be on my way.
And yet, those spoken words to a stranger somehow stayed within me, deeply hidden, even though my thoughts had forgotten all about it… after all, it was a promise.
Almost two years ago, on the 13th day of Tishrei, my beloved husband Peter passed away. We had been married for almost 44 years. Suddenly my life changed forever. For the first time in over four decades, I was no longer someone’s wife. I had to mourn not only my husband, but also a part of who I was.
Thanks to the love, kindness, and generosity of my friends, my temple community and my amazing family, I received the comfort and support I needed to give me strength. Several months after my husband died, I was given the incredible gift of a trip to Israel… the fulfillment of a dream that Peter and I had shared.
While I was there, I met a new friend. She had also lost her husband. She told me that the year after her husband died, she went to the mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, Massachusetts, not far from where I lived. She said that she found the experience inspirational and healing.
And suddenly, the words I exchanged with the stranger from many years before were awakened within me. And so, a year and a half after my husband’s death, I kept that promise.
It was about a half hour drive, and I was nervous, without really being sure why I felt that way. A beloved friend drove there with me and waited outside the mikveh. Because this was not for conversion, I would be alone, unless I asked for assistance. I would be alone… with my thoughts and my memories.
I remembered, from my first and only experience in the mikveh, that I was to shower, and immerse in the waters. But I was unprepared for what I would feel this time.
As I began to read the “Seven Kavonot (intentions) for Mikveh Preparation,” created by Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters, I undressed, and wept freely and openly, as if my soul were bare, along with my body. I listened to the sound of my breath, such a holy sound, and with a feeling of total connectedness, my tears continued to flow, as I began my shower.
I carefully followed the directions I was given… to wash my body with intention. I paid attention to the creases between my fingers and my toes, the soft skin on my thighs, my shoulders and my arms. I wept as I carefully washed my breasts that had nursed my three babies, who had grown into three amazing and wonderful men. I washed the soft skin of my abdomen, covering my womb that had carried life. I massaged my face and felt the warm water mingle with my tears. I shampooed my hair, and caressed my scalp, and remembered how my beloved husband would often lovingly shampoo my hair in the shower. I washed every inch of my body with intention, and though I have taken countless showers in my life, I had never felt like this before. I saw my body as a holy and sacred vessel that had brought life into this world; that had shared life with my husband. I didn’t want the shower to end.
I remembered how I had showered before the mikveh when I was a young bride and I thought about how different that time had been. I remembered how I was so young then, in my early twenties, so filled with dreams of the future, taking this rite of passage before my wedding ceremony. How different it was for me now.
I entered the mikveh and saw the pool of living waters before me. Before immersing, I read another prayer of intention, and felt as if I were watching myself, listening, as I read aloud that I am now moving beyond the formal mourning period, into life without my beloved husband. I hesitated before I immersed, not wanting to go forward without him. I waited. And I wept.
And then with intention and purpose, I closed my eyes, and immersed in the pool of living waters, reciting a blessing before each immersion, coming closer and closer to the fullness of life with each immersion, and feeling myself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually whole.
I immersed with the memories of all those whose lives had touched mine … my beloved husband, my beloved parents who had given me life… my beloved grandparents, sister, niece, other relatives and friends… so many loved ones I have lost. I asked for their guidance and their blessing as I move forward in life, knowing that their presence and their love will always be with me.
Before I left the mikveh that day, I realized that although I wasn’t exactly sure before, on the drive over, why I was going, I knew now why I went. It was not only to fulfill a promise I made to a stranger many years ago. It was to ask permission to move forward into the fullness of life. And though it is still devastating to be without my beloved husband, I feel that for me mikveh was tikvah, hope. I look forward to the dreams and possibilities that still lie ahead for me.
Nancy Sohn Swartz is the author of In Our Image: God’s First Creatures,and the children’s board book How did the Animals Help God? This fabulous children’s midrash is also available as an interactive ipad experience.