Identity Theft and the Angel of Death

We stopped her before she gave him her driver’s license number.

Amazon, she said, when we asked who she was on the phone with. Once again, her Kindle wasn’t working. When she’d pick it up to read, it wasn’t opening to the page where she had stopped the night before. In addition to the Kindle, she owned a MacBook, an iphone, an ipad, and an Apple watch. She texted, emailed, and FaceTimed with family and friends. When she wasn’t playing Candy Crush, she was scrolling through her Facebook feed. For a woman of her generation—she was ninety-one the day we found her frustrated and on the phone with someone she thought was a Kindle support technician—she was pretty good with technology.

Still, I wasn’t convinced that the Kindle was the problem. I suspected that she simply didn’t remember where she left off, night after night, with her reading. She suffered from terrible insomnia. She read to help herself fall asleep. She also drank wine—in bed, a glass or three, believing it, too, would help her sleep. Maybe without realizing it, she swiped and swiped the screen, advancing the pages of whatever book she was reading, before dropping the Kindle beside her and nodding off for an hour or two. Maybe she had forgotten the last two or ten screens she had read.

How did you get the number for tech support, I asked her.

I Googled Kindle tech support, she said.

Has he asked you for anything else?

A photo, she said. And my social security number.

Don’t give him anything, I said. I’ll look at your Kindle and figure out what’s going on.

She was one or two bits of information away from becoming, my mother, a victim of identity theft. Fortunately, my wife and I arrived at her apartment in New Jersey just in time to stop her from giving herself—parts of herself—away. Seeing her like this—frazzled, angry, confused—brought my identity, part of my identity, into sharp focus. Me: an adult son of an elderly, vulnerable mother.


“I give you my portion
     of the world’s worth… “

That’s Solomon ibn Gabirol, the great eleventh century Hebrew poet of Muslim Spain, in his devotional poem “The Hour of Song,” translated by Peter Cole. But he’s not talking to tech support. He’s talking to God. Is God a scam artist?


A year and a half later, I received a text from my brother. Things have changed. Can we talk? At the end of our most recent visit with mother, a couple of weeks before I received that text, I told her that we would be in Florida for eighteen days. So, I said, you either have to die right away, before we leave, or wait until December 17 when we’ll be back in Asheville. I was joking, of course. I thought she’d appreciate the joke. But I was also serious.

On a bench overlooking Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island, I listened to my brother describe the situation and lay out the options: Mom’s not drinking or eating. The end is near. We can continue with hospice at Brookdale, the assisted living place where she’d been living for the last year, or we can have her moved to a residential hospice center where they are better equipped to provide all the care available to keep her comfortable.

Immediately after we hung up, I called my mom. The hospice nurse, who was in the room with her, answered the phone. I’ll hold the phone up to her ear, the nurse told me, so you can speak to her, but she won’t respond. I asked the nurse if I should return to New Jersey. If you want to see her again, yes. What if I were to get there tomorrow, I asked. It will probably be too late.


My mother had a great sense of humor. She was strong, fierce when she needed to be, self-sacrificing, and wise. Self-sacrificing and wise in the way she managed her relationships with each of her three sons and our families. Fierce in the way she demanded satisfaction from the companies and services for which she was paying. Strong in the way she divorced, at twenty-three, a man, my biological father, who was emotionally abusive to her as well as in the way she cared for her grandsons after their mother, my sister-in-law, died of ovarian cancer at fifty.


For two years since her husband died, she fought to retain control of her life. The first year she lived—endured—quietly. She mostly remained alone in her apartment, completing the daily crossword puzzle in the Philadelphia Inquirer and dozing to “General Hospital” or reruns of “Law and Order: SVU.” The second year was not so quiet, as she moved unhappily among hospitals, a rehab center, and an assisted living facility.

Now she was giving it all away or having it all taken away from her: the rest of her identity, her being. And I wasn’t there to tell her—to resist the strong urge to tell her—stop! Don’t give him—or Him—anything else!  


                       “When you return
to the dust of your birth,
     you’ll take with you none
          of your honor and wealth”

That’s Ibn Gabirol again, this time from his devotional poem “Forget Your Grief.”

“Why go in fear / of earth’s sorrows,” Gabirol asks earlier in the poem.

                     “Learn and be wise—
tremble before
     the promise of death.
          Trust in his ways—
you may just save
     your self in return
          to your God and maker,
your master and Lord—
     whose account of your action
          will shape your reward.”

Chiasmus: “your God and maker, / your master and Lord”. It makes everything seem so balanced, so harmonious. Entirely unlike my mother’s final year, months, weeks, days. Death didn’t seem like a promise to her, the final step before she would appear before her maker and master who would determine her award. But if she did see it as a promise, it was a promise to steal her identities: mother, grandmother, wife, friend, congregational leader—identities to which she fiercely clung.

“Why, why be
     distraught and appalled,
          abject in a world
the spirit leaves
     as the body gives way?”

“Forget Your Grief,” writes Peter Cole, is a penitential poem of exhortation included in the afternoon service on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Gabirol implores the poem’s addressee to remember the “promise of death” so as to live a life worthy of receiving God’s reward in the world-to-come.

My mother was a good woman. Like all of us, she was imperfect. For much of her adult life, she attended services on Yom Kippur. If she practiced teshuvah, returning from misdirections to a holy way of life, I don’t know. I assume she did.


Would she have been comforted, had she known Gabirol’s poems, with his vision of the reward awaiting her, assuming she would be judged favorably by God?


I wasn’t there to hold her hand—to accompany her all the way to her final breath. That’s part of my identity now: the son who wasn’t there to comfort his mother as she gave herself away, as she gave her spirit, at last, wholly to God.

Richard Chess has published four books of poetry, the most recent of which is Love Nailed to the Doorpost. Professor emeritus from UNC Asheville, where he directed the Center for Jewish Studies for 30 years, Chess serves on the boards of Yetzirah: A Hearth for Jewish Poetry and Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, where he co-directs its Faith in Arts project. You can find him at .