Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Lost and Found Month of August, Part 4

Please let me clear up some mistakes from my last blog post. The date posted may confuse because when I begin a blog post it lists at that date no matter how long I work on it. Usually, I copy the whole thing and paste it into the finish date, but I forgot to do that last time in my hurry to post. Also, Ari pointed out some minor misinformation in that he and Jessica were flying from Dulles and not National Airport in Washington, DC. National was an easier place for us to return the car. Also, he reminded me, having done most of the driving, that we were almost equally uncomfortable in Georgia as we were 35 years ago because I-95 was undergoing major reconstruction and we were driving through very narrow “cattle chutes” with tractor trailers, bumper-to-bumper for almost two hours. The Shoney’s was in South Carolina, just over the border from Georgia.

Now, on to my final blog post for August. I plan to zip through the whole month of September in one post and begin to catch up with my bi-weekly posting schedule this month, so that I can remember, without wracking my brains, what I actually did each day.

Haley’s wedding reception on Saturday evening, August 22, was beautiful, despite the rain outside. Under the soaring and intricate ceiling of a lovingly-restored antique building, all was warm and cheery. There is a saying in Judaism that, if a wedding procession and a funeral procession were to cross each other, the wedding procession takes precedence. There is almost no priority in our religion that should interfere with creating a happy environment for a bride and groom. We had assured Ken and Randi, and Haley and Erik, that the wedding would take precedence over all other considerations. Religiously, we were in a sort of catch-22. We had lost our mother, but we would not be officially and halakchically (in accordance with Jewish law) in mourning and bound by the traditions of mourning until after her funeral. So, we rejoiced in their happiness—we ate, we drank, and we danced, knowing that death comes all too soon and occasions for happiness are all too fleeting.

On Sunday morning, Haley and Erik hosted a brunch at their home in New Jersey for family and friends before leaving on their honeymoon. Our drive there was strange and wonderful. We had not been together as a family, just the four of us, for a very long time, possibly since Jess and Ari were teenagers. When we went through the front door, I instinctively turned around, waiting for Mom, as I have unconsciously been doing for years and did it again on my way out, although I knew she would no longer be a part of my life. I wonder how long I will be turning around, waiting for her, before the habit disappears?

Since we were already in New Jersey, and not far from Lion’s Gate, where Saul’s mom resides in an Alzheimer’s unit called “Safe Haven,” we decided to pay her a visit. Her condition appears to be deteriorating each time we see her. We no longer find her sitting with the group in the common area outside her room watching television. When we knock on her door, she has a chair pressed up against the doorknob, which she has to remove before we enter. The facility puts wheels on all the chairs so that the staff cannot be locked out by this move, but although the apparently heavy mood-altering medication keeps her spirits up, the old paranoia keeps creeping in to disturb her. She has gone from the skin-and-bones that resulted from forgetting to eat before we moved her out of her home, into our home, then into Jessica’s home, and then back to us again, to being quite fat now that she does nothing but sit, eat, and sleep. Her feet and ankles are extremely swollen. She has difficulty maintaining a conversation in English now, and appears to have lost her other languages almost completely. When she opened her door to us, she was all smiles to see us, but frequently, her conversation would trail off and she would forget what she was saying. Often, her conversation made no sense. She seemed to grasp the gravity of our conversation for a few moments at the end of our visit when we told her that Mom had died and that the funeral would be taking place in the morning.

Mom had pre-arranged to have a graveside service, not desiring her family and friends to undergo the sometimes harrowing experience of a long processional drive to the cemetery, so we all drove ourselves to Roosevelt Cemetery where many of our family are interred, arriving shortly before 11:00 a.m. I would not have chosen a graveside service under the circumstances because I feared that the noontime sun in August might take a toll on some of the more elderly participants. I had arranged for extra chairs to be set up under the canopy and was very glad that I had. We also arranged to have a case of water bottles with us nearby. As it turned out, the weather was not unbearably hot and a cool breeze made the day more tolerable.

Alex’s parents, who had been babysitting during the wedding and on Sunday, brought the girls with them to the cemetery. Jessica felt that seeing the reality of death was preferable to what their imaginations might have cooked up had they been barred. They brought notes that they had drawn with them to put in Mom’s grave. Izzy balked, though, because she did not want to drop her note into the grave because it would get dirty. Jessica put their notes on top of the coffin, but the breeze blew them off into the grave, anyway.

Rabbi Howard Addison, our rabbi, gave her eulogy, and recited the appropriate prayers. Having known Mom for many years, he spoke eloquently about her warmth and grace and about her love for her family. On Sunday evening, Saul, Jess, Ari, and I decided to jointly write a eulogy for Mom. Jessica was the only one of us capable of reading it without breaking down. That is her nature and her gift. Ken spoke also. The following are the texts that we read:

Last night, we all sat down in the home that we shared together with our mother and grandmother for the last 16 years to share some of our favorite memories.

We have always joked that, on a 20-minute subway ride, she would know the entire life history of whoever chose to sit next to her, and she would share stories about all of us as well. Complete strangers opened up to her because of her naturally benevolent disposition and could feel that her curiosity and compassion towards them was sincere and not of the busybody sort. From the sandwich lady on the corner in front of her office, to her closest friends and relatives, everyone could sense that she genuinely rejoiced with them for every success in their lives, and truly felt their pain when things weren’t going so well. She loved being among people, particularly her family, and everyone loved her in return.

We all fondly remember the many Shabbat dinners she spent with our family, which began many years before we came to live together. We kids remember spending countless hours exploring the many hidden treasures of her basement, and long walks around Melrose Park with Bandit. And so many people here have been serenaded at one point or another by Safety Songs like “When you Ride a Bicycle,” and “Ice Skating is Nice Skating.”

All throughout her life and even up to her last breath, she took almost every bit of what was probably more than her fair share of adversity, absorbed it without bitterness, and converted it to compassion and consideration. She was fiercely independent and self-reliant, and did what she knew in her heart to be right no matter what anyone else thought.

Our lives have been so enriched by having her just down the hall to always offer those magic words of advice, wisdom, encouragement and love that somehow made everything seem better. Her openness to new ideas and experiences grew out of her love for us, and her desire to accommodate our diverse interests. Over the years, she developed tastes for sushi, Indian and Pho, but never did warm up to eating anything that could look back up at her from the plate. And in her final years, when getting around wasn’t so easy, she soldiered on with us through a veritable monsoon, just to fulfill her life’s dream of attending the Rose Parade in person—even if that was the first and only time it ever rained in LA for the Rose Parade.

One of our favorite quotes from Pirkei Avot, a book of Jewish proverbs, states: Eizeh Hu Ashir, Hasame’ach B’chelko, which translates roughly to: He who is wealthy is he who happy with his portion in life.

One of her most admirable qualities was that she never felt or expressed jealousy toward another human being her whole life long. How many of us can say that we never felt a twinge of envy when a friend or sibling received a blessing we had sought, but which was denied to us. What an incredible legacy for us all to emulate!

Her life was so interwoven with ours, that we now find ourselves overwhelmed with a flurry of memories and anecdotes too numerous to expand upon here today. We did want to share, however, just a few sound bites of what we will call “Evelynguistics.”
  • Who want dad’s roll?
  • Just a half a cup.
  • That’s why there’s chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.
  • Don’t give Phil any D-E-S-E-R-T (to which Phil quipped, “It has two S’s, Ev.”
  • I’ll learn how to kick that high.
  • I’m only eating the small M&Ms.
  • Bom-Bom-Butz Keppe
  • I’m not asleep.
  • I could a make a meal out of this.
  • Wear it in the “besta” health.
The following is the text of Ken’s eulogy:

I am humbled and privileged to stand before you today and say I am Philip and Evelyn’s son.

This truly remarkable woman has always been Mom to so many people, not just my wife, my sisters, and their husbands. She has touched so many. She has been Evelyn, then simply and lovingly “Ev” to my father and those closest to her. Aunt Ev…, Mom…, Grandmom…, and GG to the rest of us. The people in her life have always been her greatest joy. Always a giver. Always providing. Always caring and nurturing. Always sharing. Always helping. Always doing for people. Always offering her boundless energy.

Our mother has passed on. She is not here… but I still see her clearly. She can’t speak… but I can hear her words. She can’t reach out and touch me… but I can still feel her inside of me…, and inside all of you.

Her energy and light ARE NOT diminished. They have grown. Look at her family and friends. You can feel it here today. We all experience this thing called life… (L-I-F-E as my mother would say) …and wonder what it is all about. Very wise people have offered a host of explanations. Evelyn has already shown us the answer.

Life is energy. Energy grows in each of us. It doesn’t die, it can’t be destroyed. Standing here today, I know she is still giving us her wisdom and energy. The advice is crisp and clear. Give your energy to everyone you touch and it is multiplied. She gave it to her parents, her brothers and her sister, her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and to anyone that was fortunate enough to have known her. Her energy lives on. It grows with each passing moment. It sustains us.

There are many memories that will live on. These are the essence of what my mother lived for. They are her legacy. In her own words, which became her mantra, she had no regrets. She would say during the most trying times, “color me happy.” Today, I am sure this is true. She is with those she loves. Mom, we love you too.

Following the Kaddish prayer, as we arranged, people were given the option of leaving before the the coffin was lowered into the grave and the surrounding paraphernalia removed. The family then proceeded with shovelfuls of dirt, piled alongside, to fill in the grave to the top. It is considered a mitzvah, or obligatory good deed, to participate in the covering of a grave as it is an act for which there can be no earthly reward. We are lucky to have many strong, robust family members who participated in this task, which was not easy considering the heat of the day. After that, we proceeded back to our home where a repast was waiting. Our friends, Larry and Natalie, had waited for ample trays of smoked fish, bagels, cream cheese, veggies and danish pastry to be delivered from nearby Pumpernick’s Deli and had set up coffee, tea and drink stations and a washing station outside the door, as is customary. While it may seem ludicrous to have to deal with such concerns after losing a loved one, food is an important part of our rituals, because it is a symbol of the affirmation of life when one might be tempted to withdraw from it.

Beginning with that Monday evening, on which Alex conducted a meaningful memorial service, (which started a little late because our friend, Michael, went home to retrieve his shofar so that we could hear the poignant sound of it daily during the month of Elul preceding the High Holy Days), we received a host of visitors for the rest of the shiva period. Mom’s sister’s rabbi, Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, conducted a wonderful service for us, as did Rabbi Addison. We had many friends who came to offer condolences from Temple Sinai, from MBI-EE, and from Adath Jeshurun. Relatives, neighbors and friends of Ken and Randi, Adele and Larry, and ours, provided lunches and dinners for us and sent or brought bountiful food packages. Far away friends and relatives called to tell us stories about our mother and father in their younger days. We were surrounded and sustained by our loved ones for that whole week.

After that, the school year began and Adele and I began the tedious process of going through Mom’s things and her files so that we could choose and distribute favorite items and provide needed information for Ken, whom we had chosen to be our executor. During the following thirty days (shloshim) Saul and I went to services every day to say Kaddish for Mom. Adele came almost every day to go through copious piles of paper, and Ken began the process of sorting it all out.

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