Friday, January 6, 2012

A Cathartic End to 2011—The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

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Our new kitchen was completed, competently and strikingly in two consecutive days culminating on Thursday, December 1. After that, we spent every other day at the beginning of December driving back and forth from New Jersey. Lion’s Gate’s hospice staff had called Rif on that same Thursday evening a few days after we returned from our Thanksgiving vacation to deliver the information that Sima was “actively dying.” When we arrived on Friday morning, she was practically comatose and was in that peculiar breathing pattern that I now know is the signal that the end is near. Rif had been with her mother for about an hour when we arrived, and as Saul stood holding his mother’s right hand and greeted her, she turned her head, gave a hint of a smile, and blew him a kiss. It was so brief and illusory that we could hardly believe it happened at all, but Rif had been standing and holding her left hand and had seen it, and I had, also, sitting at the foot of her bed in her room. This was to be the last time that any of us saw any sign of responsiveness. We spent all day Friday at her bedside. We met some of the most wonderful and selfless people during this trying experience. The Lion’s Gate staffers who had known her for several years kept stopping in to check on her and share memories. In the afternoon, she was visited by a hospice rabbi, who sat with us, said prayers for her, and played a bit of “Jewish geography” with us before rushing home for Shabbat. Hospice volunteers, who were strangers to us, came and sat with her for hours, sometimes into the wee hours to relieve us. I can’t say enough in praise of these exemplary human beings. Alex prepared Shabbat dinner for us; we drove home, and then back again on Saturday morning. Jess joined us after services bringing us snacks. On Saturday evening, before we left, Saul said goodbye to his mom, not knowing if she would make it through another day. Rif took up the evening watch. By 1:00 a.m., Rif was exhausted. She drove home, five minutes away, and took a sleeping pill. As she swallowed it, the hospice called to say her mother had died. Having spent a year with hospice nurses in my home for my mom, I had warned Rif that her mother, if she followed the usual pattern, would wait until she left to finally pass on. It appears to be a common pattern, especially among women with their daughters. Officially, she died on Sunday, December 4, 2011. According to our tradition, she was attended by a shomer until the funeral on Tuesday, December 6. Saul and I had been afraid to broach the subject of funeral arrangements, the relationship with his sister having been so recently revived, so we were relieved to hear that everything down to the limousine, choice of coffin, funeral home, etc. had been prearranged and prepaid when she had entered Lion’s Gate. We drove again to New Jersey on Sunday afternoon to meet with the funeral home director, Harry Platt, who could not have been nicer or more accommodating. Afterwards, we had a late lunch at the Marlton Diner and went back to Rif and Paul’s house to wait for Rabbi Lindemann from Temple Beth Sholom, who was meeting with us in order to prepare the eulogy. Jess joined us for the meeting.

Monday was spent working out all the logistics. Rif and Paul arranged for Meredith to fly to Baltimore, where she was picked up by Ari on his way here from DC. Our friends, Bob and Loretta, whom we had not seen for a long time, paid us a visit on Monday, as they could not be here later in the week. I spent a few hours getting our home ready for the seven-day shiva period and trying to arrange kosher cold-cut trays for what was to be a late afternoon repast for the mourners. In the end, I decided to make up the trays myself on Monday evening. I called Alla at Simon’s Kosher Meat where they have been wonderful to us for many years. She agreed to have the meat sliced by late that afternoon, and Jessica picked it up along with bread from a kosher bakery on her way here to help. She had arranged for Yona to sleep over and for Erica to babysit and take care of putting out the trays. Adele and Larry, who preferred not to go to the cemetery, went back directly from the funeral to help her. I went to Produce Junction, Giant Supermarket, and Costco and bought veggies and other necessities. By late Monday evening, everything was in place and I was satisfied. For dessert, Jessica brought back all the leftover pareve sweet breads I had baked for our Rosh Hashanah meals. We had a dozen loaves of zucchini bread, strawberry bread, and date bread wrapped in the freezer.

On Tuesday morning, Saul, Ari and I drove to Rif and Paul’s home in New Jersey where a limousine took us and Meredith to the funeral home. Jess came with Alex, Sami and Izzy. Izzy sat next to me during the funeral and, as is her way, asked an unending barrage of poignant questions about everything that was said and done. Meredith and Paul both spoke beautifully about Sima, particularly about the bonding experiences they had had every summer on vacation at Hilton Head Island. Rabbi Lindemann’s eulogy was excellent and we all felt that he really captured the essence of what we had been trying to convey about her life and personality. After the funeral, we proceeded on a harrowing, hour-long drive to Mt. Sharon Cemetery in Springfield, PA. Jess joined us in the limousine. We narrowly escaped a terrifying collision on the Delaware Memorial Bridge when a semi decided to push into our lane between our limo and the hearse. The day was gray, but not too cold, and fortunately, the rain held off until friends and family had almost finished filling the grave. Izzy asked if she could participate in the mitzvah of filling the grave with me. After I checked, and everyone said it was okay, we shoveled the dirt together.

The next lap of the day began with another hour-long drive home in the limo. Erica, Adele and Larry had everything in order by the time the mourners began to arrive. Our home filled with family, friends, and food every evening from the beginning. Saul’s colleagues at Chestnut Hill College were wonderful about covering for him during this time. To our surprise, and appreciation, some of Saul’s very Orthodox relatives from both Brooklyn and Monsey, NY,  paid us a visit, whereupon we pulled out the family tree chuppah (wedding canopy) and the books we have with pages for each family member so that we can collect more information.

In the middle of our shiva, a severe wind-driven rainstorm caused our kitchen ceiling to leak right over the kitchen table. Our contractor came the next day and cut open the ceiling to try to find the source of the leak. As of now, the jury is still out on what caused the problem. We haven’t had any leaks since, and Saul taped the ceiling with a series of plastic trash bags to prevent cold air leakage and dust. Jamie made a shiva visit bringing Presley and our newest family addition, Evan. On Sunday, the sixth day of our shiva, cousin Abie’s wife, Fagie, called from her hospice bed to say goodbye to each of us. She was a year younger than I, and had been battling cancer valiantly for almost five years. When I saw her a year-and-a-half ago at Abie’s mother’s shiva, she needed help to arise from a chair. Every time I thought of her, I wondered for how long she would be able to keep up the struggle to live and to be with her close-knit family. We had not been close over the years, but I liked her and all we could say in that final conversation was that we wished there had been more time in both our lives to spend more of it together. What can you really say to someone who is taking leave of this life that will somehow be meaningful? Fagie died on the following Wednesday evening and we attended her funeral and helped to bury her on Friday. Shiva is suspended for Shabbat and the New Yorkers had to rush home to make it back before sundown. I had prepared Shabbat dinner on Thursday, mostly by removing and defrosting things from the freezer—challah, chicken soup, dumplings, chicken for paprikash, and chocolate almond bars. With the addition of leftover homemade potato salad and coleslaw from our shiva, dinner took less than an hour to prepare. Larry, Beth and Faith joined us for dinner. It always seems callous to me to be so obsessed about food when there is so much sadness in our lives, but for me, it is life-affirming and comforting to see that others are nourished by my efforts.

At the end of our shiva, we were invited by Marianne, my mom’s hospice volunteer from several years ago, to have dinner with her and her friend Cliff at Foulkeways, the magnificent Quaker retirement facility down the street from where we live. Marianne and Cliff had just returned from Budapest where a number of her family had been invited to attend an art symposium to posthumously honor the art of her son, Tibor Kalman. She had many stories to tell about the emotional ups and downs of her trip. I learned about some of her horrific experiences during the Holocaust, about relatives lost and the inhuman practices of the Nazis in Budapest. She revisited the elegant hotel, Gundel, where she had been married. She was asked to speak, and addressed the attendees of the conference. She visited the graves of family members. I also learned about Tibor’s art; he was an avante garde graphic designer, so his work is not art in the usual sense of a painting, print, or sculpture. Dinner at Foulkeways, as it was the last time, offered a  delicious plethora of choices from an ample buffet, staffed by very accommodating people, in an elegantly-appointed dining room. What more could anyone ask of a pleasant evening, spent with friends, listening to anecdotes from the past?

Saul and I went for long overdue eye exams on the thirteenth. He discovered that his prescription has completely changed, and he is seeing things much more clearly with his new lenses. The doctor discovered a small, broken blood vessel at the back of my right eye, and I need to go back in three months to make sure it has healed properly.

After attending services at TBS on the seventeenth, we had lunch with our old friends, Ruth and Giora and some even older mutual friends whom we had not seen in over thirty years. Saul had taught religious school with Hedva at Adath Zion many years ago. We socialized back then and attended her wedding when she married Harvey. We even catered their engagement party and decorated a special cake. When they moved to New Jersey, we completely lost touch. Now that Alex is on the professional staff of TBS, we noticed her name on the door of one of the classrooms and discovered that they have been friends of Ruth and Giora for many years. Lunch was delightful and a tremendous diversion from all the misery.

Another diversion from misery, for me, is baking cookies. As the holidays approached, I began turning out as many of the twenty-eight varieties of cookies that we usually make each year as I could. Eventually, and with the competent help of my granddaughters, I succeeded in completing 25 of them. Although we did not believe it would be possible this year, we were able to have a family cookie wrapping and pizza gobbling evening on Sunday, December 18. I also made latkes for our family Chanukah party from potatoes, zucchini and yellow squash, and golden beets. I froze them in foil trays so that they would be oven ready.

On the first night of Chanukah, we drove to New Jersey to have an early dinner together at the “all you can eat” sushi restaurant that had been the scene of our serendipitous reunion a month earlier, Sushi Kingdom. The restaurant set up a large table for us. Present were Jessica and the three girls, Rif, Paul, Meredith, Saul and I. Alex was still at TBS for high school. The restaurant was not so busy as the last time and we polished off a tremendous amount of beautifully-prepared and presented sushi. Considering the usual price of sushi and sashimi, it was the first time I have ever left a Japanese restaurant feeling full. We actually left a few pieces behind because no one could eat another bite. They also had specialty flavors of good ice cream like green tea, mango, and red bean. Afterwards, Paul drove Meredith and me back to their house, while Saul and Rif went to services to say Kaddish. Jess drove the girls home to craft their Chanukiah. They make a different one every year. When Saul and Rif returned, we rendezvoused at Jess and Alex’s to join the craft project in progress and each of us made our own separate candle holder. I thought the design was particularly brilliant on Jessica’s part this year. We were using multi-colored Sharpies, super glue and glass beads to decorate glass ash trays and shot glasses that were leftovers from our catering business many years ago. We had planned to donate them to Impact. The shot glasses were the perfect size to hold tea lights. When Alex returned, we lit the candles together with Ari and Elaine participating simultaneously on iPhone’s FaceTime.

On the second night of Chanukah, Beth cooked and invited us next door to have dinner with her. We lit the candles together and dined on her delicious coconut chicken cutlets and sauteed zucchini,  It was a really thoughtful gesture that uplifted our spirits, which have had a tendency to flag all this past month. Afterwards, Saul and I took the hour-long drive to Northeast Philadelphia to Fagie’s shiva so that he  could say kaddish with his cousins. I made the drive twice with him that week, and he drove there four times. The rest of the month of mourning (or shloshim), he has been alternating between services at Temple Sinai and Tiferet Bet Israel.

Ari came in from DC and Jess and Alex came with the girls and we all had Shabbat dinner together here the Friday before Christmas, a rare and precious occasion for me. Inky hung out at Beth’s house overnight and got to know Hobbes, Beth’s Cairn terrier. The girls and Jessica helped prepare the dinner which gave Alex a rare chance to rest on a Friday night. We made challah, chicken soup with dumplings, Israeli salad, chicken paprikash, black and white rice, glazed Brussels sprouts, sauteed mushrooms, and snickerdoodles. Larry had a Chanukah dinner at MBIEE to attend, but came afterwards to join us for dinner, bringing presents, including two miniature architectural Lego kits for the older girls—Falling Water and the Guggenheim Museum, both Frank Lloyd Wright designs. We had a large breakfast of bagels and cream cheese, fish, salads, etc. imbibing large quantities of latte and cappuccino from the new Tassimo machine we had purchased after sampling the coffee it produced at Paul and Rif’s house. It makes a far better cup of coffee than the K-cups. Jess and Alex returned their Keurig, which had broken several times, and purchased one also. Saturday afternoon, we all spent several hours building the complicated Falling Water design. As we flipped each page of the lengthy instruction booklet, a different person would assemble the next step. If even one tiny piece was wrong, the whole construction would have to be disassembled page-by-page until it was correct, a process much more difficult than the assembly itself. That needed to be done three times. When it was finished, Ari, Sami, Izzy and I played Garfield Monopoly for a few hours until dinner time. Jess and Alex left with the girls and Inky to attend a family program at TBS. Saul, Ari and I did what most Conservative and Reform Jews do on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day—Chinese food and a movie. We went to see the new Sherlock Holmes and enjoyed it, although Ari did fall asleep for a while. He usually does in a dark comfy movie house. We slept late on Christmas day. My scratchy throat had turned into a strep infection as evidenced by a white spot on the right side of my throat. I managed to reach a doctor on call on Christmas and filled a prescription for a Z-Pack at a 24-hour pharmacy. We had lunch at King Buffet in Plymouth Meeting Mall. In the evening, I made two soups—leek and dried corn chowder, and black bean—a large pot of vegetarian chili and tzatziki.

Our family Chanukah party was scheduled for 1:00 p.m. on the Monday after Christmas, which was a holiday for nearly everyone. Jess and the family came early, and Alex, hurricane that he is in the kitchen, managed to marinate and grill fish for fish tacos, cut up and arrange all the salads and veggies for the fish and the veggie chili tacos, make fresh guacamole, and three different types of fresh salsa. Also on the menu were the latkes with various toppings like applesauce, sour cream, cranberry apple butter, eggplant garlic spread, etc.; a cheese board, and margaritas. In addition to the huge assortment of cookies left over from making gift packages, I prepared batter for sufganiyot. It was the usual sour-cream and baking soda type-batter that our family has been making for years. The kids at the party all participated in frying, draining, sugaring, serving, and eating the donuts with much excitement. This year, however, Saul expressed some discontent over the fact that we have not been making the “real” sufganiyot that he remembers from his childhood in Israel, the rolled-out, raised yeast donuts that are filled with jelly. At Fagie’s shiva, there was a discussion with Abie’s brother, Bobbie, who remembered his mother making a type of donut called “fank.” Searching online, he had not been able to find an actual working recipe. Saul, equal to the challenge, found a suitable one and emailed it off to Bobbie, printing a copy for me as well. Our party went off without a hitch, although at times, with 35-40 in attendance and all the kids running around frenetically, it seemed like pure pandemonium. After a few hours of munching, each family lit a Chanukiah with accompanying blessings in order from oldest to youngest, as is our family tradition. I had hoped to be able to see some of the gifts that were opened by enforcing a one gift per person rule with a lottery-type swap, but the gift distribution and opening were just as chaotic as always. One of the highlights, though, was that Meredith bought Yona a plastic drink fountain because she loves to play with water so much, but the motor was not strong enough to propel the water all the way to the top. First the kids ran off and assembled it, and when it was not working properly, the grownups reassembled it, Beth returning from next door at Brenna’s call to lend her engineering skill. Unfortunately, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” could not put it together again so that the water would be propelled to the top level. It had to be returned.

Ari was off from work between Christmas and New Year’s because his office was moving into other facilities and the company deemed it wise to actually close during this time. There were no cheap flights during this particular week, so he hung out with us the whole time. On Tuesday, he and I went to King of Prussia and shopped at Nordstrum Rack and at the Mall.  On Wednesday, we went to a new outlet mall facility in Limerick, PA, only 22 miles from our home. It was the closest I have ever been to the nuclear reactors there, nothing separating us but a large field, and probably some fences. In addition, there is a small airport nearby, so there was the constant buzz of small airplanes overhead. We had a good shopping experience, though, finding great buys on all the things for which we were looking, except flat boots for me.

On Thursday, we did a major cleaning up of the house after the party. I was feeling well enough to delve into things, pack away the Chanukah decorations, de-wax all the Chanukiot, and Ari was up to taking out the rug shampooer and cleaning both the Oriental in the dining room, and the high traffic area in the bedroom hallway. Saul had developed sciatica somehow, right before Christmas weekend, and had suffered for several days taking ineffectual, over-the-counter medication. On Friday morning, the doctor saw him and gave him a prescription for a Medrol Dose Pack that began to work almost immediately and involved a five-day course of pills, just like my Z-Pack. From the doctor’s appointment in Elkins Park, we stopped at Rolings Bakery to pick up some pareve desserts, drop off cookies to some friends, and then the three of us drove to Cherry Hill, ostensibly to meet Jess, Alex and the girls for lunch at The Cheesecake Factory. Unfortunately, there was a 45-minute wait, so we met instead across the parking lot at Brio and had a very satisfactory lunch there. Ari and I dropped off Saul at Jess and Alex’s and then went for a drive which culminated in a much-needed haircut for Ari. We returned in time for what the kids like to call a “Shabboup.” Jess and Alex had cleaned out their freezer which yielded four different types of homemade soup. With the addition of an assortment of good breads, salad, rice, and some excellent homemade schwarama, we had an excellent Shabbat soup meal. Meredith and Rif joined us for dinner bringing a trunk of Meredith’s old princess costumes for Yona.

We brought Sami home with us after dinner, so that she could celebrate New Year’s with us, stopping on the way to walk through a particularly beautiful, lighted home Christmas display that we passed along the route home. Izzy had a sleepover party at a friend’s house for New Year’s Eve, and Jess and Alex had been invited to a party for parents with toddlers. On Saturday, while Saul and I attended services at MBIEE, Sami stayed home with Ari, who slept in. She correctly surmised that no kids would be there because of the holiday. Saul and I napped in the afternoon. Sami hung out in pajamas all day, and worked on origami sculptures, a big treat for her.  We had lots of great leftovers that needed to be cleaned up from the party. When Shabbat was over, Sami and I made the dough for “Fank” from the recipe that Saul had found online. I had to add an additional cup of flour to get the proper consistency, but the donuts were amazing! They puffed up perfectly in the fryer and had a nice big hollow into which we injected strawberry jam. We ate warm jelly donuts until we couldn’t move and watched the ball drop in Times Square on television. By 1:00 a.m. we were all asleep. On Sunday, while watching the Mummer’s Parade, we worked on the dollhouse and discovered that Greenleaf Dollhouse Company had included (in addition to the parts we ordered) a sheet containing the parts for bathroom fixtures. Sami punched out, assembled and glued together a bunch of those, while Saul worked on the drawer lattice and tower roof, and I made pillows, a cover, and a dust ruffle for the bed. Jess and Alex arrived with the two other girls at dinner time, and we pulled together yet another dinner based on leftovers with the addition of some tortellini from the freezer.

Monday, January 2, was a very sad day for me. It was time for our lives to return to some semblance of normal, for Ari to return home, and for the kids to get ready to go back to school. During his time here, the sleep center where Ari had done a study 10 days earlier called to say that the pulmonologist had urgently requested that they schedule a follow-up study with him. In this case, no news was not good news. When they finally got around to reaching him, he was told that he has severe sleep apnea and that his oxygen level dropped to a dangerous 47%. He will definitely need a CPAP machine, and last night, in the follow-up, he tried it for the first time.

Saul’s shloshim ended the day before yesterday, but he decided to wait one more day to trim the beard he has grown. Yesterday was the fast for the Tenth of Tevet, a day marking our mourning for the destruction of the Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. We went to Faith’s class yesterday where we studied texts dealing with the vicissitudes of Jewish life in Europe from the 15th to 16th centuries. After minyan at Temple Sinai, we had a late dinner with Faith at Bonefish Grill.

This past month has been a mish-mosh of crazy highs and lows as we went from the distress of death, to the reunion of families, the loss of loved ones to the comfort of closeness with those we love, the helplessness of our human condition to the empowerment of selfless people to imbue our world with kindness. May 2012 be a year of life and good health for those dear to us!

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