Death: the most unlikely of happy endings or ‘Bossiest Eulogy Ever’

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Mom died on February 25th. Her funeral was in Utica, New York; yesterday was her memorial service. This is the eulogy I wrote and read yesterday.

Eulogy II

The first Tuesday after Mom’s funeral, I woke up and, because it has been part of my waking-up ritual for what seems like forever (even though it wasn’t) she was my first thought.

The picture that immediately popped into my head was her coffin newly lowered into her grave – a gorgeous, round-topped pine box the color of warm tea, black grain running through like tea leaves.

The feeling it evoked was a mixture of happiness, relief and serenity. Mom was okay. Mom was safe. She wasn’t confused, afraid or anxious. Her body wasn’t stiff and rigid because of a Parkinsonian freeze. She was beyond pain, beyond fear and I felt at peace.

This is not always how I feel about having a dead mother. The range of emotions I am experiencing on account of this loss are different than any of the others preceding it. Sadness. Relief. A little conflicted about the relief. Relaxed in a way I haven’t been in years. A little conflicted about that.

I am happy she got to see me finally marry the right guy, graduate from library school at 55, even if she slept through a good deal of the ceremony (lucky Mom, right?), share some of my life in Milwaukee and give me the most incredible gift of all – the absolute trust that I would have her back as she navigated the terrible and solitary torture of a slow, agonizing slide into helplessness and utter dependence.

For a woman who associated being dependent with being neglected, marginalized and abused – for valid reasons – this required an unprecedented leap of faith, on two fronts.

 

A little context – on two fronts

Mom’s upbringing, combined with the circumstances of my birth, had not laid the groundwork for dependence with dignity or mother/daughter compatibility.

She’d been a surprise.

Her parents were excited about another son to help with the planting, harvesting, milking and other farm chores. Instead, they got a fourth daughter. She was two weeks old when her sister Bessie suggested calling her ‘Arlene’ with an ‘I.’ (Her birth certificate reads “Baby Chernoff.”)

Mom grew up poor, Jewish, left-handed and unwanted on a farm during the Depression. A doctor told her parents, immigrants who hadn’t gone past sixth grade, that she shouldn’t be allowed to read outside of school because of her poor eyesight. The only toy she ever had was a doll her brother took apart. She once told me that when she really wanted to set her mother off, she’d walk around the house singing “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.”

Her incredible tenacity in surviving her first year at Syracuse University with so little preparation for college life, eventually figuring it out (in part, after the dean in whose office she was crying told her to start doing the New York Times Crossword puzzle every Sunday) and going on to graduate and build a life in New York is remarkable.

 

A brief digression

I will now break from this eulogy to present a brief episode of “Irlene Chernoff: Life in New York.”

Scene: Girl’s night out. Syracuse Alumni Lois (tall) and Irlene (not so tall) enter the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to attend a talk by Eleanor Roosevelt.

They stroll across the lobby to the elevator and press the call button. The elevator arrives. They step in. The elevator is occupied by two women, one tall and one not-so tall.

The tall one is Eleanor Roosevelt.

The not-so tall one is Dorothy Parker.

Brief Silence. Furtive staring.

Lois: “Irlene. I never realized how short you are.”

Eleanor Roosevelt: “Good things come in small packages.”

Dorothy Parker: “So does poison.”

End Scene

 

Two-front context – continued

Then, a 50’s-era miracle happened. After having all but cemented her place in the family as the cool aunt and successful old maid career woman, Mom snagged the hottest bachelor in Utica. Being “Mrs. Rabbi Waldman,” in the words of my friend Debra, was her favorite job ever.

Here’s Mom, describing Dad in a letter turning down a job offer in New York in April 1958, because she’s getting married:

“…he is everything I ever dreamed of in a man. He is warm, sensitive, human, strong and the most understanding man I ever met; in addition to being liberal, of diversified interests and professionally a rabbi …”

By the time I came along, Mom’s older siblings had all reproduced. Used to being bossed around by the four elders, none known for being shy about their opinions, she was nervous in the way of any first-time mom. Unfortunately for both of us, I was born by emergency C-section two weeks after my due date, and because of Mom’s reaction to anaesthesia, by the time she was fully awake and ready to be the Best Mother Ever, I was a week old and had bonded with Dad.

Things were different 17 months later when Debby came along, and thus, the family rectangle (Amy/Dad, Debby/Mom) was established. It worked well until 1974, when Dad died.

A seismic shift

Until about 2005, Mom and I did not have the easiest relationship. Sometimes that happens with mothers and daughters, and if the daughter is lucky – which I was – she gets to a place where anger, sadness and resentment are replaced by gratitude for (in my case) the care she does give, and for a great husband and in-laws, supportive friends and the ability to have built different relationships with my own daughters.

One by-product of Parkinson’s disease was that – to paraphrase Mom – she stopped seeing everything she didn’t like about herself in me and started seeing me. Our subsequent relationship was deeper and more satisfying for its having happened long after I’d had enough therapy and done enough interior work to understand that parent-offspring compatibility is an add-on, rather than part of the standard package.

Nothing compares with what it feels like – after almost 50 years – to suddenly have a mother who goes out of her way to tell you you’re terrific and you feel it it so much that you could spend the rest of your life lying on your back and rolling around in it.

Even if that had never happened, and I was standing here, I’d still be grateful for everything Mom gave me, because once you know that nothing you do will please someone, it gives you the freedom to not worry about displeasing them.

Which, like the love you can roll around in, is also a gift.

And as the daughter who ended up being Mom’s Primary Person on her Grand Exit Tour of Planet Earth, it was my job to make sure she faced some unpleasant stuff in the service of making sure that her Grand Exit went the way she wanted.

Son of seismic shift –  the nursing home version

It would not be an overstatement to say that Mom’s Exit Plan did not involve a slow agonizing slide into helplessness in a Milwaukee nursing home. She had ordered up a serving of being “carried out of here feet-first,’ “here” being the condo she’d bought on Cape Cod in 1982.

I have vivid memories of visiting nursing homes with 50-something Mom. We’d walk into a facility and the smell – a melange of stale, damp and vague decay – would hit us. Near-comatose people with wispy hair and rheumy eyes sat in wheelchairs in the halls or rows in common rooms in front of a TV, some aware of us, some staring at nothing. On our walk back to the car, Mom would utter a variation on the same theme.

“If I’m ever like that, shoot me or give me pills.”

I didn’t shoot Mom, and I didn’t give her pills. But there were so many times, especially over the past two years, when I wondered why she was still alive. I went from being angry all the time to “she’s warm and I can hug her.”

And I came to rely on a group of people I had already grown to love and respect – the holy women (and occasional man) who cared for Mom and the rest of the people in the Helen Bader Unit with relentless devotion.

They helped Mom through these past brutal years, but they also helped Debby and me. It was a team effort in a game that ended with Mom’s death. And now that it’s over, I’m gonna tell you two things. First, we won. Second, we were able to because of three other things.

The most important – Thing One, if you will – was Mom. It was her decision to move into the nursing home. I’m not saying it was easy, and I’m not saying it was pretty. Debby was freaked out about her spending $10,000 a month on 24-hour care on top of rent for her assisted living apartment. I was slightly less freaked out but knew it wasn’t sustainable. That four months, though, gave Mom the time she needed to wrap her head around what she realized needed to happen. It was her idea to tour the Home; she chose Bader.

I have seen – and continue to see – new people coming in who didn’t choose. Some are angry, and what’s hard is made harder, both for them and for the staff who care for them. It is a stark contrast and a constant reminder of the remarkable courage my mother displayed in making her own decision to move to a memory care unit.

I also know that part of the reason she was able to make that courageous choice was because she knew – Thing Two – she could count on me. By then, we were far enough down the road that, given the choice to stay and help or have me do it, she jetted off to California to hang with her sisters, allowing me to set her room up in a way that it could serve multiple functions (seating and dining facilities for six) and favorite pieces from every room of her former home(s).

The “as happy as possible under the circumstances” ending

Bragging about your childrens’ achivements – the albums, the concerts, the book deals, the degrees, the awards, the jobs – that’s easy.

Entrusting your own well-being to their care is a whole different level of affirmation.

I did it as right as I could, and I think, for the most part, I got it pretty right. But I got it right because she helped me get it right. I got it right because she was honest enough and courageous enough to face her own death, and when she wasn’t, she borrowed my courage and my love for her and we got through it together. And when I wasn’t courageous enough to face her decline, I had spent enough time at the nursing home to be on a first-name basis with the people who were caring for Mom, and they helped me. That’s Thing Three.

If your mother lives in a nursing home, it’s a nursing home. But your mother lives there, so it’s also your mother’s house. When you come around more, your mother might not get more attention and more care than the people whose families don’t come around, but I know this – she gets better care. Because as good as those caregivers are, no one has time to rummage through your mom’s drawers and discover the several-sizes-too-small bra that belongs to the lady across the hall. Also, they are going to have your mom’s back like nobody’s business if you show up, because you’re going to see what they do and how to make your mom’s life and their lives as easy as possible, given the circumstances.

So this isn’t really as much a eulogy as it is a message, and kind of a directive from us. Mom’s death was beautful, and it was beautiful because I never stopped telling her, right up to the end, that this was her old age and eventual death and that she was in charge. And I never stopped believing it.

In truth, I started pushing her to talk about what she wanted and what we should do long before she was ready.

But because of – or maybe in spite of it – Mom and I were able to have all the hard conversations, and even find some light moments in the midst of them. We planned her funeral and this memorial service together, and the comfort of knowing what she wanted and being able to make it happen has brought me the kind of comfort that only a supportive mom can give.

Suicide as clickbait is stigma in action, starring XO Jane & Amanda Lauren Kass

So many other things I’d rather be writing about today (eg: my new puppy or Argo, the coolest road-worthy amphibious Canadian export ever). Instead, I’m writing a cautionary tale about the hazards of being good at other peoples’ lives.

There’s hardly anything easier. After all, who doesn’t know better than someone who hasn’t dealt directly with an issue exactly how best to deal with it, right?

Outside Experts, an Inside View

Back in 1990, when my ex and I split, the good news was that I had a full-time job. The bad news was that my title was “Mom” and the highest-level full-time job I’d had (and left years before) was in a bookstore.

Nonetheless, I waived child support and, after 18 months of receiving the maintenance I’d been promised for three years, took a tiny buyout. I had no job and little in the way of prospects. From my family’s point of view, I’d lost the lone coconut-flake sized-shred of sense I’d ever possessed.

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This is about as sensible as I get.

Decades later, after I’d lost track of how many times my mother, sister, aunts and bossy cousin (the men of the one-up generation were all dead by the mid-1980s) had leaned on me to “take that bastard to court,” Mom was still harping about what an idiot I’d been.

There were several reasons I opted out of chasing my ex around for money that I knew he’d never give me. There are tons of ways to shelter assets when you have your own business. He knew all the ones that existed (and several that probably didn’t). That was a big one.

My biggest and realest, though, to was become someone who didn’t have to. I had three daughters looking at me. I had to show them that you could make what you wanted to happen happen in life. Even when things get scary, as long as you don’t give up. Chasing my ex through the court system for what those women thought I was “owed” would have meant squandering the time and energy required to reach my goal.

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Why giving up was not an option.

What I didn’t know back then was this: That time and energy also consumed the awareness that it even needed explaining. Only now, as I write this, do I realize that some important friends along the way – who still mean the world to me – understood without any explanations. Their faith, belief and support made it possible for me to keep going in those moments when I wasn’t sure I could.

Gratitude aside, my main point here is how easy, when looking from the outside, it is for someone to judge another person’s life, choices and outcomes.

 

When Honesty is the Cruelest Policy

Which brings me to Amanda Lauren Kass, whose essay “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” was published May 19th by XOJane. It’s a division of Time, Inc. that pays $50 for personal essays. (Writers get more when a post goes viral. The lack of a link is intentional.)

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This is in memory of Leah and her sister.

“Leah,” Kass’ former friend, died by suicide a few years after being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Leah’s sister, a high school classmate of Kass, died of cancer at 19. You can read Kass’ account of Leah’s spiral here if you’d like. (XOjane took the piece down and put an apology in its place after a few days of leaving it up (you know, hits = $). (The hyperlink in this blog is to an archived page on the wayback machine.)

Or I can save you the trouble by riffing off another Time, Inc. publication, specifically “People,” for which I used to review books. At one point, we had to write “Bottom Lines,” one-sentence summations of our reviews. Here’s my Bottom Line-inspired summary of Kass’ essay.

“’Leah’s’ life looked hard and inconvenient so I fired her, made fun of her, judged her parents for not doing more – and her decision to die by suicide was totally the right one!”

Wiser and better heads than mine have written responses addressing Ms. Kass’ character and possible motivations for writing what she did, and the multiple ways of living a full and meaningful life with or without a mental health diagnosis.

 

Families suffer when the Ignorantatti go unchallenged

What I haven’t seen anyone write about is where Leah’s parents were in all this and why they weren’t more involved or helpful as their daughter spiraled deeper and deeper into what appears – based on Ms. Kass’s description – to have been depression and psychosis.

Ms. Kass calls them out in the story, and is (unsurprisingly) cruel and judgmental.

As a Family Educator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness since 2006, I have spent countless hours with family members who are terrified for their children, siblings, parents and friends. They’re also just plain terrified. Which is why they sign up for NAMI’s Family-to-Family class.

In three hour increments over 12 weeks, F2F provides information on what I have come to refer to as “the Big 7” (schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, major depression, anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder). It also touches on post-traumatic stress disorder and how it and the other mental health conditions affect the daily lives of people living with them.

F2F also gives family members the information they need to take care of themselves,  ways they can effectively advocate for their ill family member or friend and a safe space. It’s powerful to see what happens to people when they get to tell their stories in a setting where the responses are nods of understanding instead of horrified stares. My favorite thing about teaching that course is watching people come in singly or in pairs and leave in groups.

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The NAMI Walk at our lakefront. Nationally, these happen all over the country. Every year there are more people and more dogs. (That’s me & Matey on the right. The lump in my pocket is a container of dog treats)

Ms. Kass’ bald cruelty is not unusual. That she wrote and published it might be, but for anyone wondering about stigma and mental illness, that essay is Exhibits A-F. It’s also a textbook example of the reason we in NAMI describe these illnesses as “no casserole.”

Leah’s parents can probably speak to this way more eloquently than I can, but I bet that when her sister had cancer, the community rallied around the family. I bet they brought meals, provided emotional support and anything else needed. Doctors were forthcoming with information about what was happening and kept the family in the loop regarding their daughter’s progress and disease course, even after she was 18.

Leah’s disease course was very different, and I’d lay money that the same people who helped when it was cancer scattered like vampires at dawn when Leah got sick. Because of HIPA (Health Information Privacy Act), her parents probably got no information about what was happening with her. Because they didn’t know, they weren’t able to find out about a diagnosis, what it meant, what medication she might need and whether or not she was taking it. They had no power to do anything other than watch her spiral. The only thing that would have made a difference was Leah signing a release form authorizing her parents to receive information. Which, based on my experience with other F2F parents, is extremely rare. Most people with psychotic illness tend to act out against the people closest to them and who know them best. It also tends to onset in early adulthood, just as people are striking out on their own and striving to be independent. Call it tragic, call it a confluence of clusterfuckery. It’s that and then some.

When I read Ms. Kass’ essay, it was Leah’s parents I thought of; Leah’s parents for whom I ached. I’m sure that piece pulled the scab right off the open wound that is their daughters’ deaths.

Ms. Kass recently got married. One day, she may hold a newborn in her arms. She and her husband will look into their baby’s face and imagine the firsts. They will want to give their child everything. They will wonder who and what this little person will grow to be.

On that day, I hope Amanda Kass remembers Leah, and her sister, and their parents.

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The baby grew up to be me. My dad, a rabbi who was beloved by his family and his congregation , died by suicide when I was 14. Its likely he had undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.   Stigma prevented him from getting the help that might have saved him. It also prevented my mother from feeling that she could be honest with my sister and me about what happened, and about our own family medical history. I was 25 & married with a child when I went hunting for the truth, because my daughter deserved a better answer than “I don’t know,” or “It was an accident,” when she got old enough to notice she was down a grandpa.

Up from the grave to denounce a naked emperor

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Helen and me. I was so happy to get to see her, and I think she was happy to see me, too. Maybe even happier than she would have been to see Donald Trump. (Actually, I’m pretty sure she was happier to see me.)

Donald J. Trump is a man his supporters would avoid like gay pride parades if he were saying the things he says while unshaven and pushing all his worldly possessions in a shopping cart.

But he wears bespoke suits and lives and works in buildings with his name on them. So instead of being called out for what he is – the emperor with no clothes  – his rants are miraculously elevated to the level of worthy discourse. It would be lovely to live in a world where his call to bar Muslims from entering the US would signify the beginning of his being exiled from public life. Sadly, I know better.

I don’t often put words in the mouths of dead people. But I’m pretty sure that Helen Sperling, who died last week at the age of 95, would have excoriated Mr. Naked Emperor.

Helen was the first Holocaust survivor I ever met. I don’t remember not knowing her. But until a Sunday School morning when I was 12 and 60 or so of us sat on the floor in the Edelstein Room at our synagogue while Helen sat on a chair and told us her story, I only knew her as Paul and Franny’s mother.

Helen was the mother with the musical laugh and long hair worn in a braid down her back. My mother had short hair and a short fuse. I wanted the mother with the musical laugh and long hair. I loved being at the Sperlings’ house. I spent a lot of time there because Paul was one of my best friends until we turned 5. His sister Franny was two years older. She was beautiful and way too sophisticated to hang out with four-year-olds.

One day, which I only can tell you about because it became the stuff of legend for the mothers involved, Helen served a lunch that consisted of pretty much none of my preferred menu items. (In Helen’s defense, I was a pretty strange eater. I didn’t like peanut butter. I didn’t like jelly. I didn’t like tomato sauce. I didn’t like sweet things.)

But I had been taught to be polite, and to be a good guest. Good guests did not ask for food that wasn’t already on the table. Good guests did not say “I don’t like that!”

So, when Helen called Paul and me into the kitchen for lunch and sat us down, I evidently surveyed the repast and looked up at Helen.

“These,” I said, eyeing up the contents of one of the serving plates, “are the friendliest cucumbers I’ve ever seen.”

I know that Helen must have laughed and laughed in that moment, because she and my mother both laughed every time one (or both) of them recalled it – right up to last year, when I was in Utica for my Aunt Bessie’s funeral and had time either to go to the cemetery and see my dad or go hang out with Helen, who was 94.

I called Franny to make sure Helen was up for visitors. Sadly, Paul and I never re-established our pre-kindergarten bond (there’s always hope, and we do have our memories), but when I was 15 and Franny 17, we got close. Ten years ago, we reconnected. Aside from being a generally fabulous human being, she is is also an amazing aerialist, and my hero and inspiration in all things flying.

Helen was as full of life and as feisty as ever. That she needed oxygen to breathe and wasn’t so good at getting out of a chair did absolutely nothing to diminish her vivacity and power.

She exclaimed over the cream puff I had brought for her (“My favorite! How did you know?” What I didn’t say: “Because Franny told me when I called her to see if you’d be up for a visit.”) and lamented that she didn’t have anything to serve. I’d bought frozen fish sticks; Helen was thrilled to let me use her oven.

We yakked like girlfriends. I told her about my experiences as a reporter in Central Wisconsin, where a Holocaust denier had taken possession of a good deal of Public Square real estate. The denier used local media to broadcast her message, got herself invited to an eighth grade classroom to talk to students, and even arranged for a public talk at the local two-year university center. I spent three years there, I told Helen, and was most proud of two things I’d done. One was connecting a local coffee shop to Colectivo, a Milwaukee-based coffee roasting company, making it possible to get a great cup of coffee in the (relative) middle of nowhere. The other was getting a Holocaust survivor to come to talk to those eighth graders, and to give a public talk at the university center.

We talked about getting old and dying. She was ready, but as long as she could, she said, she would tell her story. I asked her if she’d recorded it.

“Yes,” she said, “I spoke with the Spielberg Foundation. (The disc is) in a vault, because until I’m dead, I want people to hear it directly from me.”

She told me about the bracelets she gave every attendee at the end of every talk. Blue, and engraved with the words, “Thou Shalt Not Be A Bystander.”

“I don’t have any here,” she said. Then, she remembered that she was wearing one. She took it off and gave it to me.

Helen was a staunch supporter of Israel. She also loved the United States, and the best of what both countries aim to be and represent.

There is no way she would have stood by while a well-dressed, charismatic political wannabe spouted religious hatred. She knew exactly where that led. Which is why she spent her life doing everything in her power to make sure no one would ever have to go there again.

Note: Even though Helen didn’t want any video of her telling her story while she was alive, I did find one – on one of her many visits to Union College, her talk was videotaped. Click here to see it. 

A bottle of wine and a cat: Surviving the first dogless days

 

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Tuki & Sweetheart, relaxing. This was after she’d reached the point where we let her on the couch and before the point where she couldn’t get up there by herself anymore.

 

The house is so quiet. No one needs to go outside before we go to bed. There are no clacking feet in the middle of the night, the prelude to a trip down the stairs and outside into the dark. No one needs to go outside first thing in the morning. And no one is chasing Sweetheart out of the driveway when he leaves for work.

How things went

Four of us left the house to go to the vet on Saturday morning. Three of us came back.

Tuki and I sat in back of Talia’s SUV. Sweetheart sat in front. T had put the seat down on Tuki’s side and spread blankets out, so she could lie comfortably. She’d also bought a bag of freeze-dried duck hearts for her Best Girl. I spent the ride feeding them to the grateful recipient.

When we got there and got her out of the car, Sweetheart took her over to eat some snow. It had snowed the night before. Fitting, as it had done the same thing the first night she’d been with us all those years before. That morning, she’d been in constant motion, dancing all over the yard, sticking her nose in the snow and tossing what she didn’t eat, openly delighted at this toy that spanned everything she could see.

I walked into the office. Joanne was sitting behind the counter. She’s been the receptionist there since before Tuki was born. I put my head down on the counter and burst into tears.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s the hardest thing we have to do.”

She took us into the exam room and got a blanket so Tuki wouldn’t have to get up on the table. Tuki, never one of Park Pet’s grateful patients, stayed true to form, growling at the vet. Dr. Poehlmann told us what would happen – first a shot to send Tuki into the Happy Place where Everything is Wonderful (or that state of mind where, as Talia said later, Tuki would be doing things like staring up and saying things like, “Wow! My paws are SOOOO big!!”). Then, five minutes or so later, she would shave Tuki’s back leg, insert an IV and inject the drug that would stop her heart.

Sweetheart held and petted Tuki, so she was distracted when Dr. Poehlmann put the needle into her left flank. The vet stepped out. We got Tuki settled onto the blanket, and Talia and I laid on either side of her and stroked her. We talked and sang to her.

When Dr. Poehlmann came back, Tuki was unconscious. Dr. P shaved Tuki’s leg. She told us that the knee was very swollen and that Tuki had practically no muscle in that leg.

“I take comfort in biochemical information,” Talia said. “Can you tell me exactly how the drug works?”

I don’t remember what Dr. Poehlmann said. It had to do with interrupting some process or other.

Pho and tears

After it was over, we dropped Sweetheart at home. Talia bought pho for lunch, and we ate at Oldest Daughter’s house. We hugged Layli, my granddog, and talked about Oldest Daughter’s impending baby (yes, I’m going to be a grandmother, which feels very weird although I’m told by all my friends who have grandchildren that it is amazing). And, of course, I cried some. But it was easier because I wasn’t home. Then, I was. I spent the rest of the day sobbing.

I was a little better on Sunday, though not much.

“You need a bottle of wine and a cat,” Sweetheart said at one point.

On Monday, Sweetheart took the car to work. I managed to get all the dog things – water dish on a stand, food dish, food container, grooming tools and toys – gathered up and put away.

Then, I picked up her bed. She slept, ala “The Princess and the Pea,” atop a dog bed under which several blankets were piled.

I am not ready to wash it, or throw it away.

Goodbye, Tuki, and thank you for 15 amazing years.

I’m writing this with a view.

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Tuki is lying with her head on my outstretched leg. In two hours, she will be gone and I will be bereft. I’ve never had to put a dog down before.

In between writing, I put my hand on her head and stroke the space from just above her nose and between her eyes with my thumb.

We’ve had nearly 15 years together. Our 15th Doggiversary would have been November 30th. That was the night I found her, a three-month-old stray puppy gamboling in the grass with a friend’s dog.

“Who’s the other dog?” I said, as we watched the two of them frolic from a porch above the patch of lawn where they were having a grand old time giving chase.

“No idea,” she said.

I ventured out into the dark for a closer look. Lucas, Ann’s dog, was a seven-year-old Schnauzer/Yorkshire Terrier mix. He weighed about 10 pounds. The other dog was bigger but, as I got closer, I could see how young it was.

She spent one night with us, and those of us not crazy in love with her from the jump (my then-husband) were moving in that direction. Animal Control picked her up in the morning so she could be reunited with her owners. We filled out a “first dibs on adopting” form if no one claimed her.

Fast forward three weeks.

The Humane Society says we can adopt her. But, they say, she has kennel cough and they want to keep an eye on her for a couple of days. The next day, they call and tell us to pick her up. We bring her home.

A week later, we’re at the vet for the second time. The first vet said it was bronchitis and threw pills at us. The second vet says, “I don’t know if this dog is going to live through the night.”

I ask how what it will cost to see if we can save her. Money is short, but I decide I can handle giving up three months of cell phone service.

As we leave, I can hear her shrill puppy cries as the vet tech and vet insert an IV.

The next morning, the vet calls.

“Good news,” he said. “The antibiotics did the job. She popped up this morning and gobbled her food. We want to keep her another night.”

Fast forward to now.

There are not enough or the right kind of words to express the universe of love, kindness and joy this dog has brought me. She was the valedictorian of her manners class. You could leave a plate of food in reach and she wouldn’t touch it if it wasn’t offered. She caught two squirrels, and tried to be a good friend to all her feline housemates, some of whom were more receptive to her overtures than others.

So, I am going to get dressed now and the three of us – that 13-year-old, who is now 28, and Sweetheart, who’s been my best human partner for 10 years – are going to do the last, best right thing we can for someone we love.

Tuki&Flowers.jpg

An Open letter to United Airlines, with a Postscript to Southwest: The skies were friendly, the ground – not so much.

July 12, 2015

Dear United:

It’s a beautiful day here at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Your white planes, with their gray/green logo-festooned tails look particularly striking against the blue-wash sky and gray tarmac. I’m sitting here at Gate 10, surrounded by what is rapidly becoming a small community of marooned souls, and in that group I am including Jessica, the gate agent.

The magic gate to home, which I did not cross.
The magic gate to home, which I did not cross.
Gate 10 Buffalo people
Nonexistent passengers watching Jessica the Gate Agent trying to convince United’s computer system that we are real.

I had not planned on being in Buffalo today, United Airlines. But on Tuesday, my oldest daughter sent me a text.

Liza: Mom, it looks like (Cousin BC) died, yikes, so sad.
Me: What!?
Liza: I saw on Facebook.

I called up BC’s Facebook feed. It was filled with variations on “RIP.”

You don’t need to know the particulars, United, but suffice it to say that this was one of those situations where the only thing you can do to make it better is nothing. BC’s parents are one of my favorite cousin sets. In my last blog post I wrote that I learned how to parent from the books I read in my childhood. (Feel free to read it if you’re curious, but that’s as much as you need for purposes of this letter.)

While those books gave me a window onto a world in which parents supported and respected their kids, BC’s parents – who are 10 years older than I am – showed me how to live in it. Nearly 40 years ago, they gave me a ride from Boston to Utica. I don’t remember the particulars of that ride. The feelings associated with it? They’re still with me.

Which is the reason that even though the only thing I could do to make it better was nothing, I had to get myself from Milwaukee to Syracuse for a 1 p.m. Friday funeral.

I take my job pretty seriously, United. And unlike Jessica the Gate Agent, whose superiors seem to have no problem letting her get squashed under the metaphorical bus – or maybe I should say plane in this case? – I have a supervisor who is fair, consistent and leads by example. I guess I should thank you for reminding me once again how lucky I am.

Point being, my supervisor had assigned me a rather large and important deadline-critical project. So I needed to make the trip with as little time off as possible. When I went looking for flights, it turned out that it was actually faster to get to Uruguay or London. Direct flights between small cities? Fuggehdabout it. The best I could do was Chicago-Buffalo, rent a car and drive the nearly three hours to Syracuse.

You had two morning flights and a 9 p.m. one. I booked the late flight and took work home the night before so I could get the project finished in time to leave work an hour early, then go home and throw a few things into a carry-on bag.

In addition to black attire, I packed a bag of fresh green beans and the newest Apocalyptica release. That no liquids rule eliminated the possibility of an energy drink, and I knew I was going to need help staying awake.

Working a near-full day followed by a 90 minute bus trip to catch a flight that leaves at 9 pm and arrives at midnight, then renting a car and driving another hour-and-change to somewhere you’ve never been before (another cousin’s couch) is, as long as we’re being honest, kind of a dumb thing to do if you’re not 20. I figured headbanging music and crispy eats would help me stay awake.

When I got to O’Hare, I printed my boarding pass at the check-in terminal. There was a gate number, and a “See Agent” note where my seat number should have been. I asked the woman taking luggage what it meant.

“It means see the agent at your boarding gate,” said the concierge-type guy standing near her.

This was not reassuring, United. I had to use the facilities in a big way and had planned to do so before going through Security. Now, though, I felt as if I needed to get to my gate as soon as possible. So I waited until I had gone through screening (at which point I was a much nicer person), and when I got to the gate, the agent, Tyler, was busily trying to deal with a raft of passengers between making an announcement that went roughly thus:

“Welcome to (Flight to Buffalo). We are currently oversold. We would like to offer you a $350 voucher and a seat on another flight. Please see me if you are interested in giving up your seat.”

There was a line and Tyler was working it as quickly as he could, but I had no idea whether I’d be on the plane or not. The man in front of me in line responded to my query as to whether I knew what was up by telling me in a snotty tone, “I’m in line.”

Not reassuring. But before long, I’d bonded with a 20-something who was traveling with her mother and stepfather. They’d all bought their seats together, but a hack of United earlier that day had somehow resulted in her reservation disappearing.

As Tyler was working the counter by the gate, the gate agent was calling passenger names at irregular intervals. “Passenger Smith! Come to the gate.”

Passenger Smith, waving a boarding pass, would rush to the gate, jumping up and down like a game show contestant who’d just won $1 million, then cartwheel down the jetway while juggling carry-on bags.

Okay. I’m lying about game show, cartwheels and juggling. But after awhile, I did start thinking the whole thing looked like some demented mashup of “The Price is Right” and “Survivor.”

Long story short, I was the last passenger whose name was called to board the plane. There was no room for my carry-on at that point, so I left it at the end of the jetway after yanking my book out of it. (Props for reuniting us at the end of the flight, but that’s as it should be.)

We got to Buffalo at midnight. I headed over to Budget where I’d rented a car. (The rental agents had been dealing with frustrated passengers for hours, and because I wasn’t a total cow, the agent upgraded me from a compact to a gorgeous SUV.) Two hours later, I was on the far side of Rochester, where I crashed on a cousin’s couch.

(In case you’re wondering, United, the green beans and Apocalyptica worked as well as I’d hoped they would on the “Keep Me Alert!” front.)

I did what I came to do in Skaeneateles (with one unscheduled stop at the Harriet Tubman House in Auburn – highly recommended if you ever find yourself in those parts), and headed back to Buffalo on Saturday to catch my flight home.

Harriet Tubman House
This is the best $5 you will spend anywhere. Go and see this place – the museum, the houses, the tour. So worth it.
Harriet Tubman's house
This is the house where Harriet lived. It was recently acquired by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which already owned the 25 acres adjacent because Harriet left it to the AME Church. It isn’t yet open to the public, but is expected to be by this time next year. Oh, and that’s me, standing by the root cellar entrance.
Harriet_Tubman_Infirmary
This is the infirmary/community-based residential facility Harriet opened for older African-American veterans. Four people lived there at a time. We did get to tour inside of it. Don’t do what I did and forget you’re not supposed to take photos or touch anything. (I was 100 percent on the no pictures, but because I used to give tours at other jobs and in my neighborhood when we have our home tours, I forgot myself when standing in front of something our tour guide was pointing out, and lifted it. Nearly gave our poor tour guide a heart attack. Luckily for all concerned, I managed to set it down intact.)

When I got to my gate – with a seat number on my boarding pass this time – Jessica was making the same announcement Tyler had been making. I figured I’d balance my karma and give up my seat. There ended up being eight of us – a woman who said she could drive back to Rochester, a father and son from Canada, and me who’d volunteered. Then there were the people who hadn’t. One was a tall man with a deep voice, German accent and commanding bearing. Picture a younger, handsomer Arnold Schwartzenegger having a righteous fit. His wife, a lovely caramel-colored woman with short braids, didn’t speak English.

We all empathized with Arnold, but none of us were thrilled with the way he was taking he was taking Jessica apart. The kid was a gate agent. He was yelling at her as if she were the the company CEO.

Eventually, the rest of us trying to be kind to Jessica and, possibly, the time and energy that it took to keep ranting got to him, and Arnold turned out to be reasonably okay.

But none of us – including Jessica – were okay with what happened when she started trying to get us onto other flights. All eight of us disappeared as if we had never existed. A single supervisor buzzed by occasionally, pushing buttons and telling Jessica things that didn’t seem to help when she tried them, and then disappeared again. Jessica was on the phone, trying to get us reinstated, but whoever she was calling seemed to know even less than the supervisor. She was doing everything she could, but it was like aiming a squirtgun at a house fire.

All of us – and I include myself and Jessica in this – had moments of not being our best selves. But in poor Jessica’s case, it meant a couple of intervals where she simply couldn’t hide the toll her inability to resolve a simple matter was taking.

Which is why, United, in addition to the $500 voucher I got at the end of this ordeal, you owe me a travel pack of tissues. Which I will forego if you would kindly supply your gate agents with a stock of them, because if you’re going to hang your employees out to dry in these kinds of situations, they’re going to need them.

She finally presented us with boarding passes and vouchers. The other passengers got hotel and meal vouchers which I didn’t need, United, because my best friend from middle school picked me up four hours after she otherwise would have and brought me home to her house. You owe her for saving you a hotel room bill and another tantrum.

 

Nancy's spare room
Why I didn’t have to throw a tantrum. I got to sleep here.

That’s because, United, one $7 meal voucher is NOT enough to buy dinner. It was also the point at which the mild-mannered Canadian had finally had enough. I told Jessica to give him mine.

Then, I looked at my boarding pass.

“Geez,” I said, “I was kind of hoping for an upgrade to first class.”

Her instantaneous response came straight from her heart, United, and left no doubt in any of our minds that this woman is way too good for the likes of you.

“If I could,” Jessica said, “I would give you ALL upgrades to first class. And I would take you out for pizza and buy you beers.”

POSTSCRIPT TO SOUTHWEST

July 20, 2015

I started this post in Buffalo in the midst of a United Airlines debacle. I am finishing it at Laguardia Airport in the midst of a Southwest Airlines debacle. Clearly my flying karma is impaired. So far, I’ve arrived everywhere I planned to go (for which I am grateful), but the getting there has been, to put it frankly, a shitshow.

This past Saturday, Sweetheart and I got up at 3 a.m. to catch a 5:20 a.m. flight to New York. This was a planned trip, for something good – a dear friend’s surprise 60th birthday party. Our flight was supposed to arrive at 8:40, and we were going to meet another friend at Penn Station at noon. As we circled above the airport at 8 and change, the pilot announcing that we were third in line to land, he suddenly realized that we needed gas. Off to Albany we went, on a refueling mission.

When we landed in Albany, the pilot announced that LaGuardia was closed due to storms and we’d be there for an hour. They let us off the plane. Sweetheart hit up McDonald’s, and I got us some caffeine at Starbucks. An hour later, we were taxiing out to the runway and the pilot was announcing our arrival time at LaGuardia. Moments later, he was announcing that LaGuardia was closed and we were going to hang out on the runway for another hour. Five minutes later, he was telling us it would be two hours.

“That’s unacceptable,” he said, “so we’re going back to the terminal.”

There’s a Meditation Room at Albany International Airport. I laid myself down on a rug and sacked out for awhile. Then I read until it was time to reboard.

We got to LaGuardia at 1:45. But I have to say, Southwest, I didn’t feel violated in the way I did the week before, because you let us know exactly what was happening.

You didn’t do so well on the trip home.

We got to the airport in plenty of time for our 6:55 flight – enough time to catch this announcement about the Denver flight leaving before ours.

“We are in an oversold situation, and need eight people to give up their seats.”

When that didn’t happen, Southwest, you pulled a 10-year-old off the plane. He was flying with a single chaperone and nine other 10-year-olds, who were heading toward a baseball camp. The chaperone had a choice to stay with the left behind kid and abandon the other nine, or to leave him in an airport on his own and stay with the ones who were flying.

There was some drama and haggling, since you weren’t offering a hotel voucher, but once you did that, someone volunteered to give up her seat so the kid could fly with the rest of his team.

Gate B7
Gate 7, where we had a front row seat to watching a ten-year-old on his way to camp get bumped off his flight, unlike his chaperone and the other eight campers with whom he was traveling.

We were lining up to board our flight when things began to go bad. The plane we were boarding was suddenly ‘too small.’ (This set off some alarm bells for Sweetheart and me, because we’d learned on the Albany leg – where there were 43 of us on a 145-seat aircraft – that your entire fleet is comprised of 145-seat planes. Which made us wonder about the eight-seat overage too, as long as I’m sort of on the topic.)

“We have another plane for you. We’re moving you to Gate 5.”

Gate 5
Gate 5, where we spent three hours until we got moved back to Gate 7. At least there wasn’t water dripping into garbage cans from ceiling tiles at Gate 5. (If I were Fiorello LaGuardia’s ghost, I’d be haunting whoever is responsible for facilities management.)
The counter at Gate 5
The gate agent station, where Sweetheart and I told the gate agents what was going on with musical planes.

Off the lot of us schlepped, down the hallway to Gate 5, where we watched a group of passengers trooping off the plane parked there. I made eye contact with one, and she spoke.

“They’re moving us. There’s a gas leak on this plane.”

As the Gate 5 people were getting on the plane parked at Gate 7, I watched a ground crew member shuttling a flight crew down a flight of stairs to some unnamed destination. Their expressions ranged from bewilderment to disgust.

Turned out it was the flight crew who’d been hustled off “our” plane. The Gate 5 passengers and their flight crew got on and took off.

Meanwhile, Sweetheart and I were asking the agent at the counter just around from Gate 5 what had just happened.

“I have no idea,” she said. “You know more than I do.”

Which is kind of how it went. There was a lot of mystery, no straight answers and eventually – hours later – a plane arriving from somewhere. We were all herded back to Gate 7. A group of passengers got off, our flight crew boarded, and at midnight, we were home.

Props to Southwest for giving us all $14 vouchers for dinner at Au Bon Pain on the concourse (United: Take Note) and $100 coupons toward our next trip (should we be courageous enough to try this again).

For now, I’m breathing a sign of relief that next week’s scheduled departure – to the  Revolution Reunion – is a road trip.

Ruth Goldbas & Ernie Banks, who died old, and Baki, who died young

Four Februarys ago, I attended two funerals in the same week. It was the first time that had happened. A month later I was in New York hanging out with my niece and nephew. My sister had decided to fly down from Edmonton during their spring break, and New York is always a great place for a family rendezvous.

Funerals must have been large on my mind, especially as our cousin Debbie (z”l) had died that January. We were (and still are) still more or less reeling from that one as a family.

Anyway, I was telling Elizabeth about the two-funeral week when this slid out of my mouth.

“I know a lot of people,” I said, “and that means that one day I’m going to know a lot of dead people.”

Elizabeth burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. I accepted the invitation and joined her.

Sure enough, it’s four years down the road and my dead people list keeps getting longer.

This past Thursday, our family friend Ruth Goldbas died. She and her late husband Moses loved my parents, and Ruth played a large and quiet role in helping to salvage what was left of my family the year after my father died.

Once a week for that entire year, my sister and I would go to her house after school. Mom would meet us there when she got off work from her teaching job.

They had seven children, which I thought was the neatest thing ever.

Two were around our age, but way too smart and cool to pay attention to a couple of fatherless social misfits. To be honest, Debby and I probably weren’t great company at that point in our lives. That mattered not one iota to Ruth. She always treated us as if we were the most interesting people in the room, and always had a dinner prep job for us to do that made us feel welcome and useful.

When I went to represent the family at Aunt Bessie’s funeral this past September, I used some of my 36 hours in town to find out where Ruth was living and go see her. It was clear that she was not going to be around for a whole lot longer, but getting to experience her radiant smile again was a huge gift.

“I was sure that the Waldmans were in my past!”

We just sat there, happy as a pair of pigs in you-know-what and then dialed up Mom, so she and Ruth could have a chat. When her son David showed up, he snapped a picture of us.

Ruth Goldbas and me in September. Photo by her son David
Me and Ruth in September. Her son David took the photo, and her daughter Esther, who’d been up to visit the day before I showed up, had brought her the chocolate cake.

Like his son David, Mosie was an attorney. He even merited a mention in Roger Kahn’s book “Good Enough to Dream,” about a season Kahn spent with the Utica Blue Sox.

I mention this because on Friday, baseball great Ernie Banks (aka “Mr. Cub”) died. He never played for the Blue Sox, but he did spend a night at the Treadway Inn.  I know this because our dad took me and my sister there the morning Ernie and his fellow Cubbies were to play an exhibition game in Cooperstown at the Hall of Fame. We brought our autograph books and cameras. The autographs are long gone, but I have my memories of Ernie Banks, and of his teammate Ron Santo.

I took this picture of Ernie Banks in 1971, the year my father took us to get autographs from the Chicago Cubs. We weren't the only kids there, as you can tell from this picture.
I took this picture of Ernie Banks in 1971, the year my father took us to get autographs from the Chicago Cubs. We weren’t the only kids there, as you can tell from this picture.

Ernie Banks isn’t the only athlete I spent this weekend remembering. Baki may have made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame too, if he’d gotten a chance to grow up.

I was at work the Monday morning he died. It was 2005, and Baki was 12. His parents Marge & Andy are two of my dearest friends.

He wasn’t sick. He’d spent Sunday afternoon and early evening snow tubing with a group from synagogue. He went to bed happy, sharing a bed his nine-year-old brother, the way they always did. Their 16-year-old brothers shared another room, with separate bunk beds. M&A tucked four kids into bed that night. The moment before Marge went to wake them up for school was the last before her family’s life took a turn into a place no parent ever wants to go.

More than 1,000 people showed up for his funeral. On Saturday, about 50 of us gathered at the same synagogue for a Baki-centered memorial. There was some singing, some study of texts from Pirke Avot, and a lot of great storytelling. We shared our memories of Baki and what of him we have carried forward with us these past 10 years.

Baki was an astonishingly graceful and talented athlete.

He was a middle child who navigated the shark-infested waters of sibling competition with the same elegance he brought to his soccer and softball games; he had a quiet sense of mischief he deployed skillfully and well. There was more than one comparison to Buddha, and those making it were people who had known Baki, but not one another.

His soccer teammates told of having started every game for the season after his death “one man down” for the first 10 seconds. Baki’s jersey number had been 10, and that was their tribute. The year they were high school seniors, their soccer team went to the state championships. They started their game “one man down,” because, as one of his teammates said, “If Baki had been alive, he would have been here with us.”

Everyone who spoke had beautiful things to say. His grandmothers read of adventures they’d had with Baki dating from shortly after he was born through to his last birthday, a month before he died.

The most powerful moments of the afternoon, for me, centered around Baki’s classmates, teammates, brothers and the family friends who had been peers. Now young adults, they had experienced his death and mourned his passing as children. Seeing them express, as adults, with adults, the grief they felt as children in a setting where their friend’s memory was the focus, was profound.

It was important for them in a way that was different for the rest of us, possibly because when you’re a child, adults are in charge. They may not be able to control death, but they control a lot of other things. So a kid experiencing a friend’s death may not really understand that the adults are as absolutely lost as they are in this particular situation.

What I saw happen in those young adults, all with the same particular searing hole in their psyches, is as close as I’ve ever been to a healing event in a spiritual setting. For them, being able to pull those feelings out and air them in a setting where they were not only safe, but welcomed and encouraged, was transformational in a very different way than it was for us adult mourners.

I know a lot of people, alive and dead. Yesterday’s event gave some things to chew on in terms of how it is and what it means to carry forward the memories of those we loved, liked and cared for.

Today, it also makes me realize that down the line, if I’m lucky, someone will be doing that for me.