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.

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.