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July 28, 2017

Mom, Dad, and Kenny

July 28, 2017

The eleventh month of the Jewish calendar is Av, which literally means “father.”

My brother, Kenny, died 35 years ago on the first day of Av, in a car that his father, my dad, was driving home from a Detroit Tigers game on a hot July night in 1982. The car was rammed on the passenger’s side by a young law student named Rochelle, sharing the same name as my mother.

I have attended more services in synagogue in the last three years, since my father died on the Fifteenth of Av (August 11, 2014.) I have learned of the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people in the month of Av. In fact, the most tragic day in the Jewish calendar is the Ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av), the day of numerous catastrophes…the destruction of both temples, the sin of the spies, the first crusade which killed 1.2 million Jews, the expelling of Jews from England in 1290, the banishment of Jews from Spain in 1492, Germany declaring war on Russia in 1914, the start of World War 1, the approval for Himmler’s “The Final Solution,” and the deportation of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, whom were taken to be gassed in Treblinka.

The tragic month of Av has one high point: the fifteenth of Av, (Tu B’Av,) a day designated for finding one’s predestined soulmate, considered the holiday of love, one of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar. Sometimes referred to as Hag HaAhava, it is like Valentine’s Day in America or Sadie Hawkins Day.

Tu B’Av was the day that both my parents died, exactly one year apart.

Loss and love lead to burning questions and one of the questions I’ve recently asked is: Why Av? Why the first day of Av and Tu B’Av? Were the dates of my family’s actual deaths random or are there deeper hidden meanings?

The day my father died was an eventful day, besides being the fifteenth of Av. It was the same day that Robin Williams (whose birthday, July 21, was the date of my brother’s death) tragically ended his own life, the same day the streets of Michigan were flooded with pounding rain. When we walked out of Beaumont Hospital after Rabbi Shere arrived to give my dad his final prayers, there was water pouring out of the ceiling near the parking lot and when we drove down 13 Mile Road, the street had at least two feet of standing water, slowing the drive down to a standstill. There were hundreds of homes and hundreds of streets flooded that day. People were stuck in their cars, stuck in buildings, unable to get home.

After my father departed this world, my mother’s Alzheimer’s worsened. She forgot that she ever sat in the room with us as my dad took his last breath. She asked us hundreds of times during the next year, where is dad? Have you seen him? She moved from Fox Run to Arden Court, a facility for people with dementia, and ended up at Regent Street in West Bloomfield. She sometimes wandered into her neighbors’ rooms, asking when my dad was going to pick her up and take her home. She would often turn to Judy and me and ask, what happened to dad? When we told her over and over again that he was gone, she wondered why she was never told. She would cry and then settle down and within a few minutes, ask the same questions that she had just asked. Anyone who has a parent with dementia understands the language of loss, the loss of memory, especially short term memory. Even near the end of her life, my mom could sometimes remember certain days from decades earlier as if she were still there.

When we took her to the hospital because she was sleeping too much and found out she had a large tumor on her right breast and spots covering her lungs, we wondered how this had suddenly happened. She had had a normal, clean breast exam a few months earlier. There were many times Judy and I wondered if this sudden bout of cancer was some kind of “gift” from my father, to put an end to her Alzheimer’s before it got much worse, and bring her back to be with her husband, where she belonged. My parents had been married for 60 years and most of it was happy and contented. They were very loyal to each other, except for bursts of anger and frustration, some that happened early in their marriage and some in their last years, when they had a hard time dealing with the difficulties of old age.

As my mother deteriorated both physically and mentally, Judy came to visit her almost every day. We had other caregivers with her around the clock and my sister, Leslie, came to stay with her during her last few weeks of life. As my mother cared less and less about food, we knew that her time was limited. She virtually stopped eating and stayed in bed at Regent Street. She was on hospice and had visitations from hospice nurses a few times a day. We actually changed hospice companies after a few weeks because the first one wasn’t responsive enough and gave some poor advice that helped cause physical distress. Medications were modified by trial and error as she stopped eating and stopped sipping liquids, all of it tough for her to go through and painful for us to watch.

We wondered, how long would she last without food and water? 11 days, it turned out, which were incredibly difficult, requiring extraordinary patience which my mom, ironically, had very little. Leslie slept in her room every night along with Shaya, my mom’s caregiver. It was really hard to watch my mom move slowly from this world to the next. There were many times we thought she would pass but she held on. Her heart and breathing were still resilient.

My mom could hardly remember anything new from the last year but she felt a connection to Rabbi Shere and asked Leslie if she could see “the rabbi lady.” So Rabbi Shere came after her trip on my mom’s last Shabbat. Then, she returned on Thursday as my mom was unresponsive and stayed by her bedside, singing songs, reading prayers, and holding her hand.

My mom held on until Friday morning, after we said the Mourner’s Kaddish for my dad at morning services. It was my dad’s Yahrtzeit, on Tu B’Av, which we had learned last year after my dad had died was the Jewish Day of Love. So right after services, Leslie told us that mom was changing. Her breathing was rapid and her skin’s color was changing. Judy and I went to join my sister and sat next to my mom, holding her hands. I asked the rabbi to come once again and she came afterward and sat next to mom, holding her hand, putting her hands on her forehead and chest, telling her that she had waited for my dad’s Yahrtzeit, on Tu B’Av. The Rabbi read prayers and told her over and over again that it was okay to leave this world and join my brother and my dad, that she would never be alone, a major fear of my mom’s.

This is what I wrote for my mom’s eulogy: “Watching someone so loved slowly die is painful, excruciating, emotional, and powerful. Near 10a.m., as my mom struggled to breath, the rabbi said my mom had a tear. My mom had never been to see my dad’s unveiling and had never seen the stone we got for him, inscribed with the word, Shalom. Was the tear a goodbye tear or a tear representing peace, the other meaning of shalom? At that moment, my mom’s purpose was complete as she took her last breath. Perhaps it was a tear that she got to see dad and Kenny. A moment of completeness and pure peace, a moment to say hello to those she deeply missed.”

There is solace knowing that my parents spent 60 years married to each other in life and died one year apart on Tu B’Av, two weeks after my brother’s death, on one of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar, the day that both my parents died and found each other and their long lost youngest son, on the other side.

Once again, they are all together again and we, the survivors, are left alone, here, in the sorrows of our hearts, imagining the world above us, the world they now inhabit, the world of souls and spirit, together in eternity.

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