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Av

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.

My Father’s Hero

Written on May 21, 2007

I lost my only brother at 25 but I have been blessed with a father for 50 Father’s Days. I have watched and admired how someone who had so much ripped away can still be delighted by his grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. He listens and plays with them as if he were their brother, as if he were their age.

 

My father’s hero was Hank Greenberg. In my father’s childhood, “Hammerin’ Hank” became the most prolific hitter on the Detroit Tigers. The first Jewish superstar, Greenberg refused to play on Yom Kippur when the Tigers were fighting for a pennant. In 1938, he hit 58 home runs, the most home runs since Babe Ruth’s 60 and in 1942, he volunteered to join the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II.

As my father and I walked the corridors of Comerica Park and viewed Greenberg’s photo and his 1945 Detroit team, I listened to memories of “the magical season” when my dad was 13, the hometown hero returned to his city, and the war ended.

This was the first time my father and I went to a Major League baseball game in decades and his first trip to the “park” that replaced Tiger Stadium. As the Tigers and Orioles battled in the sixth inning, the wind started gusting and the rain fell hard on our heads. We decided to escape the rain over our heads and watched the game instead on a 19” TV screen above the concession stand.

As we watched Gary Sheffield come to the plate, my father told me about the return of Greenberg. My dad and his friend had paid 50 cents to get bleacher tickets for a doubleheader on July 1st, 1945, Hank’s first game since joining the army. The Tigers were up in the early innings of the game but Hank was many batters away. My dad joined his friend who said there was plenty of time to get a hot dog. The lines were very long and the disappointment severe as the thunderous ovation erupted. They missed Hank hitting his first home run. Hank didn’t homer again that night and didn’t even play in the doubleheader’s second game. After he told the story, we heard a loud noise and watched Gary Sheffield, on instant replay, hit his first home run since joining the Tigers.

I couldn’t remember when my dad and I had last seen a Tigers game. Even though we worked together for two decades in the company he managed, I didn’t recall going to a game with him during or after hours. Instead, I remembered Little League when I had slugged my first good hit over the left fielder’s head with the bases loaded and trotted the bases from first to second, heading to third. I couldn’t forget the third base coach, my dad, screaming at me to keep running. But I was too tired and stopped at third base as he yelled at me, “You could have had a grand slam!” That’s what I remember now though my memory is selective, often focused on what’s most hilarious or horrible.

My father’s most towering memory is his worst, the night he went with my brother, Kenny, to a Detroit-Chicago baseball game in the summer of ’82 when Kenny was 13. On their way home, at the last traffic light before he entered his subdivision, another car went through a blinking red light into my father’s car, slamming into the passenger side.

My father has lived with so many what ifs in the last quarter century. What if he had swerved left? What if he had slowed down or sped up just five seconds? What if he had never gone to the Tigers game with his youngest son?

The last night he shared with Kenny can never be erased. The night has markers every year, always within six weeks after Father’s Day. This year is the 25th anniversary of the death of my brother, Kenneth Samuel, who was born on December 23, 1968 and died on July 21, 1982.

I often think of the grief of parents when I read of dead American soldiers in Iraq and know their aches may soften but the haunted wishes for their sons or daughters’ returns will never disappear.

I know survivors fortunate to have fathers are incredibly lucky, as I am, after my father survived the crash and stayed in my life for another 25 years.

My father was a tough boss and sometimes a demanding father, expecting a lot from me. Or so it seemed before my three children, before watching my oldest son, named after Kenny, ready to enter his fourth year of college.

I lost my only brother at 25 but I have been blessed with a father for 50 Father’s Days. I have watched and admired how someone who had so much ripped away can still be delighted by his grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. He listens and plays with them as if he were their brother, as if he were their ages.

My mother, sister, wife, and I know a 75-year-old man with lymphoma and veins prepped for kidney dialysis won’t live forever. So we must be thankful for the days we have left, the nights we won’t get again.

I am thankful for memories and imagination. After the seventh inning, when we left Comerica Park, I began to envision Kenny’s last night alive when he and his dad entered Tiger Stadium.

Hank Greenberg

I smiled when I imagined my father showing Kenny a photo of the one and only Hammerin’ Hank. I could picture the enthralled eyes of my brother, listening to his dad reliving his childhood in 1945, the year that he celebrated Hank coming home from World War II and leading the Detroit Tigers to the World Series Championship.

Some memories can never be erased, even the imaginary ones.

FREE (for Rachel) April 13, 2017

Facebook says it’s your birthday

Not caring whether you know it or not.

Your face is shared as if you could see it

Yourself and be glad for all the wishes

From so many, all wishing

You were still here . Oh, how

You would laugh and celebrate

This day of becoming legal. You

Were too young to leave and we are too

Hurt to celebrate. The ache spreads

From family to friends and the only

Thought that eases grief

Is a vision of you without pain

In an orbit above our dreams,

In any form you want, free,

Flying  completely free.Rachel on couch

Penny from Heaven

Penny was coming over with her hand-made Bingo cards for my brother-in-law, Joel. He was truly excited and couldn’t wait to play with her. She always lets him win.

Since his second stroke, Joel has struggled with eating and bathing and needed help. My wife heard about Penny who told us she had gone to Hollywood to be an actress and then came home after cancer took one of her legs. Since then, she has been a caregiver.

My mother-in-law had always taken care of her eldest son with Down Syndrome and never asked for aid. But she admits Penny is “God sent,” enthusiastically giving and compassionate, making Joel’s life a little better every day.

The Talmud says, “The highest form of wisdom is kindness.” Penny is not Jewish but she demonstrates the essence of tikkun olam, helping to repair Joel among others.

I have given Joel presents and taken him to sports events but Penny has demonstrated that selfless moments of kindness are more meaningful: the simplest, most precious of gifts.

Does It Ever Get Easier?

Mom, Dad, and Kenny

Life goes on. What a cruel saying but the truth of the matter is it does. Days go by. One sees the passing of the seasons. Flowers bloom and then they die and then the leaves fall off the trees and the snow comes with the harshness of bitter cold and wind that takes your breath away and then a new year and then you think, is it possible my little child who meant so much to us has missed five of his birthdays? We haven’t missed them but he has. Every year that day reminds us of the joy, the worry, the laughter, the hopes, the pain and above all else, the future of our son, a future that is no more.

Easier? I don’t know. The intensity of the loss is less. We go on with our lives, trying to make the best of what is left of them. The most treasured part of our lives is the family we have left and then welcoming new lives into our hearts, hoping for them a happy and healthy life and a future that is rich and full. But still, a wall remains within me. Do I ever want to feel that overwhelming love for anyone anymore? It hurts so much when you love so much, because in a fraction of a second, it can all be taken away and all you have left are the memories. The memories hurt so badly because you can’t touch memories; you can only relive them in your mind and sometimes, the memories are so sweet that it makes it that much harder and more painful to remember.

Today, five years after the accident, after the tragedy, the cruel twist of fate or whatever one wants to call it, I reflect on the five years of trying to pick up the pieces and salvage the time that is left of my life.

Yes, it is easier, the pain of loss more tolerable. There are new reasons to live. There are days when I can honestly say, “This is a good day.” I enjoy the challenge of trying new things but I still must confess the emptiness in my heart, the loneliness I often feel for my son. The aches are sometimes so bad that they can seem insurmountable but the severity of the pain is less that it was, allowing me to resume “every-day living.”

The void for my son will remain, probably for the rest of my life. Even through the laughter and the smiles, a sadness remains. Perhaps, I choose it to be this way. It is a way of keeping Kenny alive.

 

Rochelle Goldman

July, 1987

 

Eleven Months — Aggman’s Blog

I say the words, glorified and sanctified In Hebrew, almost a year since My mom was erased from her life. Sitting in the sanctity of My memories, blessed and praised, I await the day ever slowly when I won’t stand up for Kaddish, The mourner’s prayer, mom just A fading apparition since the last day […]

via Eleven Months — Aggman’s Blog

Baseball, Hot Dogs, and Haroset

baseball and hot dogsHaroset

Written on April 3, 2007 and dedicated to my father-in-law, Max Frank

Some days are made for celebration. When I told my son, Kyle, that I was going to get a mini-package of Tiger tickets which included Opening Day, he wondered whether we should pay the extra $75 fee and extend his visit for one more day. He was coming home from college for only three days and was planning to leave April 1st, the day before Passover. I agreed with him that it wasn’t worth it and he should go back to school to attend his one class on Monday, April 2nd. But when I talked to my wife, she disagreed and after we discussed it, I realized she was right as usual. For Kyle to spend an afternoon with me at our first Opening Day and then to be here with his family for the first seder was, as the commercial says, priceless.

April 2nd started with Siyum HaB’khor, the service commemorating the sparing of the Hebrew first-born sons on Passover. I had imagined Kyle’s Zadeh Max noticing my son putting on tefillin in the back of Adat Shalom’s chapel, jubilant his grandson had not flown back to Philadelphia as scheduled. But Zadeh Max can’t see well these days and it was only me joining him.  Kyle slept in, needing his last day of rest before school and not wanting to ruin the surprise. Besides, I didn’t have tefillin, after I realized the night before that the brand new set I received for my 50th birthday was missing the “shel rosh,” the black box with Torah passages on parchments with kosher leather straps to be worn on the head. Instead, it had two “shel yads,” two black boxes with their long leather strands to be wrapped seven times around the arm. I wondered what Rabbi Nevins would have said if I wore these on both arms instead of on my head. Even though the rabbi is a really nice man, a true mensh, I doubt if he would have been too pleased.

Rabbi Nevins was in good spirits this morning as he discussed the Mishna’s Tractate, Chagigah, and its obscure rules, and mentioned the counting of the Omer. I was lost in thought, imagining the baseball game in a few hours. But I realized also that this would be the rabbi’s last breakfast before Passover with us, his congregation, as he was leaving in the summer for New York City and his new position at the Jewish Theological Seminary. When I sat near him and ate my last chametz breakfast before the seder, I was more thankful than disappointed that we were able to share this dedicated teacher for thirteen years. When the 28-year-old rabbi gave his first sermon at Adat, Kyle was only 8 years old.

Before leaving for the baseball game, I gave the last of our chametz to my father-in-law to burn on his driveway. (If you’re not Jewish, it’s not worth explaining chametz or tefillin or the Haggadah. Consult a rabbi, a good book on Judaism, or Wikopedia.)

Kyle and I decided to leave at 11:00a.m., even though we knew the Lodge was blocked. I detoured down ‘696 to ’75 before we reached downtown where we proceeded to wander for thirty minutes, trying one full lot after another, and finally parked in a glass-filled vacant lot, giving the large man near us his requested $20. The question was, would my car still be there afterward and would we make it in time for the American League Championship flag ceremony?

As we quickly walked through the throngs of people in the cold wind, I didn’t think about Comerica’s executives exiting Detroit for Dallas or that our state’s economy was miserable. We were preoccupied with spring, the sunshine, the clock, and the excitement of the Tigers starting a new season after their year of winning the American League pennant.

Maybe this year would bring the glory of a World Series Championship. In spring, in the season’s renewal of hope, anything seemed possible.

We cheered with the rest of the city during the first game, celebrating this new year of baseball. When I saw kosher hot dogs at a food stand, I licked my lips, already missing bread even before my first taste of matzo. I ordered the kosher dog with onions but threw out the bun. I couldn’t remember the exact reason we couldn’t eat bread in the hours before the first Passover Seder. The rabbi said this morning that after 10:00a.m., leavened bread was prohibited. It was just one of many Pesach rules we were simply supposed to follow.

I didn’t really need food anyway. It was a mitzvah being with my only son, celebrating his first Opening Day and mine. We had both seen our first World Series game last October in the cold rain and now, we were together again for this baseball rite of spring. It was another meaningful moment in my life, one of many since I’d turned fifty. Even though the Tigers lost in 10 innings, 5-3, it was still a gorgeous sunny day, in weather and in spirit.

As we were basking in the sunshine, in the excitement of the game, my wife, Judy, and my youngest daughter, Marlee, were busy, helping my mother-in-law cook the seder meal. Passover is a huge responsibility, if you follow all of the rules. It involves weeks of intense house-cleaning and getting everything ready for Pesach. And the seder meal itself can take days to produce. But when the seder finally comes, all the work before it seems worthwhile.

Then, when Kyle’s aunt, uncle, and grandparents finally saw their first grandson after he entered their home for the seder, it was as if Elijah himself had entered. He knocked on the door ten minutes after me and was let in. My mother-in-law had told Judy that she had cried a few times during the week, realizing that her oldest grandson would not make the seder. He had been there every year since birth except once, in his freshmen year at college. When she turned, stunned to see his face behind her, she truly wept with joy.

My two daughters, wife, and I sat down to the table to join Judy’s brother, sister, and parents. Just like the last 22 years, we proceeded to read and sing the Haggadah, beginning with the very first page, all the way to the Had Gadya, the bloody poem about a little goat. I felt nostalgic from all the seders we had shared at Judy’s old home and felt incredible gratitude that we were still here, together, thankfully one year older.

We were celebrating the mitzvah of being Jews in America, able to enjoy the bounteous dinner and the knowledge that without Moses and God, we wouldn’t be here. For one night, we could forget about layoffs and terrorism in Iraq and Israel and rejoice in our ancestors’ freedom and our own. We could celebrate another year of haroset, the combination of walnuts, apples, cinnamon, and wine, the simple treat that accompanies the bitter herbs and matzos. We could recite the four questions, Dayeinu, and rejoice in each other.

As we raised our glasses of wine and grape juice, I realized that even in these turbulent, troubled times, we could still be happy. We were a part of America with its baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. But instead, we had an apple cake made with matzo meal rather than wheat flour.

It didn’t matter. Spring was about to begin. Baseball was reborn in Detroit. We were celebrating tradition, family, eating, prayer, memories, gratitude, and freedom. We were just happy.