My dad passed away a couple of days ago. He had been ill for many months, his systems deteriorating one by one. He clung to life for a long time. He was always a very strong man physically. For all the years I lived in his house I do not think he ever called in sick. Even hung over, he went to work.
A family of six has now dwindled to two. Just me and my brother, who lives on the other side of the world and who embraces a very different culture from mine. But we stay in touch. We will always be connected. His son is one my favorite people in the world.
I have been preparing for my dad’s passing for a while now. He had dementia for years, so we could no longer exchange letters or emails. But I knew that he was alive, although he lived far away from me. Even though it had been decades since our last face to face meeting, he was still my father. I still have the kind letters and notes he sent me. For a few years I felt like I had a father who loved and cared about me. What a blessing! To grow up in a house where your father was a stranger in many ways and then in mid-life to have your father ask about your happiness. Baruch HaShem.
Dad, your suffering on earth is over. You lived a long and full life; I wish it had not been marred by a war, a long unhappy marriage, and mental illness. But you survived it all and you eventually found your brand of happiness and shared several good years with a new partner. You loved being out in nature, you loved the French language and opera, you loved to travel and sail and swim and ski. You were kind. You laughed at Archie Bunker. You loved “Hogan’s Heroes.”
A dear friend wrote me yesterday that he would say Kaddish for my father. Thanks, Dad, for going to work every day and providing for your family. That alone is a huge feat.
I hoard pens and paper. Many of my pens no longer work, as the ink is so old that it has dried up. Periodically I will go through my pens: I’ll touch them, test the ink, decide if I should toss any, choose pens for the “buy new refill” category. Some pens are no longer functional but I keep them for their design or signature logo. I collect pens. Whenever I travel, I try to pick up a memento pen. No hotel room pen is safe from my pilfering hands.
Some pens are for doodling alone; others are for practicing my own form of calligraphy; others are strictly for business purposes; some are for journal or fiction writing. A few are designated for writing in cafes.
I also have piles of assorted paper and stationery. I keep a stack of old envelopes near my desk, which I use for miscellaneous notes and To Do lists. How can I simply recycle my Con Ed bill envelope when it contains plenty of white space to serve as my daily To Do list? The bottom deep drawer of my desk is reserved for boxed stationery and packets of art postcards. I still have a few pieces of my first high-grade stationery purchase, made as a teenager. Lord.
I imagine one day when my niece and nephew go through my belongings, after my funeral, that all these papers will find their way into a giant RECYCLE bin. Most of my pens will go in the RUBBISH bin. I trust that my devoted nephew will keep my designer pens for his own use or pass them down to his children (I once bought myself a $65 designer pen as a birthday gift).
As a child growing up in a busy often chaotic household who had to share a room with other siblings, I clung to my pens and paper (all neatly organized in my desk). They were mine alone and I refused to share. As an adult working in a corporate environment I was suspicious of visitors to my office, lest they walk away with one of my pens or Post-it pads.
Yes, I am a hoarder.
One recent weekend I was enjoying people watching in a trendy artsy part of Brooklyn, I was eating a mediocre cold quiche in an overpriced café, and in walks this intense young man. He is on his phone, of course, and he settles into a chair in the back of the café without ordering anything.
For the next 15 minutes, while I ingest my quiche and sip my café au lait and read a novel (Artemis), He proceeds to talk about nearly about every one of his bodily organs to his physician friend (what a good soul!). Apparently He is having gastrointestinal issues and he thinks that excessive drinking and spicy foods are having a negative effect on said bodily system. He patiently lists all the medical tests and appointments that he has had. I wondered why his physician friend was allowing this self-centered fool to continue. I could have walked over to Him, slammed down his phone, and advised him to avoid alcohol and spicy foods (and chronic stress).
Instead I tried to ignore him, I skimmed the rest of Artemis (I was near the end when I came into the café), and cleared my table. I collected my things and walked a block down to my friend’s art studio.
For me this has been the case for many years. Since my mother passed away during this long dreary unpredictable month. For years after her death I did not know why I became depressed (more than normal) during March. It would take a few years of therapy to uncover the reason. The subconscious mind and the body remember things that the executive functioning brain chooses to relegate to dusty corners.
I like to go to shul during March and announce this yarzheit, to let other Jews know that I am mourning. I like to take a vacation in March and make happy memories. This year my therapist suggested that I do something to memorialize my mother. That was helpful and I’d like to do this every March in years to come. I chose a small yellow/white potholder that my mother had crocheted in the form of a doll’s dress (which had been stored in a drawer) and I framed it. Now I can admire my mother’s handiwork and artistic skills every day.
I recently spoke with my niece and nephew about their aunt Jane, whom they never knew. They were living in Asia at the same time that Jane was in a mental institution. Jane was a few hours away from them. But they did not know it at the time. Jane was a prisoner of mental illness in a country that commonly housed the insane far away from mainstream society. Jane had become a victim of decisions made by two men in her family. These men controlled her fate after our mother died.
My mother was a shrewd woman and she was ill for a year before her death. I imagine that she knew that Jane would be institutionalized after she perished. I hope that my mother had a role in choosing the private facility where Jane languished for 20 years. I hope that it was not a horrible place, but I think that is a pipe dream.
When I talk to my niece and nephew about Jane, the narrative is generally G-rated. But during this recent visit I intentionally wanted to paint a more realistic picture. I know that their father has spoken very little to them about Jane. This time I let my nephew know that my social work career is dedicated to the memory of Jane. Jane, who was sweet-hearted, emotionally fragile, and neurologically diseased. Jane, who was an accomplished classical pianist. Jane, who went to university for a couple years and who studied engineering.
I want them to know that Aunt Jane existed. She walked this terrible earth. She went to school and did her homework. As an adolescent she made her bed every day. She learned how to ice skate. She liked to eat raw onions with a soy-based sauce. She never went skiing with the rest of her siblings and her father. She never had a date. She never had a boyfriend. She never learned how to drive. Her last paying job was at a Pizza Hut in a god forsaken rural town in Pennsylvania. In her bedroom I remember seeing her uncashed paychecks crumpled and strewn on the top of her dresser. One night while I was home during college break, my mother and I went to pick her up after her evening shift. Our aging orange Subaru had a busted tail light and we were pulled over by a cop. Oh great, I thought. I cursed my father for not maintaining the old Subaru. I cursed the mean little white town where my parents were living at the time. I cursed the mental illness that had reduced my eldest sister to working part time in a Pizza Hut. The job would only last a few more weeks since her illness prevented her from functioning in a job. She only had that job because my mother had pushed her to apply, so she could get out of the house and interact with other people. It was the last paying job she would ever have.
Before my mother passed away in Asia, she tried to get Jane involved in an adult center where she could engage in arts and crafts. My mother was tenacious. She was a role model for me. She taught me the value of community inclusion for people with disabilities. Many years after she passed, I would intern and later work for an agency that served people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Yes, my dearest nephew, my social work career is dedicated to the memory of my mother and my sister.
I have a new project that I will start to roll out on this blog. “Stories for Jane” will be a series dedicated to my late sister (the eldest girl in my family) who passed in 2004. Jane had paranoid schizophrenia and for the last 20 years of her life she was separated from her family. She was institutionalized and I never saw her during those years. I did not know where she was exactly, I had no address, I could not write any letters or send any packages.
A few months ago, my older sister passed. We had come together during the last 24 months of her life as she battled cancer. We met regularly, after decades of being estranged, and we exchanged gifts. The greatest gift was being in touch again, this time on an amicable basis.
Now, as the only female left in my family, I sense an urgency to enjoy every day that I am still here. L’Chaim is a paramount value in my chosen religion. I am rededicating my life now, I am starting again, I am living for teshuvah–a daily renewal.
Part of my teshuvah process is to examine Jane’s life and the role she played in my own life.
Walking home from Pilates this afternoon, I felt a moment of beautiful clarity and hope. It was gray and misty as I made my way past the lovely brownstones in my neighborhood. My body felt good; my mind seemed clear. Had my chakras finally cleared? That recent four-week class on chakras and healing was worth it then. I lowered my shoulders, opening up the heart chakra.
Every day I say my Jewish gratitude prayer, to remind myself that it is good that I woke up and that my body is functioning. No matter what is going on, it can’t be that bad if I am alive and walking and praying. For a few moments I feel light, unburdened by persistent worries, and even mildly happy.
Adonai, I will try to be more hopeful and less unpleasant. I’ll smile at a fellow classmate, either in my Pilates studio or in class. Just for a few moments at least.