My mother and my Aunt Gladys were not only sisters, they were best friends. They had worked along side one another as teenagers and took holidays together as older adults. Because I have often been out of the country, we have spent only about 60 Passover dinners with the Garelick family, the married name of my aunt. Yesterday morning, not long after my blog was sent out, I received a phone call from my late Aunt Gladys’ son-in-law. We shared the same name, Howard. He was in his car on his way to the Baycrest palliative care unit. Fern, my first cousin, my Aunt Gladys’ only daughter, Howard’s wife, had just died. An official notice of death and her picture can be found on the Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel web site.
Fern will be buried this morning. The shiva will be held at her daughter Jordana’s home, where, for the last decade or so, we have celebrated Passover and broken the fast on Rosh Hashana, succeeding the rituals once conducted in her parents’ home. I will spend the rest of this week there saying Kaddish each evening. It will be a very different time than the ones spent watching the two daughters of Jordana and her husband, Bram, and the two daughters of Jordana’s brother, Avi, and his wife, Jessica, perform and dance and sing at every festival. Rachel, Amy, Sammy and Leigh will miss having their Bubbie in their lives when they pass into their teenage years.
Fern had a brother, Steve, her only sib. Steve is married to Carol. They too have children. And grandchildren. They too will be at the funeral along with other friends and relatives. But the focus will be on the begats, on those whom Fern and Howard begat.
Fern and Howard had three children. In addition to Avi, the eldest, Jordana, the youngest, there was Danny, the middle child. Fern has been a physiotherapist and Howard remained an athlete to this day. Avi, their son, was a champion swimmer who went to an American university on a swimming scholarship. Though Danny was born with handicaps in the use of one arm and leg, he swam and went horseback riding. He was always taught to do the best he could. And he did. He matured to become a confident adult who was self-reliant with an amazing warm and wispy smile. Jordana, who was for a few years my youngest children’s Hebrew teacher and subsequently the principal organizer for the TV show that I produced and hosted, first became a teacher and is now a personal trainer.
The horrible irony was that the mother in this very fit family in every sense of the word, that Fern, my smiling cousin who competed with her mother Gladys in baking the best deserts I ever ate, particularly the cinnamon buns of my Aunt Gladys, died of Parkinson’s disease. Since she fell backwards on the stairs after working out in her basement a few years ago, we have watched her body betray her, gradually at first and then far more swiftly this past year when she has been unable to walk, dress, feed herself and, in the last few months, had become a crippled and bent over version of her former lively and energetic self.
My brother Al would have been 82 in three days. This same month, 4 days earlier, but in 1999 and not 2018, my brother died. It was a horrible death that took over a year as a blastoma ate away his brain, his senses, his motor controls, his memory and his thought processes. At the end, for months he was in a coma.
This morning I had a dream. I was sleeping in someone else’s bed in a house that was like the one we lived in when I was ten years old. I had heard a loud noise on the stairs. My wife did not wake up in the narrow bed on which we were sleeping. She continued to sleep under her covers with her back to me. And, try as I might, I could not remember who my wife was.
I went out of the room. My younger brother, Stan, appeared from another room. Together we went to find the source of the noise. It was my older brother noisily coming up the stairs. But he did not look like Al. He looked like my grandson Jacob, a bit confused and lost. And I suddenly noticed that my brother Stan looked like my grandson, Micah. But he did not act like the bouncy Micah we both knew. Jacob and Micah’s middle brother was Sasha. I must have looked like him. When I checked in a mirror, he was very angry. He looked enraged.
Fern’s death makes me angry. I should not feel anger, but I do. Yesterday, I tried to recall memories of when I babysat her and her brother, Steve. I tried to recall our times together when they were children and I was a teenager. I could not. I could remember our families together at many seder tables, but no sooner did the memory come up than it was crowded out by images of my cousin crippled up in her wheel chair. I could remember Fern and Howard coming up to the cottage with Jordana and Bram and loads of bread, bagels and sliced deli meats. I could remember Fern going for a swim. But those memories seemed so fleeting compared to the ones of this last year.
I am angry that the latest memories are so painful and push aside the earlier very happy moments. I am angry that it is not only my memories of my cousin, but that so many other parts of reality have been forced out of place. Her death in my mind expands into historical significance.
In economics, higher interest rates reduce or “crowd out” private investment and, hence, growth. Similarly, bad memories reduce our ability to access the good ones which encourage us to thrive. Fortunately, Howard, who, over the last few years, spent time with Fern in the care unit of Baycrest every day, has recently discovered a new vocation – teaching music appreciation in a novel way. He now has his first paid gig at Ryerson University. Fortunately, as well, at the funeral and at the shiva, the family will regroup. Together, the good memories will come back and we will all rejoice in Fern’s life.
With the help of Alex Zisman