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Stairway to Heaven

December 24, 2009 | by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

One long, dark, memorable night I discovered my mother.

“Why are you coming to the wedding?”

“What kind of question is that?” Mom answered. “I'm going because I was invited.”

If you knew my mom, you'd understand why the conversation ended right there. My brother-in-law's daughter was getting married (no relation to her), in a wedding hall that was a good hour from her home (she didn't drive), on the hottest day of the summer (she was 93 at the time).

But her attendance was never in doubt. It was a joyous occasion, she loved life, and... well you heard her -- she was invited.

She looked beautiful that sweltering August night in 2003 and the guests were, as usual, drawn to her. People lined up to speak to Mrs. Lea Salomon. It was worth the wait.

It was a few minutes after the soup. The news filtered into the ballroom lobby in incremental waves. Much of the East Coast had been blanketed with a major blackout. Millions were plunged into sudden and crippling darkness. News outlets were reporting that repairs did not seem imminent. A state of emergency was declared in eight states and parts of Canada.

But inside the hall, the trumpets blared, the chandeliers shone brightly and the dance floor laughed. Inexplicably, in the midst of a vast sea of supreme darkness, this one wedding hall was a festive oasis of unremitting delight.

The buzz among the guests was uni-focused.

“Did you hear about the blackout?”

“Can you believe we have power here?”

“Do you think there will be looting?”

“Where are you going to sleep tonight?”

It was that last question that troubled most of us. Many of my friends (myself included), were on their way to summer bungalows in the mountains which, while without power, at least afforded us a bearable sleeping climate. And it was there that I proposed to take Mom after the wedding. Going back to her Manhattan apartment was not an option. Without lights, an elevator (she lived on the 7th floor), or air conditioning, Mom basically was left with two choices -- our cramped, but cooler bungalow, or a night in nearby Monsey with one of my wife’s brothers.

Her response, as always, was clear and definitive: “I want to go home.”

Mom reveled in the impossible, but now she was crossing the line.

I could tell you I was surprised, but I’d be lying. Mom reveled in the impossible, but now she was crossing the line.

“You know I’d be glad to drive you home, Mom, but tonight is just not going to work. The bungalow is really not so crowded. You’ll be fine.”

My logic was quite powerful -- just not quite as powerful as this 70 pound giant.

“I’m not a young woman. I need to sleep in my own bed. Take me home. Now.”

What would you have done? Think about it. You know that home was clearly not feasible, yet here was my totally autonomous 93-year-old Champion Mom insisting that she would not take ‘No’ for an answer. Predictably, minutes later I caved.

“Whatever you say, Mom. It’s a wasted trip to the city because we’ll just have to come back, but you need to see that for yourself. I understand.”

We strode to the car, sans flashlight. I knew we’d be returning soon.

Into the Darkness

The trip to Manhattan was eerily uneventful and uncharacteristically traffic-free. Apparently people feared driving on unlit highways or chose to remain near loved ones. It was, after all, a legitimate crisis. We rode mostly in silence. My thoughts centered on what time we would get back -- it was already close to 1 a.m, Who knows what Mom was thinking… but thinking she was. Thinking was her greatest life passion. I would soon find out.

We exited the Hudson Parkway at 96th street and were abruptly engulfed in full-scale darkness. The highway had been partially lit by the headlights of other cars, but the side streets were pitch-black. I swallowed hard and flashed my brights on, while proceeding at about 10 mph. I stole a glance to the passenger seat -- no reaction… at all.

A few minutes later we arrived. The clock read 1:16 a.m. I squeezed into a surprising parking space and shut off the engine (and the car lights), accentuating my point. We were now submerged in total darkness. Eerie is not the word. The seven-floor apartment building stood proudly to our left, I suppose. I couldn't even see it. I turned to Mom with a triumphant expression, as if to say, “I told you so.” She was no more than four feet away from me, but I couldn't see her face.

But my ears were operating quite well. I heard her shuffling and then I heard a click. She was unlocking her seat belt.

“Where do you think you are going!?” I asked with a tinge of irreverence and incredulousness.

“To my apartment,” she answered matter-of-factly.

“Mom, don’t be ridiculous. We can’t even see the building!”

There was no response.

Next thing I knew the passenger door swung open, the car dome light went on, and darned if she wasn’t bolting her way, cane in hand, on to her destination. I flew out myself and grasped her forearm as she crossed the abandoned, darkened street. I was hoping to re-direct her back into the car, but she would have none of that.

“Be reasonable, Mom,” I pleaded. “You live on the seventh floor. There are no lights in the whole building and no elevator! It’s just not safe!”

My words swiftly drifted into the moonless night. She bounded forward, walking with a resolve and a determination that was alien to me. In seconds, we were touching the building’s exterior glass door. It was heavy. I usually opened it for her. Not tonight. Tonight was reserved for powers I had never before witnessed.

Mom thrust the big door open while simultaneously shoving me aside -- just in case I continued my intrusive efforts. The dark somehow got darker. The vestibule covered about 16 feet until we reached the next roadblock – the interior…LOCKED…glass door. I heard her fumble in her pocket for her keys. This was getting very crazy. Valiantly, I made one final attempt.


The only answer I got was the sound of the key entering the lock. We were now in the lobby. I couldn’t see an inch in front me. I shuddered thinking this is what blindness must be like.

It was time for me to surrender. I worried terribly how this saga would end. What possible plan could she have? But a strange semi-calm was on its way. It comes with a resignation and an awareness that something very sublime was now in control.


“What are you doing?” I called out.

“I’m trying to find the Super,” she said.

She banged again, a little harder. She knew that the building superintendent lived in the first apartment on the left. Somehow she had found her way to what must have been his door. Seconds later, we heard a frightened voice, with a Spanish accent.

“Who's there?”

“It’s Mrs. Salomon, from 7D,” she answered.

Still seeing nothing, I heard the door squeak open. The Super knew Mom. Everyone knew Mom. With the door now open, I could see Mr. Lopez in the shadow of a kitchen candle that flickered in the background. He was wearing Shorty pajamas and a befuddled, but half-grinned expression. As I said…he knew Mom. Still, even he was surprised.

“Mrs. Salomon! What can you be doing here??”

His English was less than polished, but his amazement was more than clear.

I peered over at Mom. Due to the faint flicker from inside the apartment, I could finally see her. There she stood at the threshold; a hunched 4 foot 10 figure, thin as a rail but tall as a monument. The scene was beyond incongruous. There was Mom, bedecked in perfectly coiffed and stylish brunette wig, adorned by a stunning gold wedding gown with beige trim and fabulous shoes, facing (at 1:30 in the morning), in total darkness, half-naked Mr. Lopez.

“I need a candle,” she quipped. Mom never minced words. No explanation was forthcoming.

“But Mrs. Salomon,” argued Lopez, “you cannot go upstairs. We have no electricity…no elevator!”

“Just give me a candle,” she insisted.

Lopez knew enough not to mess further. He returned in a minute with a large and lit candle.

“Thank you,” she said and turned toward the elevator, candle in hand.

“You’re not walking up seven flights of stairs, Mom. No way.”

But she didn’t stop at the elevator. She kept on walking. I found myself a couple of steps behind. The heat was unbearable, but only I seemed to be sweating. I watched her advancement, but hardly believed what I saw. She was headed for the sweltering stairwell.

“You’re not walking up seven flights of stairs, Mom. No way.”

She was.

One proud step at a time she climbed this giant mountain of pride and determination. The flame danced before her. Holding her bony arm and walking beside on her right, I breathed heavily and sweated some more. I wasn’t quite sure who was helping whom. The stairwell shone brightly that magical August night and I held back a torrent of tears that were generated from awe, dignity, and unmitigated respect.

The pace slowed around floor number four and I began to fear for her health. This was serious stuff and I considered my very few options. No matter – she just kept going, throwing caution to the wind. But by the time the fifth floor appeared, I noticed the wobbling. She IS human, I remember thinking.

She gently placed her petite frame on the landing…smiled…and spoke to me.

“I don’t think I can continue,” she admitted.

I sat down beside her and draped my sweaty arm around her suddenly broad shoulders. Like two wounded soldiers on a historic battlefield, we embraced. It was a moment that would be forever etched in a loving canvas.

But defeat was not in this heroine’s lexicon. She could smell the finish line and would not be denied. She fumbled for her keys again. She always loved those keys. They were personal symbols of her prized independence. She handed them to me.

“Take the keys,” she said. Her voice was faint, but her resolve was unyielding.

“You go upstairs. Go into my apartment and bring me a glass of water -- room temperature. (Even now, she would not miss a beat.) I’ll wait here. I’ll be fine.”

“But Mom, I need the candle to go up. I can’t leave you here in total darkness.”

“I’m fine. I’m fine,” she reassured. “Just go.”

I bumbled up the last two flights, entered the pitch-black apartment and filled a glass with water -- room temperature. When I returned to the fifth floor, she was waiting patiently. Sip by sip she downed the water and smiled at me.

“I’m ready,” she declared.

The final two flights were no match for this champion. She had climbed her Everest and planted her flag.

She was home.

* * *

We didn’t get much sleep that night, but the dream had already occurred before we went to bed. Power was restored the next morning.

If there are weddings in Heaven, you can bet Lea Salomon is there.

We never again spoke about the events of the night of August 14, 2003. In the rare time that I broached the topic, she shunned the discussion. I wasn’t sure if she was embarrassed or just too modest…or maybe both. No matter. To me it was a defining declaration of the power of the human spirit.

It was that remarkable strength that allowed her to survive two World Wars and a lifetime of incessant hardships and challenges. No wonder that when she finally succumbed nearly five years later, no one could believe that she died.

If there are weddings in Heaven, you can bet Lea Salomon is there.

And why not?

She was invited.

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