> Family > Heart of Matter

A Life Cut Short

June 25, 2009 | by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

My mother died when she was almost 98 years old. We thought she'd live forever.

My mother died about eight weeks ago. The details of her life are about as insignificant as the details of her death. For details only report what happened. They tell us nothing about who she was. I am going to try.

Most of us thought she would live forever -- okay, not forever, but certainly longer than her 97 years and 46 weeks. That's what happens when you live your life with a vibrancy that says, "This is a beautiful world. Never stop thinking. Never stop growing. Never stop learning." And so we naturally assumed that she would...well...never stop living.

And when I say that she never stopped growing, I mean that. One Thursday, just a few months ago, I stopped in to the Assisted Living residence that she called home for the last year of her life. Mom seemed perturbed...uneasy. I asked her what was wrong.

"I'm concerned about Beth."

Beth was her spinster neighbor across the hall and her table-mate in the Dining Room. She was in her 80's, bright, articulate, and decidedly not religious.

"Beth never married. She is alone and lacks meaning in her life. What will become of her?"

I just looked at her and wondered. Surely my mom, a 97-year-old woman, had other matters to worry about.

"Should a woman who is not married light candles for Shabbat?" she asked.

"Well...there are different customs. In our circles, women begin lighting candles when they marry," I replied.

"But Beth never married," she protested. "Should she go through her entire life having never experienced the beauty of lighting Shabbat candles? Tomorrow I will take her downstairs and light candles with her."

And so she did; and continued to do so until her time was up. I had never heard of a woman that age still actively reaching out to her fellow Jews.

For a woman who led a rather remarkable life, she actually experienced a rather unremarkable death. In fine health and with full mental function, she broke her hip, had "successful" surgery, and died six days later. Her 67-pound frame was no match for spinal anesthesia and the newly inserted hardware.

I recall asking Dr. Weinstein not long ago if she could really subsist, weighing less than 70 pounds.

"I really couldn't tell you," he said. "I've never seen it before."

In a world where so many of us seem to crumble and snap when we lose cell phone service for an instant, Mommy relished in needing nothing -- except for her eight cups of tea a day, which she prepared herself until the very end.

From where did she derive her fierce independence? The easy answer is her father, who eschewed assistance of any kind for the 100 years he graced this planet.

Another likely source was her unyielding belief in the Creator, to whom she diligently prayed daily, enunciating every word with precision and focus. Why rely on the hired technician when the Manufacturer Himself was available to help, heal, and advise?

But most influential was certainly her life experiences, which taught her to appreciate and learn from every encounter in a precarious world. Every acquaintance became a teacher and student; every challenge, a lesson in life.

We would sit around the dining room table, Mommy -- her tiny four-foot ten-inch frame properly perched on her unassuming throne -- and we would inquire about days passed, hope to glean a teaching from a turbulent world gone asunder.

"Tell us about The War," we asked recently, and she would recount how she had to flee Antwerp for the safer confines of Holland. It took us a few minutes to realize that The War she was taking about was World War I, not II. Not many people today can boast of experiences from 1916 -- and the capacity to remember them too.

Having survived two world wars, several migrations, deaths of family members, and tribulations of all extremes can crush the faint-hearted, but it can also fortify those who are crafted from more durable cloth.

And she used that fabric to sew together and mend the broken spirit that was my father – a survivor of seven different concentration camps, who lost his first wife and two daughters in the crematoria of Europe.

They married in New York City in 1947 -- both 36 years old -- and built a new life out of the shards of despondency and the reveries of a new frontier. I try to imagine what it must have been like to give birth twice by C-section, at age 37 and then at 41, when medical sophistication was barely in its infancy. Who knows what apprehensions and prayers of desperation may have filled her psyche? But for Super Bubby (that's what some of her great-grandchildren called her) it might not have been a big deal at all. I certainly never heard her mention it. Nor did anyone else.

But her independence didn't only express itself in mere self-sufficiency. It became the frame around her intellectual bulletin board, from which she would paste and hang her incredible wit, her parenting philosophy, and her opinions on everything from politics to semantics. Whatever she believed, she espoused with unwavering confidence and certainty.

Television westerns, like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Wagon Train were enormously popular when we grew up. But Izzy and I were not permitted to watch violence of any kind. This was many years before studies showed the detrimental effects of TV violence. We had to pretend we knew the "latest developments" every week, to avoid embarrassment with our friends.

"But no one else's mother seems to mind," we pleaded.

"One day you'll thank me," she smiled back.

And of course, we did.

She herself never watched television.

"A waste of time," she proclaimed, preferring Chopin, crosswords, knitting, writing poetry, and playing piano.

But undoubtedly, her most gratifying hobby -- besides interacting with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- was thinking. There was no greater joy she had than simply using her brain. She loved to just figure things out and didn't seem to care how long it took. It was as if she had an endless attention span.

She could sit for hours -- literally -- methodically solving a Rubik's Cube, or for days with the most complex picture puzzle. And when the task was done, she never boasted about her accomplishment or took pride in solving the brain-teaser. No puzzle was ever glued, framed, or hung. She usually dismantled the trophy and started all over again. No wonder she learned Sudoku at age 93.

At age 95, she asked me to buy her a laptop.

"But Mommy, you don't even know computers," I reasoned.

"So what? I'll learn!" she argued. And she meant it.

But one simple talk we had just a few months ago, depicts her persona nearly perfectly.

I was visiting with her on a very ordinary afternoon, a privilege that I enjoyed almost every single day of her final 14 months. She was sitting up in her bed, having just awoken from a very brief nap. I sat beside her. She rarely napped and never for more than a few minutes. You guessed it. A waste of time, no doubt.

We were talking about the latest book she had read. She was a voracious reader -- often alternating between six or seven books of totally different styles and subjects simultaneously. And at one point in the conversation, I made the impolite mistake of yawning. As usual, she caught me.

"You're tired, aren't you?"

"Yes. I'm always tired."

"You don't get enough sleep," she chastened.

"I know, Mommy. I know."

She continued. She was going somewhere. I just didn't know where.

"When you do go to bed, do you fall asleep right away?"

"Oh yes. Absolutely. By the time my head hits the pillow, I am out."

"Is that so?" she concluded. "So you really have no idea what it's like to lay awake in bed at night and not fall asleep?"

I felt guilty and insensitive, but I had to admit the truth.

"No, Mommy. You are right. I really don't know what that must be like. But I bet you know what that is like."

"Yes, yes...of course," she replied.

I had no idea that in the next few words she would completely turn the conversation around and leave me speechless, as she had done thousands of times in my lifetime.

"Tell me," she said, peering deeply into my eyes and my soul. "If you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow, when do you have time to think?"

I suppose I should have known that Mommy would relish the insomnia and transform the adversity into opportunity. Looking back on it, it should have been obvious. She never wasted a minute. She used those minutes, every one of them, to think, to plan, to contemplate, to understand life.

I smiled knowingly and caressed her aged, bony hand. She loved teaching me and loved being taught.

I secretly wondered how much more time God would grant us to share these special moments. I prayed that they never end. I kissed her forehead and rose to leave. Her large eyes lovingly followed me to the door.

97 years and 46 weeks is a rather long time. I know that.

But I am so sad.

I really thought it would last forever.



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