Commemorating two strong women

September means two yahrzeits, for mother and aunt

It happens like this every year, sometime in September. I stand in shul, on two successive Shabbats, for two beloved relatives who died in the same hospital within the same week, so many years ago. 

It was 1984. My mother had no definitive illness; she just went slowly, slowly downhill until she passed away. On her death certificate, the reason given is “anemia of unknown etiology.” 

My Aunt Luba had cancer, throughout her body. She was wiry and strong all her life, until one day she fell, and couldn’t get up. But she had neglected to tell anyone — especially not her doctor — that she had been spitting up blood. 

Two women, two sisters, so different in life, so different in death. I made a last visit to see them just a week or so before they died, just a few days apart — but just long enough to make their yahrzeits fall in two different weeks. 

I had just had my first breast cancer surgery, and was undergoing radiation treatment, when I knew I had to go home to say goodbye to my mother and my aunt. My treatment team gave me one day off, giving me a three-day weekend away from my own illness, to face the illness of two beloved others. My visit to my mother was the hardest: I had not told her about my own disease, and had no intention to do so at this time of finality. 

When I entered her room, she was awake, but so weak. She gave me a small smile, limply held my hand while we exchanged a few words about — I can’t even remember what. What I will never forget is that she asked me to adjust her pillows, so that her head was higher, and she could be more comfortable. But I knew I couldn’t do that with my weak right arm, and I was not going to say no, and be honest about why. Thinking as quickly as I could under the circumstances, I said: “Let me call a nurse. Nurses are much better at this kind of thing than I am.” And, I managed to leave the room before I started to cry. My dear mother’s last request of me, and I couldn’t fulfill it. I hope none of you who read this ever have to experience such a dreadful moment. 

When I found a nurse, I told her I would walk down the hallway to see my Aunt Luba. She was her usual cheerful self, even as I came in just in time to hear her doctor give the final, fatal report. “What can I say?” was all he said. She received the news of her impending end with the same spirit she had handled everything else in a life that was — thankfully — not filled with difficulty, but like all lives, had its difficult moments. 

I kissed her and said goodbye. Then I walked back up the hallway to my mother’s room. She was asleep. I kissed her and said goodbye. I was not able to be at either of their funerals. 

There are sad things in life that are often not talked about as much as they should be. But they need to be told, to be understood, to be sympathized with. Every year, for two consecutive Shabbats, I stand in the synagogue to say Kaddish, and I cry inside for those incomplete, unsatisfying goodbyes. But I also say thanks for my own survival, which has allowed me to fulfill these sacred duties every year for the past 35 years. The lights of my mother and my aunt are lit, one the first week, the other the second, next to their plaques on my shul’s memorial board. I am grateful to be in a good place for remembering them, and for seeing the lights that remind everyone that they are remembered. 

Life is like this: It is for loving and for remembering.

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