By Harriet P. Gross
The losses escalate as we age. Just a few weeks ago, my last aunt passed away, the youngest of 12 children; my mother was the oldest.
In such large families, relationships are not always step-ladder simple. Esther was about 10 years older than I, but I married early and she married late: both weddings in the same year. I had my two children early; she had her two a bit later, each following mine by just a year.
Figure it out: I have first cousins who are younger than my son and daughter! But I’m more an aunt to them, because their mother and I were more like sisters than members of different generations.
Esther was always beautiful, always smiling. But a decade ago she began to exhibit the relentlessly increasing signs of dementia. At one point, she told my cousin David, “You are such a good son,” and he was thrilled that she still knew who he was. But almost in the next breath, she said, “You’re the best brother I ever had.”
David took in stride the realization that she now lumped him together with her five actual brothers: “I’m only grateful she recognizes I’m someone in the family,” he told me. Then even that faded away.
Dear Esther left this world peacefully in her sleep, still beautiful, still smiling, but knowing no one at all.
One of my cousins who’s older than I likes to remind me, at times like this, “We’ve stepped right up to the head of the line.” It’s a normal progression.
I visited Esther at the Home for Jewish Aged on a Sunday morning during my recent Pittsburgh trip, and went from there to visit all my long-gone family members in the family cemetery.
But there had been a severe storm several days earlier, and the heavy rains and high winds toppled my mother’s headstone, which was then lying flat on its face. I’m a believer in omens, and sure enough, soon after I returned to Dallas, I got the call that Esther was about to join those others there.
I didn’t go back for the funeral, but will be there again when her stone is unveiled. I’ve learned that the ground is still too wet to reset my mother’s stone; I was glad to not see that again.
The one now suffering most from our family’s latest loss is my uncle “Srol” (Yisroel), older than Esther by less than two years, now the last of the dozen siblings. He’s a healthy 90, but I know what he meant when he called me with the news: “I guess I’m the one who’ll have to turn out the lights,” he said. His own plot is already bought and paid for in the same row as all the others.
Here in Dallas last week, I attended a memorial service at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic church for Penny Terk, a gentle 73 year-old, devoted to books and bringing readers and reviewers together. Her brutal murder in her own home told everyone, without words, “You never know … ” During the service, this beautiful arrangement of Psalm 23’s words was sung:
“God is my shepherd, so nothing shall I want. I rest in the meadows of faithfulness and love. I walk by the quiet waters of peace. Gently you raise me and heal my weary soul. You lead me by pathways of righteousness and truth. Though I should wander the valley of death, I fear no evil, for you are at my side, your rod and your staff my comfort and my hope. You have set me a banquet of love in the face of hatred, crowning me with love beyond my power to hold. Surely your kindness and mercy follow me all the days of my life. I will dwell in the house of my God for evermore.”
May this be God’s will, for Penny, and for Esther.