Saying final goodbyes are bittersweet

Age takes its toll. The losses mount. I am losing my cousins. One by one, they are leaving – not only me, but life itself. And there is a strange sadness in being left behind

On my mother’s side of the family, most were younger than I. On my father’s side – not so much. And one by one, those have been saying their final goodbyes. It’s a hard time for me, but somehow also a good one for remembering the good times. And there were so many good times…

In a way, the last were the best. A couple of years ago, I went to California to celebrate my birthday with the cousins there. I stayed with Eileen, who lives in Long Beach. She’s the intrepid traveler who has seen the world on her own, the only one who has visited the birthplace of our family in Lithuania and brought us back the pictures, and the stories. Roz, a leading financial figure in San Francisco, was there, and so was cousin Celia from Rolling Hills, at whose home we all met again one final time to raise our glasses before my departure. 

All those are still with me. But Paul and Howard, the only cousins still in our native Pittsburgh, are now ending their lives there. Paul, the oldest of us all, became an activist in fighting ovarian cancer after it had claimed his wife. Howie, the outdoorsman, had hiked the length of the Appalachian trail with his dog as his sole companion. What memories I will always have of these two!

And then there was Roselie (who always had to explain to people that “Yes, that’s the way my name is actually spelled!”); she was one of the very early breast cancer survivors who had the kind of disfiguring mastectomy that isn’t necessary today. But that didn’t slow her down; she and her husband had no children, but after he died, she lived on in their big house with her many dogs and cats, and a splendid vegetable garden in the back yard. She never drove a car in her life, but she pulled a little red wagon to the nearest supermarket and dragged it home herself, loaded with all she would need until the next trip. She and Howie were twins, and always had a laugh about going out together to take double advantage of showing their proofs of age in restaurants that offered free dinners to folks on their birthdays.

In a strange way, it was almost easier saying goodbye to my sister, my only sibling, because of our growing up together and sharing that special closeness; when her end came, we both knew it – no surprises there. But with those others, always farther away — and those still so — it’s very different.

Are you old enough to remember that childhood rhyme about the mouse taking the cheese? Well – “hi ho the derry-o” – today I feel like that. But the cheese doesn’t taste very fresh and good now, because as I remember it, after that line in the song is sung twice, “the mouse take the cheese and the cheese stands alone,” which is what I see happening now to those in my own life.

Yes, I know. Of course, I have always known somehow: death is a part of life, an expected end. But although it’s inevitable for all of us, it’s also nothing that any of us wants to think about or admit is inevitable. In some very real way, that belief in eternal life here on earth may be what is really keeping us alive longer than we might live otherwise…

Harriet Gross can be reached at

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