Uncle ‘Sroel: a life well-lived

My cousin Michael in Pittsburgh turned 60 last week. He and I both have July birthdays; his comes almost two weeks before mine, but he was born a quarter of a century later. As I mark my own life milestone this year, I’m focusing on the goodness of my Boubby the Philosopher, who was — and remains — the unbreakable link between our two families. 

At this time, Michael is also looking backward: 47 years, to the day of his bar mitzvah. He has shared with me his most enduring memory of that milestone day, and I want to pass it on to you. 

What he remembers so clearly about it, after all this time, are the words said to him by his rabbi before the cantor and choir joined in offering the priestly blessing; they are so engraved in Michael’s memory that now, even close to a half-century later, he’s sure he recites them correctly: 

“As a person walks through a dark, blackened hall with no light at all in it, not knowing where he’s going, he walks in fear and confusion. His steps falter. But when he walks through a dark hall and sees light at the end, he knows where he is going, and therefore, the way in which he goes through that hall is with firm steps, and he is comforted.”

Of course, Michael and I also share the uncle who passed away so recently, and I wonder now how he felt, walking through that final hallway toward the end of 96 years that had brimmed with professional success and love of family. These were the hallmarks of a life marked with always freely giving help when and if it was needed, without ever having to be asked. He assured end-of-life care for his mother, three of his sisters and a cousin’s mother, all in his own home, assuming financial responsibilities if needed, and also for another sister who required residential memory care during her last years. 

Michael and I think his walk through life’s long hallway has to be well-lit: his good deeds merit this. He served his country well as a bomber mechanic during World War II at Army Air Corps bases in Africa and Italy, then returned to take advantage of the GI Bill and school himself for the career that allowed him to be a blessing to so many. “Family first,” he would always say. We have had difficulty, as his illness inexorably progressed, convincing him that he is “family” now, deserving to come first, to receive for himself all the unselfish love and care he’s lavished on so many others for so many years.

But what does a man like this see now, when he’s no longer what he used to be, when he no longer has the ability to speak clearly enough to let us know if he understands what we are saying to him, and asking him about what is happening to him? We are hoping he knows, somehow, that he is much loved himself, that we now return — with interest — the love he has shown to all of us for so many decades. We are hoping that as he nears the end of his personal life hallway, he can see clearly the light that must surely be waiting for him to reach. 

My Boubby the Philosopher, my uncle’s mother, requested at the end of her life that there be no funeral eulogies: “If they don’t know me by now, it’s too late,” were her words. She was a loving and giving supporter of family and all good causes, and my uncle has been so much like her. But since I’ve written this well before his funeral, I can’t know yet whether or not there will be eulogies. When I write again to fill this space, I’ll have the answer, and I’ll finish this story by passing it along to you. Thanks so much for reading!

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