In less than two weeks, I will graduate into the second year of life without my mom. The divide between “before” and “after” has now widened by a year.
As a tribute to my mom, I am publishing the email I sent to the young Rabbi who was asked to officiate at her funeral. This is a somewhat edited version, because the original was incredibly raw (I wrote it the night my mom died), and had details that my very modest and private mom wouldn’t have approved of me posting on the World Wide Web…
This email is not profound. It’s not even all that well written. It’s not unique. But it’s true. It’s real. And it’s important to me to pay my respects in this way to the un-sung hero of my life, the woman who raised me, nourished my heart and soul, and have left me a better person for knowing her.
My mom always said that you could write a book about any person’s life. Her life, she would argue, was in no way remarkable. I always disagreed. To me, she was just the sweetest, kindest, most well-read, interesting person and a real life hero. The twists and turns of her life are absolutely worth a book. So, since you’ll be a very important person who’ll help her soul to get to wherever it needs to go, I wanted to tell you what I know about my mom and share questions/thoughts that are running through my mind:
As a child, she LOVED to read. She taught herself to read at age three and then read EVERYTHING. I mean, every single printed word she’d get her hands on, or, I should say, eyes on, because it included not just books but newspapers, street signs, and posters…She devoured Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” at age six or seven. She LOVED art. She wanted to get into the art university in Ukraine. But Jews weren’t accepted because of severe and wide-spread discriminatory unwritten rules. But she held out hope. She applied, and applied, and got all the A’s on her entrance exams and still didn’t get accepted. The Dean of the art school took pity on her and told her directly that because she was a Jew she would never be accepted. And she ultimately became an engineer and learned to love her profession…BUT she instilled the love of art in me. She took me to museums when I couldn’t yet speak or walk. My childhood books were large illustrated art history books. It’s no wonder that I am now in a graduate school pursuing an art history MA.
My mom was a true hero. When we came to the America, she went to work for FREE for over a year to confirm her chemical engineering degree. She worked three hours away from our apartment in Brooklyn at a hospital, late evenings and night shifts. We didn’t see each other at all during that time because she was never home. But to her it was all worth it. This was the first step towards the American dream. When she finally got a job in a hospital laboratory, she was on cloud nine. That was the first time we actually bought some furniture as oppose to picking it up from the garbage...
My mom was also the kindest, most generous person. For instance, she knew everyone’s birthdays, anniversaries, and all the other important dates. I have a card from my mom for nearly all the birthdays of my life. Here is just one example of her selfless giving nature: She had a friend in Ukraine, who stayed behind when we left. She was a widow with two young girls. For years, my mom sent them clothes, food, and money. It didn’t come easy, she had to work extra hard to collect the money for these gifts, but she did it. And at the end, her friend’s kids grew up and her friend stopped writing her letters…But my mom wasn’t looking for “repayment”. She knew true meaning of mitzvah – it’s when you give from your heart and expect nothing back.
It was so hard for me to accept the terrible diagnosis, when in 1990’s my mom was told that she had the incurable disease called Multiple Sclerosis. I was angry. I wanted her to just “snap out of it”. My mom was so scared. I was young and stupid. It took me years to come to terms with reality and to fully accept MS for what it was – a cruel and awful devil of a disease which sneaks up on you when you least expect it. In the past several years, as her condition worsened, my mom really fought for her life. And I fought alongside…There are things that I can’t stop thinking about and questions that I will be asking myself for the rest of my life. I had no premonition that she could die so suddenly. I made myself believe that what I wished for, namely her steady recovery and her prolonged life, was possible. But she died…Have I said “I love you” to her enough times? Is there such a thing is saying I love you enough times?
It’s in those years of struggle, I became aware of and was most amazed by people’s incredible kindness. My hat’s off to the nurses and doctors in all the hospitals that my mom had been to. I will never forget their compassion, their hugs, and their gentle ways. They would go and warm up blankets to cover my mom, they cried by her side sitting right next to me, virtual strangers, they marveled with me at how beautiful she is – no wrinkles, beautiful hair, beautiful skin. They smiled at my son's pictures. They didn’t want to change shifts and asked me if I needed them to stay by my side. They offered coffee, listened to me saying “no, thank you”, and brought it anyway. To me it all seemed both incredible and so right, because my mom deserved nothing less for all the kindness she offered to the world.
When I saw her for last time, I remember thinking that she must be in the room, but cannot be possibly in that body. I imagined her hovering over me, watching everything unfold. Was she sad? Did she hear me as I was whispering “go, just go, don’t worry about us?" Was she in fact comforting me, comforting my father, in the moment when I thought I was comforting her? Rabbi, do people really “turn” 33 when they die? If so, she was most beautiful when she was 33. She dressed fashionably, she had lots of friends, she had a job she loved, and she had a family who loved her.
I know it sounds cliché, but I really don’t care: My mom was a wonderful woman. Some girls have “issues” with their mothers. I didn’t. I adored her with all my soul, with all my heart, and with all my spirit. She was really a wonderful mom. I LOVED spending time with her. I loved making her laugh! We spoke every day, sometimes more than once a day on the phone. I would always end my call with, “I love you so very much. I adore you….” And she’d say, “me too”. And it was priceless. Yes, of course, we argued and I used to drive her mad. Yet, I know she poured a lot of attention, energy and time into me. She took me with her everywhere. We were pretty inseparable for all of my childhood: ice-skating, swimming, art classes, galleries, poetry, books, “heart-to-hearts”, exchanging jewelry...
She often said to me that she “programmed” me to be a certain way. When I was in her womb, she said that she talked to the Universe and wished for me to be strong, resilient, smart, successful, and beautiful. All the things, that in my Mom’s opinion, I’ve become. She also programmed me, she said, to be the opposite of her. I think she always thought there were major things that didn’t work out in her life as she had wanted them to…and the reason they didn’t work out, she felt, was partially or completely her fault. The crazy thing is that, her programming was a bit faulty. I am a lot like my mom in many respects. For starters, whenever I miss seeing her face, all I need to do is look in the mirror.
Because of MS, I’ve been saying good bye to my mom for years…but they were always followed by hope and hellos…but now I have to get used the fact that hello may only be possible when we meet again in the eternal world. And I know, she would have wanted it to be a long, long time from now.
There is so much more write, so much more to say… But like her life ending suddenly and too soon, I am going to let this email end suddenly as well…