Friday, March 18, 2005

Why I Moved to Israel - Part Two: The Jewish Question

Part One

We all referred to my mother as "Oma" once my niece, her first grandchild, was born while my brother Googleman and SIL were living in Holland, in 1960. "Oma" is Dutch for "Savta," which is Hebrew for "Grandma."

At the time Oma moved into my house, my kids were both going to Hebrew School, as agreed with their father, to prepare for their Bat Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah, respectively. Hebrew School at the Reform Temple we belonged to was a twice-a-week activity, one afternoon after school and once on Sunday mornings. In addition, during the several months before the big event, the celebrant was expected to attend Saturday morning services. As a single working mom, I depended on the SAHMs for the weekday Hebrew School carpool and I was on duty for the weekend mornings. Oma did not drive, but she was willing and able to help me in other ways. She was doing well on her chemotherapy: she planned menus, prepared meals, and she Was There. All the time. I wasn't always happy about that, but on balance it was a good year at home.

Work was a different story. My job had become dull and depressing. The best part about it was the location: 2 miles from home. I worked for a Division VP, one of two in residence. The two VPs hated each other's guts. The new Pres. decided to resolve their differences by getting rid of my boss, who had been my champion (the Pres. may have also fired the other one, I don't remember). At the same time, an acquaintance of mine had just started a new job in NYC as a "headhunter" and asked me if I would be her practice candidate. Her boss wanted to demonstrate how to interview job candidates and match them with clients (who paid their fee). I went to a "mock interview" with her and her boss.

The next day she called to say there was a perfect job for me, provided I was willing to travel some. I was intrigued, so it didn't take much work for her to convince me to talk to the people. After all, I did feel stuck, I had live-in help now, my kids were 13 and 11, doing well in school, the business travel was limited by contract to a manageable amount, sometimes to interesting places, never on weekends, the work was challenging (teaching intensive Systems Analysis Seminar/Workshops), the pay was adequate. The main objection was no one knew how long Oma would be able to hold her own. Oma knew as much as anyone what was at risk, and she encouraged me to accept the job offer that Spring, so I took it.

1979 was an exciting year, with a lot of new experiences. There was plenty of planning and organizing for me to do for the household to run smoothly while I was away on my trips, but on the road I was free of child care worries. I could order from Room Service! Lock my door! It was fun to be in working-adult mode for days at a time, and I assuaged my guilt about being an absentee mother by focusing on the opportunity the kids were getting to know their grandmother without me around. She was a gracious, soft, sharp-witted, sensible, and competent lady. In fact, she was classy and lovely. And she loved them.

The local hospice program had started a pilot program, with home hospice services only. Home hospice meant the patient lived at home with a Primary Care Person (me), and was supported by a visiting nurse-practitioner and a social worker. The rules for signing up were three: 1) the patient had to know she had a terminal illness, 2) the doctor had to officially sign the patient over, and 3) there had to be a prognosis of four months or less. I felt ghoulish regularly asking the oncologist whether it was time to sign Mom up for hospice, but I was afraid if I didn't keep asking, he wouldn't initiate the process. Finally, in June 1980, after a couple of months of her feeling less and less well, and one nasty week in the hospital for radiation (why? I'll never know), the oncologist said, in a kind of grudging way, "I guess she has as much chance of living four months as anyone," and he signed her up for home hospice.

That July the kids left for camp and a platoon of home health aides started invading my house: first they came in for 6 hours a day, then 8, with additional overnight shifts when I traveled. Oma became very fond of one of the daytime home health aides, Christine, the most experienced one of all. Christine was a European-born war bride (WWII); she told me she always kept a supply of food in her car trunk, memories of hunger in Alsace during the war. She and Oma watched soap operas together and chatted away the afternoons. We wanted Christine on duty as much as possible, and as she enjoyed her work with Oma too, she saved more of her time for us.

During this period, Oma was getting weaker and weaker, and began to need round-the-clock assistance; she could no longer get out of bed or walk by herself. A second platoon of aides was brought in for the weekends. I was barely able to keep track of who was coming and who was going, but I did manage to make it to work, usually (unless one of the aides didn't show up – one awful time and I had to send a surly, negligent one away). My niece had given up her college summer to stay with Oma, so it was safe for me to teach a workshop in England that month, and although they had the coldest, rainiest summer week I'd even seen, it matched my mood, and I was grateful for the break.

Ricky, our beloved nurse-practitioner, made regular and on-call home visits. I remember one of her visits that summer: it must have been August, because my two brothers and SIL and I were all on the back porch while Ricky gave us a lesson administering shots, each of us practicing on an orange. We then drank a toast together, using the water-logged orange juice mixed with vodka.

Occasionally a nun from the hospice program visited. Having been fostered with a Catholic family in Belgium when she was little, Oma was comfortable with nuns, and she liked this one especially. Oma was trying both to maintain lucidity and manage pain, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. She knew she was dying, but mostly she and I talked about her life, her memories. She remarked that my life didn't look any easier than hers, even though I had so many more resources. She worried that no one would look after Cousin Lucy (the one who gave me the spoon). One day she asked to see the Rabbi. I was astonished. Oma had never, in all the time I knew her, set foot in a synagogue until she moved to my house. She may or may not have attended my brothers' Bar Mitzvahs (I know, it should probably be Bnai Mitzvot, but back then I didn't know any Hebrew). I was very young and didn't go either. Her request for the Rabbi made me think maybe the nun had inspired her to make some sort of final accommodation with the Higher Power(s).

The Rabbi came. He knew Oma from elswhere's Bat Mitzvah, so it wasn't their introductory meeting, but it was their first private one. I asked Oma if she wanted me to leave them alone, and she said no, she wanted me to stay with them in her room. Then she said to him, "I'm worried about my daughter after I'm gone. She's so alone." I was certain she was asking the Rabbi to find me a husband! I was so touched and embarrassed. But the Rabbi's reply was also a surprise: he said, "She's not alone. She has the whole Jewish community available to her, if she chooses to take advantage of it." I don't think that answer satisfied my mother, but it set me thinking about community, and I realized I had no idea what he was talking about. Up until that moment, I thought "community" meant "neighborhood," and "The Jewish Community" was a place that had a "Center" with a gym, a pool, and a nursery school. Had my culturally-rich, New York City-based life left something out?

Upon leaving my house, the Rabbi told me he was amazed to come upon such an old-fashioned deathbed situation in his young congregation, and was interested to hear about the home hospice program. It was clear he liked the idea.

(When I made aliyah eight years later, I wrote to that Rabbi and thanked him for his words that day. He replied with more encouraging words.)

Then one day Oma confided to Christine that she wanted to have a party the night before she died, but she didn't know which night that would be. Christine suggested that she have a party every night, and they announced the decision. Her "party" consisted of party hats for all visitors, Mother's brand gefilte fish (her choice!) and vodka gimlets. Those parties were the most memorably bittersweet events of my life.

Googleman and my SIL had been coming up every weekend. The social worker, who was a pill, had made it clear early on that I had undertaken too much responsibility, but at least she organized Sailorman to commit to a turn for a week in early August, to give me a week's vacation while the children were away. August came, and Sailorman came on duty with the two platoons of round-the-clock health aides plus a housekeeper, while I went to a summer choral workshop in Vermont. Sailorman later told me that it was the hardest week of his life, but also the best. I found great solace in music, as always.

Just before I left, Oma, who was quite weak by now, asked me what funeral arrangement had been made. I hold her "the boys" (her sons) had made the arrangements at a funeral home she knew in Manhattan. She winced and said, "Oh, such a long trip." I held my breath. She didn't laugh, so I didn't either. She was too exhausted to even notice humor, so I just babbled on about how it would be easier for her non-driving friends to attend.

When I returned from Vermont, Oma went into a coma (no, it doesn't really rhyme). Sailorman was there. Googleman and my SIL came the next day. My son's camp session ended the third day; he got home in time to say goodbye to his grandmother, and she revived just to say goodbye to him. Christine advised no more aides, their work was done: we should be family alone together for the end, which would only be in another day or two. We set up a round-the-clock rotating vigil, I heard my first "death rattle" in Oma's breathing, and she died peacefully on my SIL's watch.

The Rabbi came with us on the "long trip" to the funeral. He was taken aback when we told him that Oma definitely wanted to be cremated. She and my Dad had bought niches in a cemetary columbarium together decades ago, and Dad's ashes were already there. "It's not the Jewish way." But none of us was about to go against her wishes, so the Rabbi said he would lead the funeral home memorial service but not the cremation. OK, fine. After our eulogies, the Rabbi had a change of heart, and came with us to lead the Kaddish too.


The Lioness said...

If not for blogging, how would we meet and hear abt such amazing people? Oma is extraordinary, this was a very touching post. And the idea of having a party every night, how... fitting somehow. And surely heartbreaking. She seems to have had a very peaceful ending. I love these stories of yours.

(Oma is also German for Grandma)

Third Street said...

very beautiful, sad, inspiring, heartbreaking. A party every night - that must've been so hard and yet so right. Dying at home is a privilege. Especially surrounded by loving family. And the rabbi who told you that you do belong to a community. Interesting. Interesting. I can't wait for the next installment.

Noorster said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

Savtadotty said...

Dear Lioness, Third Street, and Noorster: I am really surprised and I must admit pleased that my garrulous storytelling interests you. I wish I knew how to make these sagas shorter, but every detail seems important to me, for one reason or another. I'm working on Part Three. Thanks for your encouragement.

The Lioness said...

No no no! WHY shorter?? No need for it to be short, if it's good the length doesn't matter does it. Carry on!

PPB said...

I love the image of the party. I want to have a party every night before I die, too. Thanks for writing it.

Udge said...

Another excellently written and very moving piece of your life, thank you. Apropos shorter: the details are important, let the pieces decide for themselves how long they need to be.

And BTW, you're tagged!

Dale said...


Claude said...

Thank you for sharing this, savtadotty.