Nestled under my car's dashboard is a clear, plastic pouch of river stones in the hues of the earth and sea. I bought them nearly five years ago for my father-in-law's funeral, figuring it was a good alternative to having elderly mourners scrounging for rocks on that icy February day. They have remained in my car-and been used on a regular basis-ever since.
And thus I mark a new time in my life, the phase where I actually check the death notices every morning, the years when I witness the generation before me bid adieu to life on this earth. Throughout the last year, there has been a steady stream of our friends' parents, and our parents' friends, who have faded away, leaving their survivors dazed and rudderless.
My dear friend Leslie's dad, Lowell. My Dad's dear friend, Hyman.
Rather than staring boldly into the abyss, we survivors busy ourselves with the business of death, attending to funerals and deli trays, emptying closets and putting homes on the market, all the while not truly believing that this utterly unique individual is truly gone.
Our Uncle Irv died at age 99½, a beloved Louisville patriarch who'd had a long life well-lived. Now he was no longer tethered to an oxygen tank, no longer straining to hear conversation, no longer attempting to summon the strength just to come down to supper in the assisted living dining room. It didn't matter; we, and he, had still had wanted to celebrate that 100th birthday. And we could not conceive of a world without him in it.
He had been married a total of 72 years, 33 to his first wife, Blanche and then, after he was widowed, 39½ years to our Aunt Zera. Now Zera was left to solider on, alone, in her 90s. One of the first things she did was go to the Apple Store to buy an iPad, determinedly maneuvering her walker through the displays and rendering the young sales geeks speechless with the relevance of her questions. Now she is moving to Arizona, saying farewell to her few surviving friends and divesting of a lifetime of belongings to be near her daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. How she has found the strength to begin again is truly beyond my comprehension.
My father-in-law's best friend, Mel, succumbed to cancer a few weeks ago. Mel was one of the most elegant people I have ever known, and a sweetheart of a husband. At the shiva, his widow said: "After 65 years of marriage, he wasn't my husband. He was half of me." As if that weren't bewildering enough, she is among many women of the Greatest Generation who will live alone for the first time in their lives when they are widowed. My heart cracks for her. It must be terrifying-not just for her, but for her friends, whose husbands are in failing health.
It is also incomprehensible for the adult children left behind. Our friends Bobby and Ellen lost both of their remaining parents within a few months of each other. After years that were an exhausting flurry of elder care errands and appointments, paperwork and case workers, hospitals and hospice, suddenly there was silence.
In a flash, the adult child is transformed from a human doing into a human being-and a human being who's an orphan, at that. As my friend Aaron Cohen said in his eloquent eulogy for his father, Jerry, who died just before Chanukah:
"Life is fleeting and old age is relative. When you're fortunate enough to bury a parent as you, yourself, are middle aged, perspective shifts. You see the sweep of a long life as a series of moments and phases that tumble together and ultimately collapse on themselves.
Edifices of family roles and relationships-the structures that provide the shelter of your youth, and the confines from which you try to break free-prove fragile. Putting them back together again is impossible, though, with the death of a parent, you might try…"
In facing death, many of our elders teach us a lot about life. My friend Leslie Millenson's mother, Judith, beat cancers of the breast, bladder and skin, and battled ovarian cancer for eight years. (Leslie says she thinks her mother was was determined to outlive the Bush Administration.) Through it all, she never stopped learning, devouring the news, or lending a listening ear to a friend in need. The same day she signed up for hospice, Judith went to renew her driver's license. When the hospice nurse called for the first intake conversation, Judith said: "I'm sorry. I can't talk to you now. I'm in line for my driver's license photo."
Leslie closed her passionate, profound tribute to her mother by saying:
"In the past few weeks, I've come across so many things that caused me to reflect on Mom and our life together. The one that touched me most came from our friend Ina Pinkney's newsletter. She declared that July should be devoted to courage, to being courageous in our own lives. She offered up a quote from the work of A. A. Milne, whose works were favorite bedtime reading with Mom. Christopher Robin says to Winnie the Pooh: "Promise me you'll always remember you're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think." Our beautiful, smart, self-deprecating mother told us just that in so many ways, directly and indirectly, our whole lives.She loved us fiercely, and we are so blessed that we had her with us for so long, and that we will have her memory to inspire us for the rest of our lives."
Perhaps this is the legacy bequeathed to us by many of our elders: the charge to be courageous in our own lives, and with our own lives, in the time allotted to us.