My mother was the daughter of the Chotiner rebbe, who died at the hands of the Nazis in 1941 with his oldest son at his side. My mother lost her mother as well to the Nazis. She later came to America and started a whole new chapter with her surviving five siblings. She was introduced to my father, a survivor from Cracow, Poland who had lost his entire nuclear family to the Holocaust. They fell in love and married – a wedding of two orphans – and had me, their only child.
I was raised in love, with joy and sadness equally poised in our home, the specter of lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins ever present. My father’s tattoo, my mother’s silence about the war years, and my father’s periodic telling of stories of the time before, during, and after the war all made my life full of unusual childhood reveries. I grew up wanting to protect them from future sorrow; they had already suffered more than two people should suffer in a lifetime, and they were only middle-aged as I grew up. I figured I would protect them from whatever I could, but I felt the constraints as an American teenager with older non-American parents.
In my mid-twenties I married and had children, and my mother began to suffer from dementia. Eventually my father had to accept that he could no longer care for her at home, and we both came to the decision to try to get her accepted at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale. She lived there for fourteen years, on the dementia floor, outlasting many of the residents on her floor and several roommates. The social worker on her floor retired, as did a lovely head nurse. We felt as if we knew everyone on her floor. She deteriorated physically in various ways over time; eventually she stopped walking and talking. But she always recognized my father and me, and she always had strong responses to our presence – not always favorable, but passionate nonetheless.
My father’s devotion to her was admirable and taught me how patient and endless his love for her could be. I changed from being a young adult who had many conflicted and angry feelings toward her mother at the start of her fourteen year stay at the Hebrew Home into an older, perhaps wiser, and definitely more understanding and openly loving daughter. She was transferred out to be hospitalized several times over the years, and each time she recovered. Somehow, each time she came back to Hebrew Home, and we all began anew.
On Friday May 4th, 2007, the doctor at Hebrew Home called me to let me know her breathing was different and that she thought we should come and be with her. I picked up my father and we drove up to Riverdale and sat with her for several hours before sundown that erev shabbat. She slept peacefully the whole time. We went home for shabbos. She lived through Friday night, Saturday, and Saturday night. On Sunday morning, my father and I were supposed to return: I was going to pick him up around 9 am, our usual, and go visit with her. At 7 am I was surprised to get another call from my mother’s doctor: my mother had just passed. I called my father, and he was quite shocked. He had hoped and expected that she would prove the doctor wrong and survive yet again, but she did not.
It was not until her unveiling next year that I noticed that the day of her passing was Lag Ba’omer. The doctor said she was dying two days prior, but she held on for Lag Ba’omer; she always had a good sense of drama and timing. And she was the daughter of a long line of chassidic rebbes. She picked the just right day to go.
I celebrate and mark her passing and her life on Lag Ba’omer all at once, joy and sadness, life and loss, and I hope that my telling her story will bring her even higher.