The last stamp licked and thumbed onto the envelope, an unplotted plan successfully completed. Five thirty and it was time to leave, completely relaxed that all tasks were done. Monday October 30th 1995, 5.30pm, coat on, key at the ready for a quick exit to a quiet evening, but that ring pierced the air with sudden urgency. Against all desire to leave it unattended, a notion from deep inside compelled that curiosity be satisfied. His sobs and faltered words needed no confirmation of what lay ahead, that ring the long expected dreaded phone call. I determined immediately that I would have to go, to be with her, hold her, talk with her and see her through this terrible time. My desire to go first was agreed that evening, with the others following in rotation every two weeks to take care of her.
Wait listed, I paced the airport in anticipation of somebody being late. I felt evil, wishing that somebody a misfortune, but I had a plane to catch. I saw across the check-in room the face of a girl I knew, she half smiled in the certainty that she would give me her place if needs be. I made it, but do not know whom to thank, an unknown person unknowingly doing a good deed. They sat me in front of the coach by the window where I silently wiped my damp cheeks head in hand staring at the floor. I don’t remember sleeping at all but simply a deep sense of relief at being politely ignored as we slid through the cotton wool clouds, the longest flight of four point five hours terminating down the long road that was to become so familiar.
She looked the same but for the cane. Her pain was such that her friend the handbag man bought her a stick for support when she walked. My brother showed me the scan of the deadly spot that afflicted her lung after a decade of nicotine assault. We did the x-ray bit and there it was, on the hip gnawing away at her bone and her soul at the same time. His eyes caught mine in mutual acknowledgement of the consequences. We waited for the final pathology test that he delivered in person. The three of us in the bedroom, him sobbing on her shoulder, she comforting him and me just sitting there, on the end of the bed, watching, blank, no thoughts, no tears, just staring. She hugged him and held him and he sobbed like I never saw before, when she shifted him away, took his hand and led us to the lounge to find them there, the girls, his wife, my dad, all waiting, all knowing but my dad, innocently hoping that he was simply part of a bad dream that would end in the morning. The vivid image of her standing on the Persian rug in the center of the lounge: “ I have cancer, I am going to die”. I saw my dad’s shoulders move up and down, up and down, he wailed, heaving, up and down, when she walked across the room, took him in her arms and ordered him to stop as “we have no time for this, too much to do”.
The days ahead were filled with appointments and planning for pain relief treatment. She wanted no intervention, just pain relief. A pact was made, a trade off, pain relief for food – she would eat to keep her strength as long as he relieved her pain. And so our daily journeys started, the drive down the motorway, the walk to the waiting room, a little wait, a tattoo, a zap, one day two days, the same routine but, each day a different mission. My promise, to do whatever she wanted, take her anywhere she wished, my time was hers. Day one, she packed a bag of clothes and off we went to Jerusalem, the clothes for her friend’s many children and the visit to hand-deliver the news. That same frankness as she told her friend that she had cancer and was going to die. Her friend was visibly shaken, such forthrightness is not usual, but then my mum was never a usual type. She announced quite openly that her friend should be the second wife if my dad ever had a notion to take one. Blushes all round coloured the dank room. Day two, the drive, the walk, the wait the zap and the soldiers, her soldiers as she referred to them, had to be looked after, so we collected a couple and drove them all the way to their destination so they would get home sooner to see their people. She had worked for them, making tea and food as they waited for transport, almost to the end. I did not know this before, how loved she was. And so the days passed by, we walked on the beach, ate some fish at Dag al haYam and spoke. She told me about loss, about the death of a mum, she counseled me about her own death and told me what to do, how to feel, what to expect. She took me to a funeral, limping all the way, standing at the ceremony. There were many people at that funeral, she shrugged and mentioned that fact in the certainty that not too many would be there for her. I watched this burial, a tender moment of laying a body to rest whilst setting a soul free, solemn faces all around, some tearstained with dark glasses, a hug from my cousin in her sadness, her dad gone forever.
Monday back on the road, park, walk, sit, zap and back home for a rest, time to sleep from over exhaustion, the lungs wheezing a little. The next day the walk was out, no energy, a drop off completed, the wait, the zap and back home to rest. At dinner that night there were many people at her round table eating her food with salad and wine. The neighbour came in as he was locked out for a while and we all shared some jokes, she too, enjoying the company, especially his son who had come down from the north on a one day pass, the first he knew of her illness, but still not knowing the worst, as really did none of us at that time.
We were given a privilege the next day and permitted to park at the door, a shuffle to our usual wait amongst those sad faces that became so familiar. The staff rather took to mum and always made sure that she did not have a long wait, but some of the faces did become rather too familiar. There was always one woman there, looking very sad who came every day with an old man. She sat there, not saying very much, just looking as though she’d rather not remember. We spoke of her during that week, as there was something about the face that made her remarkable and wondered about her sad story, as it seemed she was very ill. The rest were a mix, some looking as though they would not make the day and others just starting as we had the week before. So the zap and the radiographer agreeing that they would have tea at Kapulsky’s after the treatment was over and home again to rest as my daughter was expected to take her turn in the rotation of care. I had agreed to stay one extra week for completion of the treatment to spare her those awful morning escapades up the motorway, watching those sad faces in the waiting room and seeing the daily zap, with mum struggling onto that table. It wasn’t easy that day, but we got by to sleep the afternoon away after a little lunch forced down. He had stocked the bedside cupboard in my room with pain maintaining drugs for use at the final stages. Knowledge of its contents disturbed me as it enlarged the photo-image of a future unwanted.
Wednesday evening was lesson time. I remember it almost most of all. Mum, dad and I in the kitchen, mum sitting beside the table, with her cigarette, wearing the blue dressing gown that used to be mine but traveled with her when she emigrated as she found it so cosy. Her lips were red with her usual lipstick in expectation of my daughter’s arrival; she wanted to look good for her. Dad standing at the work counter and mum and I explaining the ins and outs of soup making so that he could take care of himself once she had left. This is celery, see the shape, the colour, the little leaves on top; that’s a leek round and long in layers, a carrot of orange, a bag of green split peas, cube of stock, parsley like on the chopped herring at Pesach, water boiled in the kettle. The chopping board he knew from washing it so often, the knife he’d sharpened on his stone, and so he engineered the slices, not too thick, a little too slim, quite that size, a large pot on the boil, so easy he wrote in his book, drawing the leaves lest he should forget. Mum and I smiled so as he paid careful attention, like never before as we three shared a moment to stay forever pressed in my head.
She told me that night what it would feel like when she died, the pain of the loss of a mother she said would last forever, but lighten in twenty years when maybe a day would pass without a thought of her. My privilege to spend this time with her having my first and last lesson on life and death, love and departure, funeral styles in boxes or shrouds, packing and picking, storing this time forever. She helped them all, those who were there, one by one she spoke in private to say good bye, and those who were not, on the phone she comforted them in the knowledge of her death. Each and every one has a memory of her and her wisdom and her ability to provide bereavement counseling to those she most loved and cherished for her own death before she died. I asked her whether she was afraid and she was not, quite accepting that the route of life had a direction unquestioned, almost as though she knew exactly where she was going without a map. I realized my privilege was greater than any I had known to have her as my mother, my teacher and my friend.
So they arrived, he and my daughter, to find us soup and all smiling in adversity, a bag of favourite things to entice her to eat, kippers, bacon, all the stuff that she loved to eat, a scarf to keep her warm and whatever else would help to prolong the end and make those last times more endurable. A chip off the old block we grinned as she unpacked that bag of favourite things. It was not easy for a grandchild to find what in only some days we had all become used to just a little. The red camouflage did not really hide the weight loss nor the shrinking soul. She chatted away with drooping eyes, tired from the day, the emotions and the zaps taking their toll on her lungs.
Last zap day, Thursday, arrived in a struggle when I found her on the loo, unable to get off, no energy or maybe even interest, the medication having started the night before. I called him in a panic, what to do. Stay calm; get her off the loo, in a bath then off for the zap. We struggled she and I that day to get her to move, drugged or disinterested, but I got her dressed and we made our way for the last time down the motorway, parked at the front door, porter alarmed at our lack of care for his problem, she shuffled slowly on my arm, not in the front entrance but down the staff corridor to wait on the bench, unseen by any others to wheeze and breathe through the fluid that was filling her lungs. I learned that day what I never knew. This practical no frills lady was a real lady who cared so much at the indignity of the procedure of death. She wore her scarf against the wind like every other day, her coat buttoned up and the red lips painted as usual, the only makeup ever to be found on her being, still there as always, leaning on me on the bench the two of us waited for that last zap. I searched for the doctor, what could he do, but he hid away in the knowledge that he was unable to face death so bravely as she. He looked past my eyes as he gave me a list of powders to buy for that fluid he said to take it away. I drove into town with the pressure behind my eyes so strong to run down my cheeks as I got that powder to take her home for lunch and rest. I remember most clearly the steamed fish and potatoes small on a large plate that I forced her to eat to keep her promise of food for no pain, but the pain was there and wouldn’t go away and spewed the food onto the carpet as she lay down to sleep on the couch as her granddaughter cleaned it all up, crying.
That night was a concert in Jerusalem that we went to in memory of the shooting that took place on 6th November and I cried through it and couldn’t wait to get home where my daughter had stayed with her, giving her a last smoke of pleasure hiding the pack with its ashtray in the pocket of her coat. A lousy concert all round. She had slept the evening with not much chat about anything when I came back to give her a tablet, a drink and move her around to relieve the pain in her leg. Heavy hearts went to sleep that night ill contented, unrested when pitter-patter my dad who had found her sitting on the edge of the bed unable to move woke me before dawn. I remember standing on the bed and tugging her underarms to bring her back onto the pillows to rest and lie still until the sun came up to make that call. I didn’t call him to decide her fate, but Dr GP was forced to come at six not ten as he had wished, as I needed him to come at that time. Quite shocked he looked at her, so fast since Tuesday when she had reigned at her table de haute laughing at us all being there enjoying her food. He hadn’t wanted the tomato we thought he’d asked for, just a thermometer to test her heat. When they came with a blue light, she left her handbag at home and went with my daughter to prepare her departure, a half smile on her face as she told the medic what a beautiful girl she was, my child who was there with her in that van holding her hand, no handbag. No handbag, it struck me she wasn’t coming back, she’d never done that before, left it behind, gamma’s handbag with stuff for all occasions, plasters for grazed knees, pins for fallen hems, boilings for dry throats, fags of course, a tissue or two, scissors and tape, something for all, she had left it behind.
Tramp who had slept at her feet was left with the young girl who arrived that morning to clean, tears in her eyes as I left with dad to drive to the hospital where a reception committee had been arranged to take care of her. My cousin was there who had buried her father only one week before, she’d heard and arrived to be with us as the nurses and doctors did their bits and pieces before sending her up to the ward. No coffee I said with authority, how stupid to deny her her last coffee forever as I took off her chains and watch and rings and stowed them away on my arms and hands. Needles and tubes and masks were wheeled on the trolley with my mum at the helm, quite relaxed at last having left her handbag behind. And so our vigil began, phone calls to tell them all what was happening, to get our remaining sibling on a plane, to find him somewhere in London as she waited to offer him her last smile. And I watched her that day as she looked at me with questioning eyes, uncomfortable and in pain. I could see her mouth moving round and round beneath the mask, eyes staring at me until I moved in close and saw the inaudible help me, as she tugged at the drip and flailed around. I told her I would, but she must lie still, as I left to get help. No more they said go home, leave her in peace to rest, too many people about. It made me so mad. We know you know, we know it all, so don’t concern yourselves with a pitiful family, just tidy her up, lay her at peace in warmth with tender care and dignity so she can be with us until her last breath in love, surrounded by all to hold her hand and ease her path away.
And so we stroked and cajoled through the night, my Dad not accepting, all the girls there, Lara, Ruth, Joy with Yossi and Yair, Dad and me and David and Shirley and Norman who arrived in the early hours of the morning but didn’t see her last smile for him as he turned the corner in the room when she sighed and finally closed her eyes to sleep in peace, having willed them open the whole night until he came. Through the night we stayed until at dawn they came Chaim and Zvia, Alice and Issy, Merle to help us through this time. I will always remember their quiet strength just being there saying little, but strong in their presence as we waited and waited for that last breath to pass when we, one by one kissed her good bye gently. Lara showed me how, as I was so frightened when she told me to kiss gamma and I did and I am pleased to have been able to say this last ‘bye ‘bye to my mum.
He wanted to stay and hold her hand forever, but I whisked my dad away down that corridor back to his home to save him the sight of the final preparation, to get him to rest in a familiar place. It was quiet and chilly as I found her bed, mattress exposed, sheets folded away, pillows stripped. That bare bed a shock like cold water on a snowy day poured on your head. In haste I made that bed and replaced its cover to give it a semblance of warmth, to spare my dad and all that shock. So the night was long, as they all knew what to do. Call the paper to make the announcement, grape vine at the ready, have notices printed and pinned to trees and buildings in places where people knew her, an every day routine for those involved in the business of death. Next day it would be at 2.00 o’clock, the longest morning in waiting for that time to come. Lara and I paced and then went out to Ora, to tell her the news and we all three cried together whilst she washed my hair, nothing else to do. Lara said that gamma would want me to look my best as we wiped our tears and went back to the flat. Mark had arrived by that time from up north upset that he had not known of the hasty deterioration as we drove to the cemetery in convoy. No parking for so many cars, I recalled her saying not many would come. Not a space to be found, the crowd so large it warmed my heart, as I did not know this would happen. I seemed fine until the corner of my eye caught the trolley being bumped down the path with a shrouded shape on it that came into focus as I lost my breath and gasped a cry out loud, turning my head away to take a grip of my being as I realized this was my mum, her last ride a bit bumpy on that trolley. I wore her best embroidered shirt to the funeral that they snipped at the lapel, still hanging in my cupboard. I knew she’d want me to have this on to say my good bye, her on my skin so to speak.
We made our way slowly to the grave, prayers all the way. I didn’t see the faces, but mounds of heads drawn on the landscape as the Rabbi jumped into the hole to ease her head gently onto the ground, slowly until her whole body lay there at the bottom of that pit waiting to leave. Jackie was there to say our prayers, Jackie from childhood taking charge of the spade and soil he let me do my bit too even though I ought not to have done. Grim faces all around shaking my hand, kissing my cheek saying sorry, so quick, they didn’t know how sad. One memory of brown suede hugging me strongly, silently and unexpectedly, a voice that had comforted me through the weeks past each day on the phone, an almost stranger helping me through this time I shall never forget as we walked away from the grave that smell of suede there forever mixed with the soil and salty tears.
Not overtly religious, but my dad chose to have a proper shiva, mirrors turned to the wall, same clothes each day no razor, seven days together, people coming all the time to share our grief. So many people who told me what a wonderful lady had left us behind, I didn’t know, I really didn’t know how many friends she had, I thought she was always alone, a childish orphan. I heard stories that week some new, some old from days gone by in my childhood as friends from before came by. They brought cakes and food to sustain us through this time together with their will of thoughts. Seven days, hundreds of people all the time, no time to think in detail the consequences of the death of a mother, a real mother who mothered us all to the very end in wisdom and kindness and love and care. We sat one night making an unconscious circle in the lounge with our chairs telling stories of times gone by. There was me and David and Norman, dad with Ruth, Lara, Mark, Joy and Yossi, Yair and Jackie and Riva of course amongst others I cannot recall. Some remembered her, the driver to camp and back bringing food and drink, sixteen guys to her car with me on the floor, weight so low on the chassis lest a child be left behind, wonderful memories of those days when she mothered us all. Seven days to share and grieve and remember.
So many people came that it is hard to remember who they all were. One of Lara’s friends arrived one day who had married on the kibbutz where they had met during her gap year in Israel. She brought with her the photo album of her wedding and paging through it there she was, the woman with the sad face who sat each day with the old man in the waiting room. I started to call out and realized that mum was not there to tell that this woman was the house mother on the kibbutz where Lara had stayed a few years before and had taken Lara to hospital to care for her knee injured in the car crash on the way from the airport. The first instance of realization that my reference was gone, she’d never again share a moment with me and the aloneness wrapped my soul.
We all suffered her loss most deeply, but my dad of course was really worst off. His life would change inexorably, alone with his dog. I look around to find a way back to the days when a mother’s love was taken for granted. No movies, no book nor person, seemed to have really prepared me for what it would be like to be without her. She had counseled me of course and said, but I did not actually know until it happened. I spoke and read and could never find exactly the comfort zone of this loss to this very day, she was right to say how long it would last this feeling of sterile emptiness, now made worse as dad too has died. His continued life had given me strength to give back to him the will to live on in pride and dignity on his own with his dog. I had always thought that I would die the day he died, but the call to his deathbed seemed to find me prepared, a little experienced in matters of death. I found him in hospital all tubed up and drugged, a little high trying to work on his valve whilst he waited to go forever not to come back. He could not speak with the tubes so he wrote little notes. I transcribed them to my cousin in Transcriptions from a deathbed.
Jonathan was there this time to be with his granddad and me as he hadn’t been when his gamma died. He was quiet during the drive back from the hospital when it was all over deep in thought. He read what he wrote then at the funeral and made us all cry that a man could evoke such strength in a child, no young man now.
I went with my brother David to identify his body before the burial. It seemed to get to him as he had done it for mum alone so I said I would go. It was a magical moment to see my dad lying there like a king, his strong profile visible as a permanent picture branded on my brain. I cannot recall mum’s face like that – I keep seeing her eyes staring and her mouth going round and round and round underneath the mask.
Many people came during the week that followed, those seven days at my brother’s house this time as there were no parents left to sit with us, people from a hazy past whom I grew up with and who knew me then, Jackie leading the prayers of course. One lady brought back a bag that mum had made, a most beautiful petit point evening bag and given to her when she was a young mum many years ago. She’d kept it wrapped all this time, beautiful and cared for and thought I should now have it in memory. Its in my drawer now still packed away. They read and reread the eulogy wiping away a tear as it was passed around those seven days, like he was with us.
They’re both gone now and I feel so alone surrounded by my family whom I love and love me back, but they’re gone forever and I cannot find my reference point. Sometimes I talk with my brother David, but Norman does not like such chat. He has his own way to deal with it, but today he mentioned suddenly that he cried in his sleep last night at her loss. Lara and I and Jonathan and I talk quite a lot and sometimes, Klaff (as I call him) and I talk with positive memories of my privilege to have had my parents to love me and teach me with principled insight, always doing their best even if not always right about a choice or two, of my children having such grandparents and Klaff having uniquely had such loving in-laws. Not perfect exactly, but honorable, honest people who gave more than they took from life. I miss them more than I can say, but she told me so, she counseled me that it would be that way when she left me behind. I sometimes read the letters that people took the care to write and that I keep treasured away and its warming to know that they cared enough to send their thoughts. Its given me a different perspective of death and now I approach others who suffer such loss rather than shy away lest I intrude on their grief.
I like to go to the cemetery when I can as it gives me comfort and warmth, a celebration of their lives rather than just a plot with stones, allowing me time to ruminate and remember. Last time I sobbed there uncontrollably as we’d fought our way through the streets, it was my first real cry since it started. Their home is gone now, stuff dispersed amongst the family. It was hard to pack mum’s things quietly alone at night in the dark so that dad wouldn’t notice, twelve orange bags of life waiting in the dark side of the room to go and then gone forever. When we cleared the flat I went with my brothers and I found it to be a kind of a bonding experience as we paged through the books and coughed as the dust flew out. I found dad’s Golden Treasury from his youth with a list of girl’s names written at the back. He’d been young too, once. I have some of his books on my shelf that I treasure and the clock is mine, the one that hung in the hallway of our house that we grew up in on the common wall with my bedroom and I still hear it sometimes in the depth of a night the “boing” of time as it ticked away my youth. I’m pleased that its mine as it reminds me always of being little and loved and cherished and being the one who ran after shouting, “wait for me”!!!