It’s taken me 20 years to tell this story.
A story of endings and beginnings entwined in a Gordian knot of memory.
Twenty years ago this August, I took my first trip to Israel during my last weeks of being a daughter.
It’s only with the passage of two decades that I can see how the most gut-wrenching decision I ever made shaped the rest of my life.
It’s only with the passage of two decades that I can speak of it.
Here is what happened.
* * *
I grew up in a blue-collar family with plenty of love, but no money. Financial woes were the soundtrack of my childhood.
Summer 1974. Most of my friends were embarking on teen trips to Israel. I remember seeing them off at the airport, back in the days when well-wishers could go right down to the gate.
I wanted to go too, but a trip to Israel was as likely for me as a trip to the moon. Not only was the cost prohibitive, but I had to work all summer to earn money for college.
‘Someday I’ll get there,’ I vowed.
Winter 1976. My dad died suddenly when I was a freshman in college. On top of immeasurable grief came even tighter financial limits. My widowed mom returned to work after twenty years as a stay-at-home mom. Relationships shifted. At a time when young adults naturally pull away, my mom’s need for emotional support pulled me closer.
Israel disappeared from my radar altogether.
* * *
I met my wonderful husband in college. We married in 1979 right after graduation, and began building a life and a family. By 1990, we had four children, infant to age 7 — we were busy!
When thoughts of travel to Israel emerged (my husband had not been there either), those longings were promptly filed under the heading of “when the kids are older.”
The early years of our growing family were happy years for my mom. She savored being a bubbie the way she savored every kiddush sweet table, devouring a full plate of treats and tucking a napkin filled with goodies into her purse. She relished grandparenthood’s abundant joys.
My mom never dated after my dad passed away, much less remarried. My brothers and I, along with our families, tried to fill the void, to assuage her loneliness. She demanded nothing and was grateful for everything.
Living only 30 minutes away, my mom was with us for every holiday, every birthday, and many ordinary days. She joined us on every family vacation. She was a cheery presence, fun to be with, and enormously helpful.
My husband could have gone along with all of this grudgingly, but he welcomed my mom’s presence with generous, open arms. Not only did he love her, he respected her wisdom, her resilience, and her grit. He was a son-in-law who became a son.
Fall 1993. Every now and then the thought of traveling to Israel would pop up, attached to a ticking clock. Our dream was to see Israel for the first time together as a family, before our kids went off on teen trips. Clearly, there was a limited window for taking such a trip. While we waited for the youngest to be old enough to travel, the oldest was already a preteen.
That fall, when friends returned from a family mission to Israel–raving about the experience — we started planning a trip for the following summer. The youngest would be 4 years old, the oldest, almost 12. It was go time!
Thanksgiving weekend 1993. Off we went on our annual day-after-Thanksgiving outing with the kids and my mom (was “Black Friday” even a thing then?). At the movie theatre, as my mom climbed out of the van, we heard a loud crack. Her hip and leg simply gave way. She could not stand, her leg dangled uselessly.
Alongside her in the ambulance, I mentally ticked through the possibilities. None of them was good.
It didn’t take the doctors long to figure it out. “Stage Four breast cancer that has metastasized to her bones,” a young resident informed me as I stood in the hallway.
He hadn’t learned that it’s best to deliver devastating news when the recipient is sitting down.
I tried to steady myself against the wall.
“How long?” I asked, in a voice I no longer recognized.
“A year or two at the most,” he stated evenly.
If he said anything more, I didn’t hear him. My mind was a chaos of competing images — of all the milestones ahead that my mom would not experience, of all the suffering that she would.
She was in the hospital for many weeks. Afterwards she stayed with us for a couple of months, while she simultaneously began cancer treatment and recuperated from her broken hip.
We stopped planning our Israel trip and refiled the idea under “not now, but someday.”
* * *
Eventually my mom got strong enough to go back to her apartment and even back to work. She felt pretty good. We could almost forget that cancer had rudely intruded on our lives.
Cancer tricks you in that way, making you think things are okay. Until they’re not.
The medical resident with the terrible bedside manner was wrong about how much time remained. Nearly four years passed. My mom lived a mostly normal life, with periodic setbacks — weeks spent in the hospital followed by R & R at our house.
We could see a gradual decline, but it was slow.
I almost talked myself into believing she could go decades like this. But I never felt secure enough to plan another trip to Israel. Too far away, too much could happen in our absence.
August 1997. A really bad fall landed her back in the hospital.
It was the beginning of the end. The cancer had spread to her brain. Even more ominous, she had free floating cancer cells in her spinal fluid. “This is a devastating development,” the doctor told me gently, estimating a survival time of a couple of months.
He was candid about what was ahead. She would gradually lose motor function, starting at the feet and moving upwards. He was direct about the level of care she would need going forward.
It would be a level of care far beyond what I could deliver at home.
Putting a mid-60s parent in a nursing home is a sucker punch to the guts for both the parent and the children making the wrenching decision. My mom accepted what had to be and tried to make the best of it.
Once she was settled at the Sholom Home we set about making whatever time remained as joyful as possible. We visited nearly every day. Her seven grandchildren — my four and my brother’s three — decorated her room with their art. They watched game shows together, they took her to play bingo. A medivan brought her to our house for holidays and birthdays.
Summer turned to fall. The changing leaves and shortened days were a constant reminder that time was slipping away.
That fall, three families we knew well began planning a trip to Israel for the following summer. They invited us to join them. Our youngest would be 8, the oldest almost 16.
Among those families were dear, lifelong friends, with whom we had shared everything. Our kids, their kids were growing up together.
It was October 1997. The trip would take place in August, 1998.
We did the math. And we said yes.
* * *
We — the four families — threw ourselves into planning the trip. Not only did we labor over the itinerary, we wanted to prepare ourselves and our kids to get the most out of the experience. Once a month we got together — eight adults and 13 kids — for dinner and learning. We studied Israel’s history, geography and culture together.
Our anticipation grew with each passing month.
Fall turned to winter. And while my mom’s cancer was relentless, it moved slowly. Our son’s bar mitzvah was just ahead, in February 1998. Might my mom actually make it? She did!
Winter turned to spring. My nephew’s bar mitzvah was just ahead, in April. Might my mom make it? She did!
Spring turned to summer. We pushed my mom in her wheelchair out to the garden. We fed her ice cream. We reminisced when her mind was clear, sat in peaceful silence when she was confused.
One day she said to me, “You just missed seeing Dad. But he will be back soon.”
I swallowed hard. “Well, then I think I’ll wait, ” I said. “I haven’t seen him for a long, long time.” Who knows what the dying can see that the rest of us cannot? So together we sat.
That day our kids’ passports arrived in the mail.
And a seed of worry began to grow in my brain, its tangled roots burrowing past reason, past logic, heading straight for the part of the mind where grief and guilt reside.
That worry activated a two-word message. Two words that stopped me in my tracks at the grocery store and shattered my sleep on many nights.
The words were: “What if?”
By the time the trip was a month away, “What if” was my constant tormenter.
“What if” led me down the trail of every awful possibility that could happen to my mom in the weeks ahead.
And just when I thought there were no more awful possibilities left to consider, “What if” brought me face-to-face with another message that had been hiding in a quiet corner of my brain.
That message was: “We’re going.”
I could not let go of the trip to Israel this time. It was too real, too close.
“What if” and “We’re going” were well matched opponents. They duked it out in my mind every day and took turns being in the lead.
My husband watched me struggle. He listened endlessly. He did everything a supportive husband should do. But he would not give an opinion. He simply said: “This is your call. This has to be your call. I will support whatever decision you make.”
I turned to our rabbi for help. I spent countless hours on the phone with my brother, who was adamant that we proceed as planned. Last, I turned to my mom’s oncologist, also Jewish, also a mom.
She surprised me by her firm answer. “You are not cancelling. You owe this to your husband, to your kids, to yourself. I don’t think your mom is likely to pass away while you’re gone.”
I stared at her in disbelief. The pace of my mom’s decline had quickened. The paralysis now reached her shoulders. She still recognized us, but beyond that was often confused. One foot in this world, one foot in the next.
“Really?” I asked. “But she’s deteriorated so much. How many floors are left to go down before the elevator hits the bottom?”
She looked at me with kind eyes. “There’s more,” she said simply.
* * *
It was the day before our trip. My mom was back in the hospital to treat an infection. She was comfortable, sleeping much of the time. She still had lucid moments, when the force of her personality burst through the shell that her body had become. But those moments were few.
Throughout the past week “What if” and “We’re going” waged their final, all-out battle.
It was the only time in my life that I ever lost 10 pounds in one week because I could not eat or sleep.
“We’re going” won.
Today, the day before our trip, our kids were coming home from overnight camp. A day that would be filled with the mundane — mountains of laundry, packing up six people. And a day of profound significance. I had to explain our decision to our kids. And we had to visit my mom before we left.
The kids bounded off the camp bus with hugs and questions. “How is Bubbie?” “When can we see her?” and then, “Are we still going to Israel tomorrow?”
Over lunch, I told them we’d go see her that evening, and I prepared them for what to expect. Before answering their questions about whether we’d still be going to Israel tomorrow, I asked them what they thought.
They were quiet, thinking.
Finally, one of the older kids said, “I think Bubbie would want us to go. She would not want us to miss this.”
Another child added: “This is not the same as taking a vacation. We would cancel a vacation for sure. Going to Israel is different.”
How our kids would view this decision, what they would learn from it, was one of the things that concerned me most.
“We are still going,” I said. “But here is what I want you to understand.”
“Bubbie is at the end. She will pass away soon, although we don’t know exactly when. I hope that we will be here when she dies. It’s important to be with the people we love when they die.”
“But there is something that matters even more, and that is to be with the people we love when they are living.”
“Think of all the time we spent together, not only the last five years that Bubbie has been sick, but all the years before. Think of the fun we had together on family vacations and outings. Remember the holidays and birthdays and ordinary days.”
I continued. “We’ve been with Bubbie every step of the way, in sickness and in health. We were with her when she could most enjoy it. The joy you kids gave her cannot be measured. Just know you were the best thing in her life. She said so all the time.”
“Now she is at the end. The nurses will take good care of her. Your uncles, aunt, and cousins will be with her. I hope we will be here when she passes away. But if not, I am at peace with that and I hope you will be too.”
“We gave of ourselves to each other when it mattered most. I will not ask for more.”
They listened. There were tears. They understood.
I thought ahead to our visit that evening. Throughout the long ordeal of her illness, even during these final months, my mom never raised the topic of dying. Not even with me. She pushed it away and focused on the here and now. That was her way and I respected it. The last thing she wanted were tearful goodbyes.
“Tonight, we will go see Bubbie. She will be so glad to see you. Tell her about camp. Tell her about what you’re excited to do in Israel. Tell her you love her and you’ll see her in a few weeks. Keep it light. It’s the visit she will love most.”
And one by one, that’s what our kids did. My husband too. My mom was fully clear, fully herself, fully with them.
They headed to the car and left me and my mom alone.
“Well, you must have a ton of laundry to do!” she declared with a half-smile. The amount of laundry a big family generates was often a source of amusement between us. I hugged her fragile frame as hard as I could, told her how much I loved her, and said I’d see her in a few weeks.
I made it all the way to the elevator before crying. It took a long time to stop.
After the kids were in bed I wrote down every bit of information our rabbi would need for a eulogy and left it with a friend, just in case.
Then I packed our bags and waited for morning to come.
* * *
The next evening, we flew overnight to Amsterdam and spent the layover touring the Anne Frank House.
Then we headed back to the airport for our night flight to Tel Aviv. We sat quietly at the gate, our drowsy children slumped around us.
The gate agents arrived, clipboards in hand. One of them opened the door to the jet bridge. My heart leaped to my throat. ‘That’s it,’ I thought. “The last step.’
The waiting was over. A dream deferred for decades was about to come true.
We boarded the plane and my husband and kids promptly fell asleep. Me? My adrenalin-charged, electrified body could barely stay in the seat.
Once we were over the Mediterranean, I fixed my eyes on the darkened sea below.
At last, a glimmer of light on the far horizon. The glimmer grew, becoming a landscape of twinkling lights. Beneath me was the land that, until now, I visited only in my imagination.
It was the middle of the night when we landed.
The six of us stood on the tarmac in the dark, holding hands, euphoric!
The look that passed between my husband and me is one I will never forget.
Off to the hotel we went, the cab’s lights bouncing off the pale Jerusalem stone.
We opened the door to our room and my eye went at once to the little red message light on the phone. It was still the pre-cell phone era.
No light. No message.
I collapsed on the bed.
At long last, I slept.
* * *
Over the next few weeks we fell madly, exhilaratingly in love. Israel was everything we imagined it would be and everything we had no words to imagine.
We toured along with the other three families. The learning gained in our year of preparation came vividly to life. Every day was a wonder. An assault on the senses in the best way possible. Jerusalem became my favorite color. Tel Aviv became my favorite music. We lived on Jewish time, in a place where you could feel Shabbat approaching.
What I discovered was this: Israel is inexhaustible. Her history, culture, landscapes, stories, and flavors are without end.
Every time we returned to our hotel my eye went immediately to the red message button on the phone. Nothing.
Every two days I called my brother to check on our mom. “Status quo,” he said.
On our last phone call, he said, “You see? You’ll be home tomorrow. It all worked out.”
Departing from Israel brought its own new set of feelings, a duality I’ve felt ever since:
happy to go home/never want to leave
* * *
I called my brother the minute we got home.
“I’m headed over to see Mom right now,” I said.
“Let me go in with you,” he said. “I’m on my way.”
He walked into the room ahead of me saying in a cheery voice, “Look who’s back! I told you she was coming back.”
I followed him into the room and looked down at the figure lying in the bed. Nothing remained of the person my mom had been.
Bret Stephens once wrote, “Cancer is a heist culminating in murder.”
I thought I saw a flicker of recognition in her eyes, the trace of a smile pass across her lips. But sometimes we see what we want to see.
I pulled up a chair, took her hand, and sat with her as the afternoon turned to dusk.
My mom slipped into a coma that night and died peacefully the next afternoon.
We buried her on an achingly beautiful, late summer day.
Into her grave, we tucked the stones and earth we carried back with us from Israel.
* * *
My mom would have been 87 had she lived. Lots of people live to be 87.
She would have seen her beloved seven grandchildren grow up. She would have kvelled at seven college graduations and six weddings. She would have devoured her 13 great-grandchildren.
I’ve been back to Israel 20 times in 20 years. My husband and kids have been back many times too.
But that first visit stands apart. It forever changed the trajectory of my life, both personally and professionally. Most of all, it profoundly influenced the way we raised our kids.
Losing our parents, if they were good and loving, is life’s bitterest rite of passage. A door swings shut, and it will not reopen. But children are supposed to go on, children must go on. And if another door opens during that period of aching grief, it can offer a way forward.
A beginning in the midst of an ending.
That was the monumental thing that happened to me while my mom was dying.