My father, Theodore (Teddy) Rifkin died on July 24, 2022. We weren’t really expecting it to happen. He was 93 years old, healthy, actually, and happily living in a top-notch long-term care facility. Prior to that, he lived with me and my family for 20 years.
He went into the facility on March 31, 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic, and right after we sold the big house that we all lived in and moved to a brand new apartment. I worked really hard to sneak in his favorite snacks: candy, twinkies, homemade cookies and, of course, his beloved Scotch.
In June of 2020, the staff let us visit by appointment on our assigned day — two people, 20 minutes, outside, no touching. It was so difficult. Then they cut it down to one person, inside, through plexiglass. No touching. Finally, on April 30, 2021, I was allowed into my father’s room, to hug him, kiss him, see where he was living and to make sure he was being taken good care of.
His favorite aide was Edie. My mother’s name was Edie and I think this aide was sent as an angel to him. My parents would have celebrated their 70th anniversary just before he passed, so for over 70 years, he was just taking orders from Edie One or Edie Two.
My father’s little body gave out when pneumonia invaded his lungs. After I recited the Sh’ma prayer, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one,” I called my son Michael, 28, a director at an overnight camp and his papa’s best friend. I put the phone to my father’s ear, and Michael told him how much he loved him, how growing up with him in the same house was the best thing ever. Then Teddy took his last breath. Exactly as it should have been.
When my mother, Edythe (Edie) Rifkin, also living with us, passed away in January 2006, it hit me hard, as we were very close. But I don’t remember the pain of losing her as much as the pain the past year has brought me following the loss of my father. I had made the decision to have my mother’s life-support machine turned off. After all, if she continued living on a breathing tube, she wouldn’t be able to speak, and I knew she would be miserable living like that. I couldn’t watch it.
My rabbi said to me, “I bet that was the hardest decision you have ever made.” And I said, “No, it was the easiest one.” So my brothers and I stood there, while they turned off the machine, and, as I was taught to do, I recited the Sh’ma.
While I work in a large synagogue, when my mother passed, I wasn’t going to services every week as I do now, so I didn’t say Kaddish, the prayer for mourners, every week. My father didn’t either. I think he was in such denial that he couldn’t utter the words, and he never went to the cemetery. I went, speaking to my mother always, letting her know that we were taking good care of her Teddy, and that her pride and joy, her grandson, Michael, was growing up to be a mensch (a person of integrity and honor).
I visit the cemetery on each of their birthdays and the date they passed away. And I put a stone on their yahrzeit (memorial) plaque in our synagogue sanctuary, talking to them always.
The first year after my mother’s death, my family didn’t talk about her birthday or my parents’ anniversary or any big milestones. Michael became a bar mitzvah 18 months after she passed, and, while her presence was missed and her words would come flying out of my mouth on many occasions, we never talked about her. I followed my father’s lead, so as not to upset him.
The earliest memory I have of my father is when I was five years old. He took me to the movie theater to see Mary Poppins (it was my first “date” and my first time seeing a movie). He loved Frank Sinatra, a good meal, a J&B on the rocks with a twist and a cigarette to go along with it. Always unfiltered Camels.
I am pretty confident that the best day of my father’s life was when Michael was born. He came into my hospital room and said, “I have already seen him and he smiled at me.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was probably gas.
When my father passed, I was at a loss. My brothers took no responsibility for the funeral or shiva (the Jewish week of mourning following someone’s death) or anything related to my father’s death. I was the one who eulogized him. Gratefully, because of my job as associate director of Caring Connections, a home care agency in Worcester, MA, I knew who to reach out to, what to do and exactly how to do it. What I didn’t count on was the intense emotion I felt every week standing up to say Kaddish. My temple community always made sure I wasn’t standing alone; someone always held my hand as we recited the words together.
When we buried my father, we put a bag in the casket with him, containing a small bottle of scotch, a fortune cookie (his favorite food), a twinkie and a cigarette.
For 11 months, the Jewish time of formal mourning, I recited Yitgadal, v’yitkadash, “May His great Name be exalted and sanctified,” the opening words of the Kaddish. Every. Single. Week. I went to Yizkor (the formal memorial service for loved ones lost) for the first time. I visited the cemetery, arranged for the unveiling, the Jewish ceremony to consecrate the tombstone. I put a stone up on his memorial plaque in our synagogue sanctuary. But the finality finally hit me when month 11 arrived, and I stood up for the last time as an official mourner, as mandated by Judaism.
It hit hard. I will always stand for my parents on their yahrzeit, the anniversary of their death, and during the Yizkor (remembrance) service in synagogue. But I will never again stand with the current mourners to mourn my parents, those people who gave me life, held my hand as I was brought into this world, and, for whom in each case, I was there when they took their last breath. Beautiful, peaceful and heart-breaking. I feel blessed to have been there with them, holding their hands and telling them how much I loved them.
The last Kaddish was the hardest one of all.
Susan Karon is a life member of Hadassah Wellesley.