November 25, 2014

Arise Mourner

Isaiah's wise words: Chapter 60, verse 20.
Arise mourner. Arise. Arise. 

The rabbi said this three times--and still it was not enough.  I felt glued to my chair, paralyzed, afraid. And then, as if a puppeteer pulled a string, I rose from my chair and braced myself to face the world: a new, hardened reality; a world without my mother.

My father, brother and I had been sitting shiva for seven days. The house was filled with people who came in from the outside, bringing forth warm memories and stories of my mother. The photo albums came out and family history was shared. There were hugs, many consoling words and lots of nurturing food. We hibernated inside the house sitting low on our chairs. Family and friends came and left, then others arrived, some reconnecting with us after decades.

Uplifting. Tiring. Meaningful. Distracting. Necessary. I was an emotional chameleon.

When my mom passed away, our hearts were pried open like shy clams whose precious pearl had been wrenched out and stolen. And after the levaya, our hearts closed tight, leaving us broken, robbed, left alone with a deep, gaping hole inside.  These days of shiva helped to fill our shell, revealing glimmers of the pearl that was lost.  We could see who cared and who was touched by my mother; and we were reminded how she made a difference to people’s lives, be it a small act or a friendship from many years ago.

Arise mourner.

He was telling us to get up and walk outside, completing a symbolic return to the world after having lost a close relative. The rabbi then quoted this beautiful passage from the Book of Isaiah:

“Your sun shall set no more, your moon no more withdraw; for the Lord shall be a light to you forever, and your days of mourning shall be ended.”

My legs felt weak as I headed to the front door. The world outside was so big and so cold.

As I took my first shaky steps outside, I gasped for air, drowning in tears as if a dam wall broke inside me. I held onto my father’s arm as we made our way in silence. This was a walk into a new harsh reality where the players in my small family were further diminished. This was now a world of my brother, my father and I.

As soon as we came inside, there was no more time for reflection or tears. Life began with a flurry of packing suitcases, driving to appointments and catching my flight back to Israel. I would be leaving this shiva house, once my childhood home, saying goodbye to my father and my brother and having a final cry at the graveside of my mother. The wind howled, the snow stung and my tears flowed as I recited Tehillim at her grave, kicking the frozen, unresponsive mud that was filled in just a week ago.

I am now in in transit. Literally and emotionally. Sitting here in the Heathrow airport lounge, I feel a gash grow inside. I have moments when I want to go up to a stranger, a woman the same age of my mom and say, “ My mom is gone. Can you give me a hug?”  Yet, when walking in crowds of people dragging suitcases, I feel as if I have entered a new phase of humanity. It is a club of sorrow. How many of these people here in this airport have lost a loved one? Are some rushing to visit someone ill in the hospital? We all carry sorrows, and the older we grow, the more wounds we will carry.

I watch the El Al plane taxi to the gate. This plane with the Star of David on the tail will carry me home. I cry with the understanding that I am headed to our Jewish homeland.

Arise, mourner. I brace my new reality as I come home to my life in Israel.

November 18, 2014

A Woman of Valour lovely mom.
This beautiful eulogy for Denny Nathan was written by a close friend of forty years, Reva Stern. Reva read this at the levaya on November 13, 2014.

I humbly stand before you at the bequest of our beloved Denny. It’s hard to imagine anyone having the presence of mind, or the strength of character to consider their own eulogy, but then Denny wasn’t just anyone.

The friends and colleagues who formed the continuous and beautiful line of affection and love that surrounded her during her time in palliative care prompted Denny to whisper to me, “Imagine if I had passed away from a sudden heart attack... I would never have had the time to discover that so many people cared about me.” There it was... the familiar, sincere and irresistible humility that was always present. In a moment of vulnerability, Leonard, the stalwart Brit, left the room in tears. Denny seemed bewildered and exclaimed: “I know he loves me, but I never imagined he could love me that much. I am so blessed.”

Denny knew her time was limited and she wanted to use every minute of it in the company of family and friends. When she was too weak to talk, she would listen contentedly with eyes closed. The worst mistake we could make was to presume she was sleeping. Whenever she heard such a suggestion, she was quick to open her eyes and join in the exact context of the conversation.

One day, Leonard was working on a crossword puzzle by her bedside and was stuck on an answer. He muttered the query out loud and from behind closed eyes we heard the word “Askew.” It was the very answer Leonard had been seeking. We applauded and Denny offered him an enigmatic smile.

There is a celebrated verse from the Hebrew Bible that asks “A Woman of Valour, who can find?” She was Denny. She embodied qualities we would all aspire to encapsulate.

Denny was incorruptible, fiercely loyal, quietly courageous, passionate about life and dedicated to her family and friends... and that is the essence of valour. But beyond the attributes of honesty, fidelity and morality there was an entire goldmine of characteristics that not everyone was privy to.

Most will know that Denny was brilliant on stage, a devoted advocate for Israel, skilful at crafts, adept in the kitchen and an expert in proper usage of the English language. Some of you might know that she was a gifted artist. Her colourful paintings expressed her imaginative and delicate view of the world. But I’ll bet that most of you won’t know that Denny had a lovely singing voice. I knew about the singing, but much to my chagrin, I could never get her to use that lovely Julie Andrews voice on stage because I was sworn to keep her secret.

After a forty year friendship, the news of her childhood wish to have become a fashion designer was something I learned only recently from Leonard. I thought after decades of 4 hour lunches and heart to heart confessionals, I knew all there was to know... but of course, there was always more.

After the diagnosis, Denny confided that it was her promised mission, to be present for one particular celebration. And she, as always, kept that promise when a lifetime of hopes and dreams were fulfilled this August as Denny, looking like a beautiful Helen Mirren doppelganger, watched her son Barry, wed the love of his life.

Her deep affection and respect for Nicole and Amir was boundless. Her love for her children was always palpable. Denny gushed with pride every time she updated her friends about how her brave, mature and amazing children and grandchildren were contributing to their new homeland of Israel... and we kvelled with and for her.

Denny came from a large family, but only one other sibling moved to Canada. Her sister Joyce, whose sense of humour and her care and devotion to Denny during her long goodbye was deeply comforting to Denny and so heart-warming for the rest of us to witness.

The first binding friendships Denny and Leonard embraced when they moved to Montreal, Canada were the open arms of Sarah and Sidney Brickman. That connection continued on to Toronto. It was Sarah and Sidney that guided Denny out of her home and into Beth Tikvah Synagogue where Sarah, Sidney helped to formulate a plan that ultimately led to Denny climbing out of her shell and onto centre stage where she was truly a star.

For decades, Denny and Leonard joined Rochelle and Ray on a whirlwind theatre foray to Shaw and Stratford. Just weeks ago, the foursome headed off as usual on their annual theatre adventure. Denny, ignoring the exhausting symptoms of chemo went determinedly along. Upon her return, she offered me her insightful and candid critiques on each production she had seen. That was tradition. She was not one to ever break with tradition.

The protection and commitment provided by her husband, children, sister and her entire extended family was warm, loving and touching. It was like spending time with TV’s, The Waltons. This is the family that Denny, as matriarch, raised, gathered and guided. She is that woman of valour.

All the while Denny was in palliative care, she was, as always, kind, appreciative and especially considerate of the medical team. She never failed to thank them and praise them.

Denny asked me to tell you all how much she appreciated your good thoughts and wishes and that you should tell anyone going through this final passage of life, how much you matter to them. It meant everything to her.

She maintained her dignity, grace, humility, class and compassion to the very end; but then I’m sure that none of us are surprised at that. She was a role model always. For the first time in my experience, I understood the semantic difference between dying and passing away. In those last days, Mario Lanza sang to her, Joyce massaged her hands, Leonard offered her words of affection and love. Nicole and Amir, Barry and Alina were close by her side ready to do whatever gave her comfort. Denny purred, she smiled, she closed her eyes and she dreamed.

Denny was my friend, your friend, your loved one... and we are and will always be blessed to have had her in our lives.

November 14, 2014

Baruch Dayan Emet

Despite her illness, my mom danced at my brother's wedding in August.

On Wednesday, the 18th of Cheshvan, a dear soul left this world. My beloved mother Denny, Devora bat Avraham, passed away after a full year battling fighting cancer. Her last three weeks were spent in palliative care in a Toronto hospital. We were at her side when she passed.  She was a wonderful husband, mother, sister and friend. 

As a daughter, I wanted to share a few words to describe how exceptional she was as a mom.  My mom. May her soul be blessed.

Imagine a knock on the door.  A little girl is standing there. “Hi,” she says, “Can you come out and play?”

Seems like a regular childhood story, right?

Well, not really. This little girl was not asking if I would come out to play; she wanted my mother to come out to play.

Of course my mother always said ‘yes.’ There could be laundry piled up or dinner to be made. It didn’t matter. Eyes twinkling, smile beaming warmth, she would run outside, pulling me behind her.

‘Let’s go out and have fun,’ my mom would say, grabbing my hand. And we would play wall ball and draw hopscotch boxes in colored chalk on the driveway. My mom taught my friends Double Dutch and was a skipping master.

Over the years, my friends and Barry’s friends loved to hang out our place, the Nathans; there was always a huge jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table, my mom crouched over, patiently searching for that elusive piece, inviting our friends to join in the hunt. She played board games for hours, be it Boggle, Scrabble, Monopoly, Clue. You name it. My mom was there, surreptitiously teaching us skills such as fair play, concentration, numbers, spelling, reading and deductive reasoning. Was it professor Plum in the library with the revolver? Ask my mom. Crossword challenge; seven letters with an ‘x’ in the middle? Ask my mom.

She was an adult, yet her ‘child within,’ shone. “Come, play, she would cajole me, her sullen child. “Have fun. Even if you have to pretend. “ “And smile. Even if you don’t feel like it. Show the world a smile.”

This was a small part of her deep wisdom. Whatever path Barry and I picked, she was behind us. She was our ally, always giving us the freedom and space to choose and decide.

And, as many of you know, the paths I took were not exactly ‘close to home.’ Be it backpacking in the Himalayas, becoming Observant or moving to Israel and taking along her four beloved grandchildren, she was on my team.

She never questioned Barry or I. Instead she simply loved us for who we are, and with her big, warm heart and wise soul, she came along for the ride. It was this respect, love and trust that helped Barry and I grow and become independent.

She was an artist when it came to creating a place of love, warmth and acceptance.  Young and old, and everyone in between felt this when they got to know her. She was always more concerned with everyone else's needs and never her own. Even in the last few days, lying in her hospital bed, she would ask about others with true concern. And not once, during the 12 difficult months of her illness and three hard weeks of being in palliative care, not once did she complain about her own pain and challenge.

My mom will be dearly missed by us all; by her loving sister, Joyce, who was by her side every day, all day; her devoted nephews Martin and Stewart; her son-in-law, Amir and daughter-in-law Alina; her soul mate of 60 years, Len; her grandchildren Ariel, Aviva, Shaya and Talya; and by her children Barry and I.

We will cherish every moment we had with her. Even in the last few days, we felt her love; be it a small wink of her eye when she had no strength to talk or the kisses she would weakly blow, she continued to warm our hearts with her abundant love and show the world a smile.

November 6, 2014

The Power of A Plastic Poppy

Last week, Canada buried a fallen soldier.  There was press coverage across the country. Newspapers dedicated several pages to the story, displaying images of the funeral procession, the bereaved family, bouquets of flowers, garlands, flags, notes and tears. There was live news coverage of the procession where hundreds of people lined the streets of Hamilton, Ontario. Some wore red poppies, some red jackets.

This event touched a chord in most Canadians, whether they knew Corporal Nathan Cirillo or not. Here was an innocent man protecting a Canadian memorial. He was unarmed. And he was shot and killed simply doing a job he loved. He was young and, like us all, yearned to live a full, long life.

This was terrorism; an act of the most despicable kind of war where the enemy is disguised and the targets are innocent civilians. I have been in Canada as this whole story unfurled and have heard the comments, read the news stories and the editorials.

As I was sitting in a hospital TV room, nurses and families sat glued to the TV to watch the procession. One family discussed the merits of a private funeral. “Well, it should be private, for the family’s sake,” one woman commented.

And then it all came back; the agonizing summer in Israel when we lost over 70 young soldiers; times when there were several funerals a day. Intense mourning only to replaced with more mourning; and the fear, the trepidation every day that there would be more bad news.

In Israel, all funerals are open and people will drive across the country to attend. And when a funeral time is announced, Israelis often drop what they are doing to be there. This is because we are all family. We are united in our sorrow and we are united in our will to fight for our survival, to battle for our liberties, our freedom and our right to exist.

With last week’s Canadian tragedy past, the event seemed to be neatly filed away, perhaps interpreted as tragic, random.

I sincerely hope that Canada will not forget. Yet, now, ironically, Remembrance Day is the new debate. The Canadian Parliament is passing a bill to make November 11 a national holiday. Many believe this will belittle the day, while others feel Canada needs another day off.

And how will Canadians celebrate Remembrance Day if it is a day off work and school? I heard one radio talk show host lament that average Canadians, including new immigrants who do not even know what the day signifies, will sleep in and go to the mall.

And here I turn, yet again, to Israel. Our Remembrance Day for soldiers is not just a ‘day off.’ People do not go to school or to work, but they do not forget. Our Remembrance Day starts in the evening. All shops and restaurants shut down tightly. People gather in central areas of their communities for 8 p.m., in time to stand at attention for the siren that wails across the country. Every car, pedestrian, phone call and mundane matter is silenced.

And everyone remembers.  After the siren, the names are called; the names of soldiers who were lost in combat in that particular town and the names of those who were victims of terror. TV stations broadcast stories about the soldiers and the radio plays low-key music.

The next day, people visit the graves of the fallen and serving soldiers make sure every lost soldier, from the founding of the state 65 years ago to those who fell this summer in Gaza, has someone standing by his or her grave. It is somber and it is unifying. It makes us remember who we are and why we are here. 

Unlike Israelis, Canadians generally lead a calm, peaceful life with few threats and no known enemies. However, since Canada is fighting overseas in the name of democracy and freedom and the threat is now on Canada's shores, Remembrance Day should be extended to reflect our new world reality.

Given the events of the past few weeks, it is time Canada gave Remembrance Day more power than a plastic poppy and the wail of a bagpipe.