MY MOTHER-IN-LAW, LOLA, insisted that she didn’t want to live past eighty. She told us to smother her with a pillow. It was funny until it wasn’t. By her seventies, she had what a doctor friend of mine called Piss Poor Protoplasm Syndrome—PPPS. For me, with my less than rudimentary knowledge of biology, PPPS explained a lot, including why my own father, the exact same age as Lola, was still going to work every day while Lola slowly faded out. I was personally convinced that, as per her own strong will, she’d go to sleep on the eve of her eightieth birthday and never wake up. But she fooled me, living another five years, if you can call what seemed to amount to little more than a very long, shallow nap living. Daily she got weaker and more confused, more plagued by arthritis and less able to carry on even the most cursory of conversations. When I visited her assisted living facility in Washington, DC, I chattered on about what my kids were up to and tried to stay an hour.
My husband, Stuart, when he visited, did much better, spending the entire day with his mother before turning back to the train station to head to suburban New Jersey, where we’d moved a few years after Lola had taken the tumble that, for her three worried children, was the last straw. Before that, she’d been living as a widow in a spacious, sunny apartment on the top floor of a big apartment building in suburban Philadelphia filled with other Jewish widows and staffed by a rotating band of doormen and custodians whom she referred to as “the man,” as in, “Stuart, call the man and ask him to come up here to help with the suitcases.”
It was a big push, getting her resettled into a very small apartment in the assisted living facility, where my sister-in-law could look after her. Jody, a doctor, was the obvious choice of mainstay. She alone among the three siblings lived within striking distance of Philadelphia. (We were in Baton Rouge at the time, and my husband’s brother lives in Jerusalem.) But Lola didn’t go easily, and soon began firing every one of the home health aides that Jody found for her. Then came the inevitable one thing after another, the family meetings, the financial worries, the disagreements and drama. Even so, with Lola being looked after, organized, and cared for by Jody, Stuart and I were largely off the hook.
So when Stuart got an offer to teach a five-week course in criminal law at the Tel Aviv University Law School in early winter, we jumped at the chance. We flew into Ben Gurion International on November 20. Three days later, Jody called to say that Lola had died. Stuart got on the phone—with his brother and sister-in-law in Jerusalem, with our eldest son and his wife, who were also then living in Jerusalem, with the airlines, with Orbitz, with his sister in the States, with various administrators at the law school. A few hours later, our son Sam showed up and, with his fluent Hebrew, made various other arrangements. As this was going on, I started to feel ill—nauseous, anxious. I’m afraid of flying. But more to the point, I’m a homebody. I don’t like change. My stuff was unpacked. We’d just gone grocery shopping and were both still reeling from jet lag. I was so undone—not by Lola’s death but by the prospect of flying halfway around the world again only to turn around to fly halfway around the world again again—that I had to Skype my therapist in New Jersey for guidance, but I could barely hear her over a terrific thunderstorm that lashed the windows and bent the trees along the coast nearly to the ground. Meantime, Sam was jabbering away in idiomatically perfect Hebrew on his cell phone and telling me to chill out. “Mom, it’s not like we’re being put on the next transport to Poland” is more or less how he put it.
For some time, Holocaust jokes had been among Sam’s specialties, and when he moved to Israel after college, his repertoire expanded exponentially. (Among the younger generation of Israelis, the taboo against making funny on the subject of the Six Million has long since been cast aside.) But I was in no mood. By the time our sheroot came at five the next morning to take me, Stuart, and Sam to the airport, my entire body felt off, as if it had been invaded by an unpleasant green gas. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to withstand the sixteen-hour journey with a two-hour layover in Frankfurt. That I hadn’t been doused with Zyklon B was beside the point. Which I tried to share with Stuart, only Stuart wasn’t up for hearing about my stomach, hands, feet, joints, head, and do you think I have a fever? He’d slept for about two minutes the previous night, and now we were crammed into a super-sized jumbo jet of Jews, heading straight into the heart of the former Reich, and he had to prepare several lectures and write a eulogy for his mother.
I’m an anxious flier at the best of times, and when I’m even a little bit sick my MO is to want my mother to come to my bedside with tea and toast and the small TV set that she’ll prop up next to my bed so I can watch “I Dream of Jeannie” and “My Favorite Martian.” My mother has long since gone to the next world, however, and Stuart, rational man that he is, has pointed out that he is not her. So in the absence of Mom-style TLC, I begin to fall into the pit of despond where I’m unloved, uncared for, and abandoned—all the unresolved crap from my childhood, which was sufficiently sticky to have left its tracks all over my late-middle-aged nervous system. Thus:
“I mean it, Stuart. I’m not feeling well. I’m really not okay.”
“Jennifer, I know you’re not feeling well, but my mother just died.”
“Can’t you even hold my hand?”
“No, not right now. Not when I’m trying to write my mother’s eulogy.”
“You hate me.”
“Now’s not the time.”
“I’m going to throw up. I’m feverish.”
“For God’s sake, honey, get a grip.”
“That’s what you always say. Why’d you even marry me?”
“I’m begging you, Jennifer.”
And it went downhill from there. By the second leg of the journey, from Frankfurt to Dulles, I was taking regular trips to the tiny, chemical-smelling, wet-toilet-paper-strewn American Airlines bathroom to throw up. The plane descended. I hacked and gagged. By then my husband, grief-stricken, frayed, and exhausted, wanted nothing more than to get through customs. At last we met up with our younger son, Jonathan, who had just flown in from Boston. From customs, we got ourselves to the rental car place. It was Thanksgiving.
To be clear, my husband is a wonderful man who was grieving his mother. But that wasn’t where I was focused as we drove to the house in the Virginia suburbs where my siblings and I grew up, and where our elderly father still lived. My parents built the house in 1974. My siblings and l still refer to it as “the new house,” to distinguish it from the old house, which Mom and Dad bought in 1960.
The new house is a spacious, modern, glass-and-slate manifestation of my father’s dreams and ideals. But there was no room for us at the inn: my sister and her family, dealing with their own emergency, had temporarily moved in. We just flew halfway around the world for my mother-in-law’s funeral and… As the ugliest scenes from my long-ago but still simmering childhood played through my memory on an endless loop, I landed on a particularly juicy one involving the same sister who was now, with her husband and kids, hogging the extra real estate at the new house. It was this: when I was fourteen and she was eleven, my best friend Karin came for a sleepover. My sister also adored Karin and wanted in on the action. I refused. She begged. I refused. She begged some more. She cried. I was unmoved. In desperation she went to Mom and Dad for help, and after hearing her out, Dad gave her permission to spend the night with the big girls. I was incensed. But when I went to Dad to explain that Karin was my best friend, not my sister’s, Dad merely said, “Case closed.” And that was that.
“I really don’t feel well,” I said. Stuart stared straight ahead, and I made small convulsing movements with my jaw and middle to demonstrate how much I was suffering.
But at least I didn’t have to invite my little sister to my sleepover, or worse, stay (without sufficiently warm clothing) at a hotel. Instead, my ex-sister-in-law offered to let us stay at her house, where I could borrow her clothes. When we got there, I promptly threw up into an environmentally correct woven-from-plastics grocery bag and went to bed. An hour or so later, Stuart, Sam, and Jonathan drove to my sister-in-law’s house in Bethesda for a pre-funeral Thanksgiving with the rest of the Israel-based branch of my husband’s family. I stayed at my ex-sister-in-law’s with my barf-bag and resentments. The next morning we all got up and prepared to drive to Philadelphia, where we were to reconnoiter with our daughter and continue on to the graveside funeral. I was still wobbly and weak at the knees, but no longer heaving. As we were getting in the car, Sam said: “The Shoah must go on.”
The family joke regarding my father is that he’ll outlive all of us: like the hero in a cartoon, he can walk down the middle of the street unscathed as bombs and grenades fall on either side of him. You think that just because he’s ninety he’s afraid of a pandemic? Or that he pays any mind to any of his four children or eleven grandchildren when we beg him to stay at home and enjoy his garden rather than go to the office? Yes, I did say “go to the office.” And by the way, it is not a good idea to drive from Washington, DC, to Southampton, New York, to see Fern in the middle of a plague.
Fern is dad’s wife, our stepmother. At the time they were married, both were widowed, and neither was young. They had no intention of giving up their own homes or routines and agreed to have a commuter marriage, sharing time on one another’s turf. So far, so good. And between the two of them, there’s plenty of real estate to go around. He’s mainly in Washington and Maine; she’s mainly in New York and Southampton. When the city got dicey, she decamped for her summer house along with her daughter, son-in-law, and six-year-old grandson. He missed her.
I get it. We all get it. Dad does what he wants to do. And if what he wants to do is, by most measures, somewhat dangerous? Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. My mother used to say: “If he kills himself chopping down trees, at least he’ll die happy.” He rode his John Deere lawn tractor not only on the vast green yard in front of the new house, but on the back side of the property too, where the grassy slope swept steeply down toward the woods and ended in what he called “the fairy path.” When Hurricane Gloria made its way up the East Coast to dump three days’ worth of heavy rains on us, Dad led the way—at night, no less—through the woods to look at the Potomac. When a blizzard shut Washington down and the roads were impassable, he jogged to his downtown office. On 9/11, as the city emptied out, he remained in his office on Pennsylvania Avenue, with its view of the Capitol. One summer when I was living in New York, he picked me up on the George Washington Bridge—literally on the bridge—as he drove north on his way to Cape Cod. He simply didn’t think that he, or any of his family, was in any danger, and at the time I didn’t think twice about it either.
My family—my sisters and brother, in-laws, nieces and nephews, cousins, stepsiblings, and aunts and uncles—are a sprawling and sometimes fractious gang. The one thing we all agree on is that my father is a force of nature. How do you convince a tornado to stop being a tornado? And also: why bother? Even so, I tried.
“It’s not a great idea to go see Fern now,” I said on the phone while front pages from coast to coast were blaring out increasingly dire sickness-and-death statistics.
“I’m not in danger,” he said. “I have no underlying conditions.”
“Dad, you’re ninety—that is an underlying condition.”
“Case closed,” my father said.
The Jewish cemetery where Lola was to be interred is in Philadelphia’s great northeast. We drove past gutted businesses and blocks of abandoned, crumbling homes until, suddenly, there it was: the entrance to the Jewish cemetery. Which we missed, hurtling forward at fifty miles an hour without GPS, which wasn’t something we thought we needed when we rented the car. My husband has directional anxiety at the best of times. Now he just kept driving, while I clutched a handkerchief to my mouth and he pleaded with me to stop being so melodramatic.
I’d gone to the cemetery where my husband’s ancestors are buried only once before, thirty-five years earlier, on an overly warm April day, after Stuart’s father died of cancer at about the age I am now. In those days, during the first heady rush of romance, before either of us could imagine that we’d ever grow a single gray hair, before the internet, before the virus, Lola had red hair, an outsized personality, and a large collection of stylish silk scarves. She and my future father-in-law had fallen in love on their first date and married two months later.
In his terrible absence, a crowd of friends and relatives donned yarmulkes and pressed handkerchiefs to their faces in the too-hot sun, the family lined up over the hole, front-row seats, as the rest of us gathered around. My future husband, dressed in the only suit he owned, gazed at the grave as the tears fell down his face, and as I stood there at the outer rim of mourners, I knew with perfect clarity that one day I’d marry him. By then I’d been so thoroughly embraced by Stuart’s family that after the funeral and the burial and the gathering, after all the mourners had gone home and it was finally time to turn in, Stuart’s brother David knocked on the door and asked if he might join us in Stuart’s room. And there we were: Stuart, me, and David talking late into the night, like children at a slumber party.
This time, the day was bleak, cold and gray, and the mourners were few. As for the truly elderly, there were none other than my own father, who had long made it his practice to go to every funeral that touched any of his loved ones. It was good to have him nearby, but he’d come a rather long way for a singularly dispiriting farewell. The rabbi who did the service—who was he? Did anyone know him? Had he ever, even once, met Lola? When it was all over, Dad said he needed to get back to Washington—he had work waiting for him—and the rest of us stood around the cemetery for a little while, ignoring the gravediggers as they went about their work.
For more than forty years, my father practiced law. I still remember the day he made partner. I was six or seven and didn’t know what “making partner” meant, only that it was good. Mom gave him a party on the patio, with Chinese lanterns strung overhead and the sounds of grownups with their tinkling cocktail glasses. From that moment on, his was a straight trajectory from one professional success to the next, along the way becoming chief council to a financial firm that I (because I don’t get these things) called “the money factory,” a US ambassador and, at the age of ninety, the author of a book called Bucharest Diary. Because: why slow down? Even so, as his age crept toward ninety, he moved out of the new house in Virginia for an old house in Georgetown, which he remodeled. And why shouldn’t he embark on enlarging his living room just as Covid was decimating the world? It’s his house. Case closed.
Still, when my father’s older sister and life-long best friend died a few months before the pandemic, it suddenly seemed likely that even with the astonishing longevity in his line (his grandmother lived past one hundred) my father might be mortal, might come to understand his own human fragility after all. Or maybe not. I’m not even sure I really understand that he won’t be with us forever.
Funerals are supposed to be sad, but of course they’re often much more than that—sad, yes, but also entertaining, funny, joyous, moving, spiritually uplifting, bitter, profound. There are songs written on the subject. My own favorite is by Lyle Lovett:
—-—I went to a funeral
—-—Lord it made me happy
—-—Seeing all those people
—-—I ain’t seen
—-—Since the last time
In this case, after the last of the dirt was piled on Lola’s casket, we gathered at my husband’s cousin Ellen’s house for nosh and commiseration, and everyone told their funny or not-so-funny Lola stories. But with the exception of Jody, who was more relaxed than I’d ever seen her, no one was particularly animated. Perhaps because Lola had been disappearing for years, and perhaps because most of us were either long past young or jetlagged, with another two or three hours of driving to do post-nosh, the vibe at Cousin Ellen’s was heavy. Mainly I sat alone on the sofa in the back room hoping that someone would pity me and say something along the lines of what a great human being I was to have schlepped not just from Israel but from Washington when I wasn’t feeling well. That didn’t happen, but eventually I ate half a bagel without cream cheese and drank a diet Coke. Then we drove back to my ex-sister-in-law’s house in Virginia.
When I called my father to thank him for coming, he said: “The thing about my friends is that they’re all dead. I used to like going to funerals because I’d see them. Now when I go to funerals, I don’t know anyone.”
“You know us, Dad.”
“That’s true, Jen, but that’s not what I mean.”
The next morning, we flew back to Tel Aviv via Germany. I took two Tylenol PMs and slept until we touched down in Frankfurt, and when our plane finally landed at Ben Gurion, I was so relieved to have made it back to a place where I could at least rejoin some of my things—my favorite handbag, my light-blue silk summery blouse—that I began to cry. “Mom,” Sam said. “It’s not like we escaped the Warsaw Ghetto.”
In normal times, I talk to my father once or twice a week. Since the virus hit, I’ve been calling him daily. We talk about books. He and I share a love of books in general and Jewish literature in particular—everything from out-of-print Yiddish novels to modern takes on the question of Jewish identity. Such is his understanding of my relationship to the written word that as he was preparing to move from the new house in Virginia to the new-if-old house in Georgetown, he insisted that I come down to unpack his crates of books and arrange them on his just-installed, floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves.
“I’ll spring for your train ticket,” he said, before insisting that, because he knew how much I loved books, he’d saved the job for me in particular. Did I mention that, in his day, he had a reputation as one of the fiercest, most effective, and, if he had to be, meanest lawyers in Washington? “You have to come,” he said. “You’re the only one who can do this. Case closed.”
In mid-March of 2020, just before things began to look so bleak, I’d hoped to drive to Washington again, this time to relieve him, if only for a day, of his loneliness. But before I had time to formulate my plan, the world shifted again, making even this kind of limited travel too risky to chance. Meantime, Passover—with its celebration of the exodus from Pharaoh’s Mitzrayim—was itself up in the air. Usually, my father has a big crowd at his house. Last year, not so much. When I talked with him on the phone about my apprehensions, he said he’d drive up and lead a Seder at our house. When I told him that that wasn’t going to happen—that though we’d love to have him, it wasn’t safe—he hung up on me. On the day before Passover began, he drove himself to New Jersey—three hours on I-95—en route to Fern’s house in Southampton. Another story to add to the collection.
Common-sense safety wasn’t something we did in our family. We weren’t daredevils. It was more that we pushed otherwise commonplace activities too far—skiing meant skiing even in blinding high-wind conditions; household chores meant climbing on the roof with Dad to muck out the drains. Merely living where we did—at least when we still lived in the old house—was a risk, as taking the turn from our driveway onto the road entailed navigating a blind turn where, at any moment, another car might appear and slam into our own. Along the way, we lost eight or nine dogs. This was such a regular part of my childhood that I once wrote a poem about it, which ends: “We rent our clothes / went to shul / said kaddish for her doggie soul / her brindle coat, her eyes like coal.”
By the time I was in middle school I took pretty much any dare that came my way. Jump off my friend Kerry’s roof? I’m your girl. Leap from one roof to another? Why the heck not? Swim in the Potomac River? Who doesn’t want to swim in raw sewage? And so forth, until I was old enough to do really risky things, including all of the usual dreary bad decisions that young people can make. I used to joke that I was lucky I was never found dead in an alley. But by then I was married to Stuart, who not only came from a family that was reasonably, healthily risk-adverse, but a family of doctors. If in my family any and all illness was in our heads and the best thing to do was stop whining, in Stuart’s family it was past time to get a second opinion. My mother’s ovarian cancer wasn’t looked into until a year into her complaining of bloating, nausea, and pain. But I caught my own breast cancer about two days after I felt a lump. Luck? Karma? Years of being married to Stuart? Who knows.
The one thing I do know is that despite my own bout with cancer, I still haven’t grappled in any deep way with my own mortality, or even with my father’s. But in spring of 2020 as the virus raged and raced, I was afraid. I didn’t want to die of this virus. Not at my age. Not ever.
I’m pretty sure, however, that Lola had long since come to grips with the waning of her life’s energy, the dimming of the light, the coming end. Long before she grew too weak to live alone, she bought a very expensive insurance plan to cover any future long-term care she might need, sparing her three children the cost of what stretched into years of first-rate nursing facilities. She spoke freely about the degradation of old age and the inevitability of her own death. At times, it almost seemed like she didn’t care one way or another: life no longer held much charm for her. And in the end, she blinked out, slipping away in the night without a whimper.
Small wonder that my father named the last of his dogs Dylan, after Dylan Thomas, who for my father and most of his generation will forever be raging against the dying of the light. When Dylan (the dog) died, my father was without a canine companion for the first time in more than sixty years.
A few days after we returned to Tel Aviv, a friend and I spent the day at Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem: the Holocaust Museum. When we met up with Sam later for coffee, he said, “Nice place. A lot of people come here for reunions.”
Israel, of course, was born out of the misery and ashes of the Holocaust. Most families arrived there out of profound trauma, their mothers and fathers, grandparents, cousins, and playmates incinerated, or the lesser but still awful trauma, in the case of Jews who came to Israel by way of Muslim lands, of having all their property stolen and their history erased. You live very close to death: it’s in the walls and the family photo albums, in the inevitable army draft at the age of eighteen, in the sirens that wail to alert the citizenry of coming missiles, in the battle scars and battle stories that most families share, in stories of sons and daughters lost in 1967 or 1973 or in Lebanon or on a bus.
But these days, of course, these Covid days, it seems as if at any moment all this glory, all this impossible beautiful life, all this wanting and needing and sorrow and shame and love—the trees in bloom! the daffodils rising out of the cold earth!—might slip away before we even know it’s been ours all along.
Jennifer Anne Moses is a painter and the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, including the story collection The Man Who Loved His Wife (Mayapple). www.JenniferAnneMosesArts.com