Note: This post was written by Gary, my husband.
As we drove up to Temple Emanuel in Kingston, NY, I wondered how the day might go. Linda and I were about to bring my mother and my father to see their brand new great granddaughter Evelyn (Evey, for short). Our wonderful son Daniel and his wonderful wife Beth became parents on May 31stand we had already been down to the city to see the baby (and them) twice. The first time, it was just Linda and I, and the following weekend we brought Linda’s mom, Feige, to see Evey. Those visits had gone quite well.
This visit presented some significant challenges, challenges we spent considerable time fretting over. The biggest issue was my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease. She has been living with it, meaning we as a family have also been living with it–my father most of all–for more than a decade. The disease has done what it does. It has gotten inexorably worse as her memory, and so much of what made her a brave, kind, thoughtful, bright person, have been stolen from her. The ability to manage money, to cook and clean and participate in meaningful discussion gradually disintegrated.
And it left someone behind who is at once my mother and, at the same time, certainly not her. Anyone who has a relative with this cruel disease understands what I just wrote better than my poor ability to communicate it. In her case, my mother will become incredibly fixated on things that worry her. This is perhaps a consequence of her underlying psychological makeup and, of course, her experiences during the Holocaust, in addition to the disease.
But she will ask, “where are we going?” “where are we?” “who are you?” “where is my mother?” and similar questions relentlessly. You cannot answer the question enough times; it just keeps getting repeated. She cannot retain what is said to her. I find it fascinating that she has no trouble remembering what she is worried about. Something works deep inside there, but not the ability to remember what was just said to her. Never.
Taking care of her and my father has been a team effort among my siblings, but like all teams, this one is not made up of equal players. I have done my part in terms of managing the medical side of their care. But that is, frankly the easiest part. My sisters and brother have done much more than I have in terms of managing their lives overall. My two sisters in particular, Ro and Dor, have been beyond wonderful and selfless in all they have done.
Before we left Albany to pick my parents up, Linda and I made signs to put on the back of the seat, in front of my mom, reminding her where we were going, who we were going to see, who was in the car. While it didn’t work perfectly, it actually worked quite well on the way down to the city. Given her other deficits, it is interesting that she can still read English and Hebrew.
Linda picked up sandwiches which we brought in the car and gave them to eat on the way down to the city. They were both dressed up for Saturday morning services, something they attend weekly. In Florida, they attend synagogue three days each week since the daily minyan is no longer available. While in Saugerties, the pickings are slimmer and they just go Saturday mornings, but they both still enjoy services. In Florida, my dad serves as gabbai (the person who calls people up to the Torah) and often davens (sings/chants) the prayer service, something he is quite good at. Up here in New York, they are just congregants and that seems to be plenty good by them too.
As we drove down, there was pleasant conversation with my father and my mom seemed reasonably satisfied, responding well to cues to read the information on the seat in front of her as needed. We were particularly concerned about the effects of being away from her familiar environment but she really did quite well on that ride. The weather was glorious and there was no traffic to speak of.
Eventually we made it to New York City and to Dan and Beth’s apartment in Harlem. Their building is lovely and their one bedroom apartment is as spacious as a NYC one bedroom apartment gets. They have room for Evey’s crib and a chair to hold and feed her in the bedroom. And their cat, Hamilton–a three legged cat–seems to have behaved reasonably well with the presence of a new lifeforce in his space.
In the apartment, Great Grandpa was in his glory. He was holding Evey and speaking to her and explaining that she knows that he is her friend and she seemed quite pleased as well. This was the reason for all of the effort. For David, getting to see a generation three removed from his own, his own progeny, getting to hold and speak to and be with that great granddaughter, was nothing less than a miracle, the fulfillment of some sort of cosmic justice.
The fact is, he never should have been alive to witness this amazing moment. He was supposed to have been killed long ago in northeastern Poland. The nazis had more than enough resources devoted to making sure he died. There were ss everywhere, there was a ghetto and plenty of anti-Semitic Poles ready to turn Jews in to the Germans. The statistics are startling. 80% of Jews in Poland before World War II did not survive to the end of the war. 98% of Jewish children were killed. The nazis did not want anyone young enough to reproduce to survive and special attention was paid to youth.
David, my dad, lost his mother, his sister and his brother. His father died shortly after the war, while in a displaced persons camp, just before they were scheduled to leave to America. All of the cousins and friends and neighbors he knew were in the same boat. Of the approximately 4,500 Jews in and around Ewier (his hometown in Poland) in 1939, between 50 and 100 lived to see 1945. David had done amazing things and overcome incredible odds to reach America and build a new life.
Although, she is no longer aware of much of her own history, Paula, my mom, went through similar difficulties. I am less certain of the numbers in Sarnik, but there have been mass graves uncovered there and the numbers are similarly grim. Her mother, Lea Silberfarb, was beyond bright and brave and I am so proud that my daughter wears that name so well. Lea rescued her three children against all odds, unable to even get word to her husband who was killed by the Germans.
So now, 73 years after the end of World War II, having overcome all of that and having built a new life in a new land, learning a new language, having experienced all of the illnesses he has accumulated, here was my dad, 95 years old, holding the next generation. Those who came with an army to kill him are gone. He remains. And his legacy lives on in a new baby’s bright eyes.
He was glorying in her, loving her and loving the experience. We have had our challenging moments and Linda has been kind enough to provide this forum for me to discuss them before.
This was a very different moment. This was the reason to endure all of those other moments. He understood that. Linda understood that. Dan and Beth understood that. And all wanted him to have that moment. It was a form of pure joy that is hard to put into words.
After that visit, Dan showed Bobe and Grandpa the view from the patio of his building and we said our farewells. We stopped at our apartment and they got to see it and to use the facilities before we headed back upstate. We were to meet my brother Steve along with his family for dinner, his wife Shari and their amazing children, Laura and Jordan. The prior evening, we had seen them at Shari’s retirement party and I was so impressed with her, Steve and their children as they each spoke so eloquently about Shari’s remarkable career managing a large part of OPWDD, the state office tasked with caring for people with developmental disabilities.
We did not have as easy a time driving up. My mom was tired and did not respond as well to the sign on the seat. She was not as easily comforted and the relentless questions were rapid fire. Linda worked hard to keep her engaged, comforted and oriented, but it wasn’t easy.
We arrived at the Harriman exit and made it to the restaurant where we were meeting my brother’s family. They came out to the car as we pulled up and grabbed my parents, giving Linda and I a breather.
We had a nice meal, I had a cold beer, Linda enjoyed two glasses of sangria. After dinner, we drove the remainder of the way to Saugerties where we dropped off the parents to the care of their aide. With all of the things that could have gone wrong, there were no unfortunate events.
We had a successful visit and my dad has subsequently spoken joyfully of that day.
It is not every day that you can give your parent that kind of gift. Of course, Dan and Beth were quite essential to that. They are incredible people, kind and loyal and already clearly outstanding parents.
It was a wonderful Father’s Day gift and a rewarding day. The following day, actual Father’s Day, Linda and I didn’t go anywhere. I did some yard work, also known as my therapy, we grilled and relaxed.
It was a very good Father’s Day weekend.