Saturday, January 16, 2010

death. or parents aren't forever.

I just got a phone call that a cousin of my mom's died, actually the husband of the cousin of my mom. We didn't know each other well. Hey, we barely knew each other at all. I saw him last, several years ago, when visiting my mom in Florida. "Cousin H., hi. You look great!" summed it up. While he shared pleasantries back I wasn't entirely sure he remembered my name, or, in fact, ever knew it. We were a family of many cousins and I never had the sense I stood out in any way.

When his wife couldn't wake him up this morning, she immediately called my mother, who lives close by. My mom threw on clothes and raced over. For many years they were on polite speaking terms but nothing more. Whenever talking about R., mom used her "polite" voice, one I recognized from my childhood as the way she'd talk about people she didn't really like, or she was mad at. Very clipped. Short. Perfunctory. Never rude, but we knew that hostility or derision was just below the surface. I think my mom was dissed one too many times by her cousins and had had enough. A backstory moment here would help: when my grandmother came here from Russia, at 12, with stepsisters who treated her like a servant, she saved up and paid for the rest of her family to come to New York. Her father died before he could make the trip, but her mom, 4 sisters and brother all ended up in the Bronx. Rose distanced herself from the rest of her family once they arrived. While they all lived within shouting distance on the Grand Concourse, Rose moved her family too far away to walk to. She made sure her kids played piano, spoke with no trace of an accent, went to college. Total double-edged sword. My mom, aunt, and uncle were given remarkable opportunities but were always on the outskirts of a tight-knit family which held true through the next generation. Mine too. I know many of my cousins are close, but I don't even know how to reach most of them.

But, back to today. My mom and her cousins have grown closer recently, as there are so few of them left. It's hard to stop and think that they're the age I remember Rose and her sisters as when I was a kid. At family parties (we hosted many), the sisters would sit in a corner, sporting polyester dresses in pastel shades, pocketbooks clutched tightly in elbows, orthopedic shoes to match, chattering away in yiddish. We'd barely acknowledge them, swooping in for a quick hello and kiss if absolutely necessary, then off to find something more interesting to do.

I just did the math and realized that when Rose died when I was 14, my mom was only 42.

Parents aren't forever.

While this cousin's death isn't affecting my life in any way, aside from residual guilt about not making a shiva call, it's devastating to his family. In a moment, they're plunged into frigid unknown water. Pain, regret, mourning. Nothing will ever be the same. Whatever plans they had for the next few days are off the table. Holidays will always be different. While time will dull the ache, there will always be a hole.

Both my parents are alive. I love them dearly. I take them for granted. I spent years blaming them for who I am (fortunately I don't do that anymore). When they're not well I don't let it seep in because the fear of what ifs would be too great.

One day it will be me getting the phone call that will plunge my life into disarray, that will break my heart, that will change things forever.

I'm calling them both today to tell them how much they mean to me. Or, knowing us, just to say hi and see what's up.

Day 12 is a moment of appreciation for who created me.

1 comment:

DebraLSchubert said...

Nice post. The whole "age" thing has been in my face a lot lately. When your parents reach 70 or so, it starts getting scary. And how have I reached my forties? On so many levels, it doesn't seem possible.

My paternal grandmother was only two years old when she moved with her family from Russia. They were the only Jews in a small town in Massachusetts. My grandparents on both sides eventually ended up in Queens and Coney Island. I sense we have a lot in common.

Blessing to you and your family, and I'm sorry for your loss.