My parents died when they were 38 years old. In a car accident. A drunk driver hit us head-on. I lived. I was 16.
I have always been plagued about why I survived. It’s not survivor’s guilt; enough therapy has gotten me through that.
It’s as though a higher calling fatefully planned my life. I was kept alive because there would be a need to take care of others. For some reason I was chosen, groomed and never questioned the challenge. It was my serendipitous fate.
I believed G-d needed my Mother and Father elsewhere and I was needed here. I have never been mad at G-d. It was an act of random chaos/the perfect (?) storm that we collided with a drunk driver at that very moment in time. The driver and his pregnant wife walked away from the scene, he spent six months in jail while my family has spent more than half a century in excruciating pain.
My parent’s daily lives taught modeling for nurturing, unconditional love, life’s values, our heritage, along with the passion of music, art and creativeness. To me and my two younger brothers these were the tools we would need to move forward in creating productive lives. Their task as parents turned out to be a mini-course and they packed in so much for us to learn. We are always and forever grateful for whom they were as human beings and that they were OUR Mother and Father.
And I say AMEN on this Kol Nidrei eve as I light Yizkor candles.
Immediately after my parents were buried, my many aunts and uncles had to find a solution to what would happen to me and my brothers, where would we live, who would make major decisions for and about us, who would be guardians and lots more horrible dilemmas families are most likely not prepared for in tragic circumstances, as ours was not.
My four oldest/wisest uncles originally had the three of us kids divided up with different family members. As I lay in a hospital bed and looked at them, I strongly told them, “We only have each other left and I don’t want you to separate us.” They came up with a few other silly ideas but even with a brain concussion, I waited for them to come up with the only logical solution that I knew my parents would want. Although, somewhere in my naïve teen-age wisdom, I felt I had to let them come up with the idea or it wouldn’t be looked at as the right decision. Finally after a week of various plans, the light went on and it was decided that our Bubbe and Pa would move into our house and care for us. Bingo! It was the only viable resolution that would work without disrupting other households and we could stay in our own home and be together.
And who better to take care of us than our maternal Bubbe? All five feet, Russian born and educated, best cook in the world—except for simple American foods—but our dear beloved Bubbe whose love, wisdom and heart matched no other. She was little but mighty!
Lesson learned: Have legal provisions, as in wills or living trusts, for your children, belongings, business, home, guardianship, executor, etc. We had none and it took seven years in probate for the estate to be settled.
With all the horrific changes in our lives, it would have never dawned on me that I would be head-of-household after all the dust settled! My grandfather was a broken man (he and Bubbe lost a son two years before my parent’s death), he traveled for work and was often gone for two weeks at a time and when he was home, he didn’t engage much with any of us. And Bubbe didn’t drive.
At 16 I became the mother/father decision maker for everyday details for my brothers: Hebrew school, baseball, basketball, dentist, ortho, piano lessons and that all involved “carpools!” Don’t think we called it “carpool” in the 1960s! But whatever it was, I was the designated driver along with going to school, editor of my high school newspaper and president of BBGs. Don’t get me wrong, Bubbe took incredible care of us as far as nurturing, feeding, cleaning, etc. all our needs were met. But she didn’t drive and at the end of the day she was spent while still mourning her losses.
It became clear to me why I was left alive. (At 16 I was a strong believer in G-d and whether I needed an answer to move on or it was fate, it worked for me.)
And it was not just to drive everyone around but to be there as a support, to recreate a new intact family culture, to help Bubble as best I could and give her reason to live. She loved us so much. I would hear her cry herself to sleep every night and my heart would just surrender to her overwhelming pain. Losing two children plus my Father, who she had known since he was 12, and being in her 60s, to raise another family, I don’t know how she did all she did, with wit, wisdom and humor. But most of all, with more love than anyone could imagine.
My Bubbe’s daily life taught us modeling for nurturing, unconditional love, life’s values, our heritage, along with the passion for those you need to care for. Not once in her remaining years did she ever let us down, falter in her daily care for us regardless of how tired or sad she was, she never put herself above our well being and ingrained in our souls that being there for your loved ones is what life is all about. Love. Love. Love.
As none of us have a crystal ball, I could never have imagined that I would be put in the same position to be head-of-household another time in my life. After almost 20 years of marriage, my husband decided he didn’t want to be married anymore. We had three great children, a lovely home and a business but he perceived life was greener on the other side. He moved out and once again, I was in the place of being in-charge with young children.
But the funny realization for me was that I was not afraid!
I had been/there/done/that without any warning once before so I just moved into my new position with familiarity and worked very hard to remember all that my parent’s and Bubbe had role-modeled for me. My kids came first above all else, their daily routine didn’t change and we learned to carry on and create a life with love and purpose without dad being around. There was overwhelming compassion for my children to not have their father around, as that was a déjà vu for me. Life had changed yet again but I wanted to mold for my kids what had been sculpted for me. It was all that mattered to me.
The kids and I made a big decision to move from Los Angeles to the Bay Area where one of my brothers lived with his family. Divorce is very difficult, especially when the settlement stretches out for four years. I had to sell my house; I had been a stay-at-home mom and now money was a big issues; I had returned to college part-time but I didn’t see that continuing as long as money was a problem; I saw friends take sides in the divorce; I saw my synagogue take a different view of a divorced woman. I had no role-models for these issues so I saw starting over in a new location as a new beginning.
We settled in. The kids liked their new schools and neighborhood and made friends, we attended a new synagogue and I found a job. My ex-husband seemed to be scattered in his decision making, hardly called or saw the children, lost his business, moved to a new city and then back to LA. One day my son asked, “Mom, why does daddy make such crazy decisions?” That was after he had remarried and after only three weeks, the marriage was annulled. I did not know how to answer my son’s question.
And then, once again, the most unimaginable/unbelievable event happened. My ex-husband committed suicide. Try and explain that to your kids.
Telling my children that their dad took his own life is the hardest group of words I have ever had to assemble in my brain. It’s something you don’t just blurt out; words must be carefully chosen with the thought that they don’t haunt the listener for the rest of their life. The act may be the haunting, but how they are told cannot be.
I don’t even know how to express what that first week was like. We had to go to Los Angeles for the funeral. My first stop with the kids was to the therapist who had been treating him for over eight years. He was thoughtful and gentle with all of us and spent his time ensuring us “What daddy did was HIS decision and is not the fault of any of you or what you may have done or said to him. Don’t ever forget that.” I do believe a big burden was lifted from all of us, just human nature to assume we may have contributed to his decision. I have the deepest compassion for the last moments of his life, he wrote me a note. But the therapist, who saw him a few days before, told us, “I believe he felt he had no hope.”
I don’t even know how to express the lessons learned after someone you are close to takes their life. We lived in different cities, had different lives at that time. Two days before, he called me late at night and asked me to go give the kids a kiss for him and if they awoke to tell them it was a kiss from daddy. Should I have picked up a clue? It is so impossible to sense to what extreme a person will go. I felt my best duty to him was to raise his children well. I’ve worked hard at it.
Losing my parents, going through a divorce and then the suicide of my children’s father has been overwhelming, to say the least. My Bubbe taught me that others have worse problems than we do—a cousin of mine experienced her six-month old baby dying of a heart problem in her arms as she was feeding him—and Bubbe always told us, “You live for the living, you mourn, you cry, you start to eat again and then you learn to laugh again.” I believe that is what has kept me going all these years later.
And it’s always been important for me and my brothers to keep our parents’ and Bubbe’s memory alive, especially with our children and now grandchildren. They must know who and where they come from. We have pictures to share and so many stories that all the kids now know by heart! That keeps these wonderful people alive in our souls, to honor their memory, to show they lived on this earth and the valuable lessons they taught us. And my children know all the good stories about their dad, his traits that spring out of them, the times we had as a family that they may have forgotten about. His life needs to be put in context for them, to know his good place on this earth.
Several years ago I was called by a woman who was writing a book on parents who had lost their parents and are now raising kids and feel the loss and support from their mom and dad. Allison Gilbert is from New York and came to California and interviewed me, my two brothers and our kids to get our perspective on what it has been like to raise our children without our parents and what it has been like for our kids to have no grandparents. We spent a wonderful afternoon with her, sharing our stories as kids and now as parents who had no back-up from our parents. One interesting perspective from our kids was that they could not refer to our Mom and Dad as grandma or grandpa because there was no context for them to make that reference! They always referred to them as “your Mom or your Dad.” It was so insightful to all of us!
Throughout her book, Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children, she quotes our experiences and stories. We felt honored to be part of the book. Since then I have represented her on the West Coast talking to and meeting with people who are in this position and feel so alone and seek ideas on how to introduce and keep their parent’s memories alive to their children.
My biggest suggestion is to tell stories, over and over again. Describe your parents to your kids, tell them the lessons you learned from them, let kids know they share the same hair or eye color, maybe they like the same foods or activities and how they resemble them so that every time “I look at you, I can see a little of my mother in you.” Show them lots of pictures. Keep the pictures around the house. Let them feel like they know the people you called mom and dad.
Allison was interviewed on CNN while promoting her book and she relayed a story about our family and showed a remarkable picture. A few years before we met her, one of my brothers had looked at a picture of our Dad and thought his 22 year old son looked like him. My brother is a whiz at PhotoShop and transposed my Dad’s picture next to my nephews! There is a great resemblance! He sent it to me and our other brother who thought his son also looked like Dad! So that nephew’s picture was also photo-shopped into the same picture and we now have a picture of Dad, Mike and Adam, almost 50 years after our Dad died, with his two grandsons looking like they were all shoulder-to-shoulder in a posed photo!! Can you imagine what it was like for us to see Allison show that picture on CNN! That is the kind of activity Allison encourages families to share: Create lasting memories, engage in meaningful dialogue and carry the stories on to the next generation.
Loss is so very difficult. There are no adequate words to express the pain and sorrow after losing someone you loved, regardless of how they died. Having advance knowledge of someone’s imminent death gives you time to prepare to get business in order but it never softens the moment they leave you. Tragic and sudden loss adds layers of healing for the living, especially when you had no time for closure. It is worth reflecting on the lives of those we have lost for it gives context and insight into ourselves and how we can share life’s lessons with the next generation.
Everyone carries with them at least one and probably many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.