That Circle of Life
My Uncle Max passed away just the other day at 88.
He was a stalwart of this Chicago family, a proud American with a good name, a name known here and across the ocean for good deeds and charity, a legacy we could all emulate. Proud spouse, proud father, proud grand-father, even prouder great-grand-father, I saw him flirting with the very youngest in the family, a very little one, only a few weeks ago.
Carl Whittaker, a father of family-therapy, when training young clinicians would always say:
This work can get emotionally trying; flirt with every infant you see.It's safe to generalize from treatment to life most of the time.
Original Chicago frum, my uncle seemed secure in his place in the secular world and secure within our little ghetto without walls. Most of us in the family are like this, and most of us have stayed in Chicago and have lived here a long time, unless we've wandered in post-matrimonially from another town, in which case the family does its best to make a person feel as if he's never lived anywhere else. Not the most numerous, surely not few, we're just your run of the mill people-people. We cover home-makers, social workers, lawyers, doctors, psychologists, teachers, administrators, principals, writers, directors, stock-brokers, book-keepers, artists, scientists, insurance brokers, recruiters, and kashrut-mashgichim. No baseball players or soccer moms, as far as I know. I'll probably get into trouble for leaving someone off the list.
An organic system, we do our best to be there for one another for happy occasions and sad ones, too, and when we neglect to do that, try to give one another the benefit of the doubt. For none of us are perfect and family is a good place to practice this sort of thing, giving the benefit of the doubt, which, I'll say it right now, happens to be apropos of nothing in this post, but is a Jewish world view that applies largely to marital therapy and relationships. So I tend to throw it in when it works, the benefit of the doubt, even if the directionality of that relationship within the family or the tribe, for that matter, has yet to be empirically established.
Anyway, I remember when my parents reached my stage of life, how they started going to a lot of funerals. They had a funeral to attend a week, it seemed. The parents of their friends were passing on, and they had to deal with the funerals of their own parents, my grandparents, too.
As they aged, their health and the health of their peers declined. My mother would say, "Do you remember So and So? He's in the hospital again, and when Dad and I visited him, his wife_____ was there, and she's not doing so well, either."
Your parents slowly, systematically run out of friends their own age, and before you can blink, you're going to more funerals, too, more often than you once did. You're in the same boat, and not immune, and you start to think, Pretty soon my kids will be here, too, and it'll be my generation they're talking about. Death happens, strikes a family, and there you are in the shoes of your once middle-aged parents.
First one of your mother's siblings might pass away, then another. Then another. In my family, when the third maternal sibling passed on, I heard my mother say to my father, "We're really starting to lose numbers, Sid."
And a baby would be born.
I got the news about my uncle while sitting in a snack shop on Burbank, eating lunch (grilled fish sandwiches) with my daughter, my son-in-law, my son-in-law's sister and his mother, my machetainistah. We're in this shop, sitting at a table by the window because all we have is ambient light, daylight streaming from the window. You never know when the electricity is going to go out in Los Angeles.
It's uncanny that when I'm out of town. I won't get any calls unless I'm sitting down to eat with a bunch of people that I haven't seen in six months. But I take the call today anyway, because I've left more than a few rather distressed folks back in Chicago with these words: They have phones, I have a phone, where I'm going.
Patients know I want them to call me when certain stars are in alignment. So I answer the phone and it's my mom.
Lemme call you back in an hour? I ask.
She says no and tells me that Uncle Max has passed away. Max is her sister's husband. This is a shock, although he's 88 and sure, he's been sick. With the news my face drops, the way faces always do when they get the news that someone has passed away. My mother is telling me to please inform the family, to tell everyone by way of a family email shout-out. Give the cousins the details of the funeral.
I assure my mother I'll take care of it. Everyone at the table in the snack shop understands; they have heard the, Oh, no! caught the whisper, Uncle Max! and they want details.
I have no trouble telling over a few things about my uncle at the table, describing his way with the family, his passion for Israel, his professionalism. My appetite is gone and I don't really want to finish lunch, but it feels wrong not to eat, not to pick up, change topic, for we had been talking about choices in life before this interruption, something happy, something important to my son-in-law's sister. So we jump back to that and in minutes the mood is light and good.
I have a rabbi who says that a Jew has to be ready to jump from a wedding to a funeral, from a funeral to a wedding, to switch from happy to sad, from sad to happy, on a dime. True enough, all well and good, and he knows that that works-- as long as you're not suffering from some disorder or another.
We bury our dead quickly, so the next day, while my daughter is driving the kids to school, I'm in the front seat making plans with FD to broadcast the eulogies from his cell phone. The idea is to get to Coffee Bean after we drop off the kids, wait for the call. My daughter notices me get upset and asks about it. I hate not being at the funeral, I tell her. Predictably, the broadcast doesn't work out. Reception makes it sound like FD is on the subway, not in a synagogue.
After I give it up, my daughter wonders about my relationship with my uncle. We weren't close, especially, it seemed to her, didn't run to visit him and my aunt every week or anything like that when she was little.
And she's right, of course. It's all natural and good, his passing, the way things should be. I remind her that she hasn't known her aunts and uncles for as long as I've known mine. Just as they've watched me grow up, I've watched them grow older, too.
We're all in this, none of us avoids this rich, if depressing process, the many colors of aging. What is important to us as young people is less important in our later years when we inevitably obsess over the physical gifts we've taken for granted, lost. And yet we find that some of the things we always treasured still reign supreme, indeed are the only things that become important in the end.
When I last saw him he was sitting in a chair in his room in the rehabilitation center praying a very long afternoon service. One of his granddaughters had come to visit from New York to see him and to attend a different family funeral. He flashed that huge smile of his when I walked through the door, the smile I think of when I imagine him walking through the door of my childhood home, when he and my aunt would come to visit.
I had to leave to get the work before he finished his prayers.
Chicago frum rhymes with Chicago BOOM, and refers to the orthodox Jewish community.
kashrut mashgichim- This is Hebrew, rhymes with GOSH-ROOT SLOSH-WICK-HIM, plural for the food specialists who certify that an eating establishment is really kosher. I'm not going into what kosher means or how to pronounce it.
machetainistah I think it's Yiddish, rhymes with GOTH-EH-RAIN-HISS-DUH, and refers to the mother of your son or daughter-in-law.