June 28, 2008

Birthday memory

Today would have been my father's 81st birthday. When I saw him on June 12, he said "Only 16 days," meaning, until his birthday. I think he tried hard to hold on for that milestone. His will was strong but his body had reached the end of it's strength.

So today I will toast my dad with an egg cream, a cold drink he made for us when we were children and lived in New York.

Dad's Egg Cream

Into a tall, straight-sided glass, spoon 1/2 inch of Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup. (Must be Fox's, any other brand is a substitute for the real thing.)

Add 1 inch whole milk.

Tilt the glass and pour seltzer over the back of a spoon so that it fizzes. Stir well to make a big chocolate "head."

Enjoy. L'chaim, Dad!

Shiva to sheloshim

On Friday afternoon, just before Shabbat, I got up from shiva and entered sheloshim. Rik and I walked around the block to mark the transition, talking about my dad. I took off my keriah
and changed to Shabbat-worthy clothing.

We went to kabbalat Shabbat services so I could say kaddish. I entered the synagogue with another mourner just after L'cha Dodi and everyone greeted us traditionally with HaMakom yinachem etchem b’toch sha'ar avaylay Tzion v’Yerushalayim -- May God – HaMakom/The Source- comfort you among all other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. We had Shabbat dinner with friends.

I have moved from shiva to sheloshim. In some ways this has been the longest week of my life. The grief and loss of the early days of this week felt magnified by being with my mother and sister. We were cocooned within family, grieving together, sharing stories and memories, confessing things we'd never told one another, in our outpouring of grief.

Once Rik and I returned home, I began to feel a little remote. Having shiva minyanim in our home allowed me to receive comfort from our friends and community. The second half of the week felt like a transition period.

These thirty days are another transition back to life. I have to start picking up the pieces of daily habits -- walking the dog, doctors' appointments, laundry, errands.


June 26, 2008

Thoughts on community

We walked in the door at 5 PM. By 5:30, members of our synagogue had dropped off dinner. Others came came to help move chairs and set up for the shiva minyan. One woman cleaned the dirt off the outdoor chairs. A friend brought paper goods, cold drinks, and food. At 7:30 there was a table full of sweets, a refrigerator full of food for Rik and I, and a yard full of people to comfort and pray with us.

Community takes place when people come together to pray and condole.

Community means people who are not of your religion gathering to offer comfort.

Community happens when those who see you once a week bring you a meal because you can't cook for yourself.

Community stretches you outside your own comfort level to support another.

Pay it forward, because when you need community, it will be there for you.

June 24, 2008


One very visible Jewish mourning custom is the keriah, or rending of clothing. Before the funeral, we were given black buttons with ribbons attached. The rabbi and cantor led us in the prayer praising Dayan Ha'Emet, the true Judge, and then tore the ribbons.

Today, the third day of shiva, we were speculating on why my sister and I are wearing the keriah on our left side and Mom on her right. We learned that when mourning a parent, one wears the keriah on the left, over the heart. For all other relatives (spouse, sibling, child), it is worn on the right side.

My sister also learned that one may tear the keriah on clothing up to the third day of shiva. This is what I wanted to do at the funeral, but got caught up in the moment and didn't interrupt the ceremony that the rabbi had prepared. So just a moment ago I took a pair of scissors, recited the Dayan Ha'Emet prayer again, and tried to cut a tear in my jacket. It was hard -- I had to fight the cloth and it took all my energy to make a four inch long tear.

It felt as though I was ripping the fabric of my life.

Black humor

Someone told me that mourning is the only club you have to pay twice to join -- once for a father and once for a mother.

Sitting shiva

Jews have centuries-old customs surrounding death and mourning. We bury the deceased as soon as possible, preferably the same day. The body is never left unaccompanied, as a sign of respect for the person who used to inhabit it. At the cemetery, the mourners and those attending help fill in the grave. We each take a shovelful of dirt and make sure that the casket is completely covered before we leave.

When we come back to the house, before entering from the cemetery we wash our hands. We eat a ritual meal, the seudat havra'ah -- the meal that mourners are required by law to eat, to remind that life continues even in the very face of death. We light a special candle that burns for seven days to mark the first period of mourning, the shiva. We gather with our community to recite the mourners' kaddish and to praise God's name together.

Our rabbis knew more than two thousand years ago what modern psychology thinks it invented relatively recently: that in the face of death, the living need to grieve fully and immediately. All Jewish funeral and mourning customs reflect this ancient wisdom.

Today is the last day my mother, sister and I are sitting shiva together. We've shared many memories of my father. We've looked at family photos and tried to remember who is who in each picture, and said to ourselves, "Dad would know!" We've let people come to greet us and to help us, relieved as we are as mourners of the burden of playing host to a houseful of people. We've cried together and laughed together, sometimes both in the same minute.

The quiet days have been the most fulfilling. A few friends have come to visit with us in the afternoons, and the more intimate conversations we've been able to have with them help balance the crowds that show up for the evening minyan.

It helps immensely that my sister's community is here to support all of us as a family. They've brought meals to us. They come every evening to set up chairs in the house and put out all the food that keeps appearing. Then they stay to clean up. All we have to do is mourn. By being there for us in these most basic ways, they are letting us do our grief work.

June 22, 2008

Eulogy for my father

Zichrono l’vracha, may his memory be a blessing

Sheldon Charles Cohen
June 28, 1927 -– June 21, 2008
28th Sivan 5687 -- 18 Sivan 5768

My father’s hands had long fingers that moved delicately, gracefully, whether he was cooking a special dish, fixing something around the house, working on his model trains.

I noticed his hands on my last visit, ten days ago, and they struck me as a metaphor for his life.

Dad’s hands taught me my first Jewish ritual, how to bless birkat hakohanim, his larger hands spreading my child’s fingers apart, showing me what his father taught him.

My father’s hands sliced a huge challah that an over-hopeful relative ordered for a bris – before he had a daughter. His hands served hamburgers at a JCC carnival and taught teenagers to fry falafel at an Israeli-style cafĂ©. They showed how to hem a skirt, ride a bicycle, clean a chandelier, paint a wall, lay floor tiles. His hands coached how to parallel park a car and how to render shmaltz for chopped liver.

I see my father’s hands on the steering wheel, as we drove from Boston to Cincinnati, singing to stay awake all the way home. I see his hands lifting crates of seltzer, playing foosball, Scrabble, bowling, golfing. Gently placing the needle on a record album to listen to the Nutcracker Suite or a beloved Broadway musical. I see his fingers running down columns of names in the telephone book as he looked for other Cohens everywhere we traveled.

My father, only able to use one hand well in the weeks after his stroke, tried to show me how to carve a turkey, his right hand to my left.

My father’s hands led me in a father-daughter dance at my wedding.

“Stop leading,” he hissed in my ear.
“I’m not leading! What are you doing?”
“I’m doing the foxtrot.”
“Dad, they’re playing a waltz.”

My father’s hands fried potato latkes, baked onion cookies, planted tomatoes, held babies. My father’s hands were competent, gentle, capable, creative.

On my last visit, his hands plucked at the bed covers. They pushed away something while he slept.

My father’s hands are empty now, but mine are filled with all he taught me –

Yevarech’cha Adonai v’yishmarecha (The Lord bless you and keep you)

Ya’er Adonai panav eylecha vichunecha
(The Lord shine His face upon you and be gracious to you)

Yisa Adonai panav eylecha veyasem lecha – lanu -- shalom
(The Lord lift up His face on you and give you -- and all of us -- peace)

Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be God's will

June 21, 2008

A death in the family

My sister just called to say that my father passed away at 2:20 this morning. An aide was working with him and said he took one long breath in and out and then died. The funeral will be either Sunday afternoon or Monday morning, tbd.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, Dayan ha'emet -- Blessed are You, God, King of the universe, the true Judge.

June 18, 2008

Pulmonology update

I saw the pulmonologist today and he indicated that the 4mm lung lesion was too small to be biopsied successfully with a needle biopsy. He called the interventional radiologist, who agreed with this assessment. The pulmonologist thought that the 4mm lesion didn't look like lung cancer, which means it might be either metastatic breast cancer or another cancer (like colon) that metastasizes to the lungs. He also thought that doing another kind of biopsy would mean removing more lung than would be necessary at this time.

These docs would like me to have a PET scan, and if this lesion lights up, we would consider treating it as metastatic breast cancer, then re-scan. And if it doesn't light up, do another CT scan in 2 months. The pulmonolgist will call my oncologist and fill him in. I hope Dr. G will agree with this assessment!

So for now I am canceling the appointment with the thoracic surgeon scheduled for tomorrow, and waiting to get a call about setting up the PET scan. At least this way I can travel at a moment's notice if needed.

June 17, 2008

Dancing with new doctors

This week I am finally able to follow up on the 4 mm lung lesion revealed in my most recent CT scan. I see the pulmonologist on Wednesday and the thoracic surgeon on Thursday. Yesterday, while getting my monthly dose of Zometa, I told the nurses what was going on, and they both told me that not only do they love the pulmonologist (their favorite doctor to work with), the thoracic surgeon has the reputation of being the best in town.

Well, I already knew I liked Dr. H, the pulmonologist -- he did a bronchoscopy for me almost six years ago. Now I get to add another dancing partner to my dance with cancer. Let's hope I like and trust thoracic surgeon Dr. A as much as my other docs.

More news as it develops....

June 15, 2008

El Na Rafa Na La -- Moses's plea for Miriam: "Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee."

Yesterday, Shabbat Beha'alotecha, my congregation helped to bring voice to to those whose lives have been touched by cancer. Our regular Shabbat morning service had a special emphasis. Initiated by congregants who are cancer survivors, we tried to use the liturgy and occasion to create meaning and sanctity out of the cancer experience. We invited anyone who has been touched by cancer to participate.

At a Conservative synagogue like Beth Shalom, there are multiple opportunities for people to participate in services. We are member-led, not rabbi-led, and so the child of a cancer survivor led shacharit. Another led the Torah service. Several people, both in treatment currently and survivors, were honored with aliyot. Others chanted from the Torah and Haftorah and read prayers in English. The gabbaim were survivors. Even the guest speaker was a congregant who had just completed another round of treatment for his cancer.

Before the point in the service where we offer prayers for healing, the rabbi asked those living with cancer to stand. Then she asked those who were cancer survivors to rise, and then those who had lost someone to cancer or who had supported someone through a cancer experience. By this time about half the congregation was on their feet. It was a powerful moment.

Three women taught us a song of healing by Debbie Friedman. I led the musaf service. And the kaddish, the prayer mourners say, was introduced by a man who had lost his wife to cancer. All in all, it was an emotional and moving morning.

Being Beth Shalom, we also recognized a staff member who was moving to a new city; several families who were traveling to Israel; and high school graduation. How true that even when we sorrow, we see that life goes on and we celebrate it.

Back from travels

Well, I am back from my family visit. Dad was great for two days during the week I was there, but took a turn for the worse the day I left. He is again not responsive to conversation and eating minimally.

But those two days were golden! I got to have the tough conversation about death and dying, tell him how much I love him, and generally have a chance to say goodbye. The next day he was even more energetic, and spent several hours reminiscing with my mom and I. This was a big change from being able to converse for only a few minutes at a time, but it appears to have been no more than a blip on the radar. Still, it was a really good day and I am glad I was there to share in it.

Now, no matter what happens or when, I know I have done what I needed to do. May God give my father the strength to do his last work too.

June 11, 2008

A tough but rewarding conversation

Today I geared myself up for the tough talk with my dad -- telling him that I loved him, that I was worried about him, and that I wanted to visit because I was concerned that he was dying.

I couldn't have this talk yesterday, because I was afraid that if I brought up this subject, he'd turn away, and because yesterday he was still mostly uncommunicative. But from the moment we arrived today, Dad was alert, conversative, and lively. He was making jokes, blowing raspberries (or Bronx cheers, as we call them in our Bronx-origin family). So I figured once we were alone, this was the best opportunity to speak my mind.

"Dad," I said, "I want to talk to you." I told him that I had come to see him because I was worried that he was dying and I wanted to tell him how much I loved him. He told me he didn't feel like he was dying, and I agreed that it didn't appear he would die today. (Indeed, he was much improved over yesterday.)

I asked him what he was thinking, what kind of funeral and other arrangements he wanted. He told me to go for the whole thing, shiva etc. I said that's what I wanted to do. He asked why I was crying and I told him it made me sad to think about this. He said, "We all have to go sometime." I agreed and said that it was okay to die after living a long full life, accomplishing many things and being surrounded by those who love you.

Then we did the crossword puzzle. It's hard to sustain that high an emotional pitch.

Before I left, Dad told me he was glad we had such a good talk. He may not be ready to die, but I am glad that we talked about what was coming. If I can't be there at the end, whenever it comes, at least I know we have done the work we needed to do -- together.

June 09, 2008

Remembering Rabbi Charisse Kranes z"l

It was 19 years ago today that I got the call: my dear friend Charisse had died of complications relating to her uterine cancer. She was 32.

I remember I had called Charisse's home and spoke with her husband, who told me that she was back in the hospital. I immediately called her there and was fortunate enough to be able to tell her how much I loved her. We had a teary conversation which I didn't even realize was our last. A few days later, on erev Shavu'ot , my roommate and I had just finished the holiday meal when the phone rang with somone calling to say that Charisse had died.

So every year on the eve of Shavu'ot I remember Charisse by lighting a yahrzeit candle. I go to synagogue for the Yizkor service so that I can recite kaddish for her. Charisse was married but did not have children. By saying kaddish for her, by talking about our friendship, I help keep her memory alive.

I miss you still, my dearest friend.


My dad appears to be stable again but at a much reduced level. He's mentally present, participates in conversation for brief moments, but spends most of his time asleep. He has a bite or two of food at lunch or dinner, nothing substantial. He is no longer getting out of bed but the aides are getting him dressed each day. The nursing staff say they will let us know when he is "actively dying."

June 06, 2008

Update on Dad

Things progress. Dad continues to lose weight, which puts more stress on his heart. Although he's not in congestive heart failure yet, that appears to be the most likely next step. I'm in touch every day with my mother and sister by phone and want us to all spend what might be his last few days together.

A birthday tribute

Today would have been my friend E's 31st birthday. One year ago we were celebrating her 30th with lots of friends and family at her home. She so wanted to live to celebrate her 30th birthday and was so thankful for being able to do so. A few short weeks later she had died.

I've lost several friends to breast cancer, all of them young women. I've lost friends to other cancers as well. The longer I live in CancerLand, the more people I meet who have been diagnosed. I get to know more people who have really bad cancer. Often they are already in end-stage disease when we meet, because that's when they seek help from a support group.

E, today, on what would have been your birthday, I want to tell you that your family and friends love you and think of you.

June 02, 2008

I love to sing!

This past Saturday night was Dunava's
second full-lrngth concert. We've been rehearsing all year to present new material for this performance. The church which hosted us boasts a domed room. The sound is so excellent that when one person stands along a wall and whispers, another person standing on the other side of the room can hear them. It's some kind of engineering miracle.

Our special guests, Orkestar RTW, were terrific. And the audience evidently loved Dunava, because they gave us a standing ovation at the end of the concert! So of course we had to sing an encore. All's well that ends loud, as they say in the theatre biz.

I had a couple of moments to shine: I sang the opening notes in our first song, had a couple of one-line solos, sang in one trio and made my usual yips and trills. I'm still waiting to learn the kind of Bulgarian song where it's appropriate to bark like a dog.