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Sitting Shiva on the Faded Sofa

My siblings and I squeezed together on the faded sofa my Aunt Gert had picked up at a house sale. We sat on that sofa for the seven days of shiva, the Jewish ritual of mourning. We covered the mirrors with black fabric, and wore a black ribbon which the rabbi tore to symbolize the traditional tearing of mourners’ clothes from biblical times. A large white memorial candle burned for seven days. We sat on that faded sofa as if we were glued to each other – as if our physical connection would fill the hole our mother’s death had left.

Our parents had divorced and the four of us were still in school. The community came out, in part to support us, and in part to show respect for my mother and the entire Tinkelman clan. My grandparents, Charlie and Frieda, had helped found the conservative Temple in Poughkeepsie, New York, and their three sons and my mother were active in both the Jewish and secular community.  The entire Temple Beth El sanctuary was filled to capacity, just like the high holidays.

During the period of mourning, services are held at the mourners’ home. Scores of people walked into our house laden with food to pray and pay respect. We received 22 different kinds of noodle kugel. During the moments of levity that punctuated our grief, we decided to give an award for the best tasting kugel which we would announce with our appreciation in the Temple bulletin. When we sold the house six months later, there were still kugels in the freezer.

 I was sitting on that faded sofa when Helen and Cuba Beck came into the house. Mrs. Beck was carrying a large black and white roasting pan full of hazen bluzen, fried dough as light as a feather, covered with confectioner’s sugar. I started to cry hysterically. She couldn’t understand what she had done to make me lose control.

Mrs. Beck, a Holocaust survivor, was a seamstress.  My mother, sister and I loved to go shopping for clothes and spent hours at Mrs. Beck’s house having our dresses shortened and taken in or out depending on the state of our figures. When we picked up the dresses, they would smell from the oil that she used to fry the dough.

When I smelled that huzen bluzen, I slid back in time; I was six, and my mother, sister and I had just brought dresses to Mrs. Beck’s to shorten for the high holidays. It was then that I truly knew that I had lost my mommy – not just the woman who had become a shell of herself during the months she lay in a coma.

My aunt Gert found that faded sofa at a house sale. My mother had finally thrown my father out of the house after 28 years of marriage. She barely had enough money to buy food. Aunt Gert wanted to perk up my mother’s spirits so she bought her an inexpensive sofa.

We used to find my mother lying on that faded sofa, wrapped up in the rose colored afghan that my Aunt Dorothy had crocheted for her. She loved to watch I Love Lucy and the Loretta Young Show.  She would wheeze and cough until she choked. I can still feel the shivers go down my spine with fear that each gasp would be her last.

When we came home unexpectedly, the refrigerator, filled to the brim when we were kids, was almost empty. Gone were the standing rib roasts, the lamp chops, and roasting chickens. No pastries from John Vie Bakery filled the freezer. The only thing we would find were a used tea bag in a little cup meant to hold a soft boiled egg, a few slices of bologna, some American cheese, and a Friehoffer’s oatmeal bread.

She had gotten her masters degree in teaching in order to support herself. She loved working with the first graders who were emotionally disturbed, though it was tough. They became part of her family. But she couldn’t handle the community of illness that schools breed. My mother got sick repeatedly because her immune system was compromised.

She hid how often she got sick because she didn’t want us to come home and take care of her. We were all in school and that is where she wanted us to stay. After she died, I felt that if one of us had moved home, she would still be alive. But it was one of those things that I could never say out loud. It was too painful.

We got the fateful call while my sister, Laurie, was visiting my brother and me in Philadelphia. I was in law school at Temple University, and my brother, Paul was getting his masters in social work at Bryn Mawr. My sister and I were eating a decadent desert I had concocted - a version of Death by Chocolate, which we covered with whipped cream while it was still hot from the oven. We were giggling about the times we had whipped cream fights when we were kids.

We were brought out of our glee by my Aunt Roz’s call. “Your mother is in a coma.  She was having a bad asthma attack, and by the time she got to the hospital, she couldn’t breath. It’s bad. You better get here as soon as you can.”  It took us over seven hours to get home. It was a cold snowy February morning, and it didn’t matter that we wore warm clothes. Nothing was going to take the chill off that day.

Our older brother, David, met us at the train station. We went to the hospital immediately. She was on a ventilator by then – no longer able to breathe on her own.

Her doctor explained, “Your mother may have a virus or a bleed in the brain. We would like to perform an angiogram to determine whether she had a bleed.” We would have agreed to any procedure that might shed light on her condition and bring her back to life.  The doctor didn’t tell us the truth: that they had not intubated her with oxygen quickly enough and she had become anoxic and key brain cells had died.

Before we left the hospital, one of the nurses handed me her gray Persian lamb coat, and the silk scarf that she had worn to the hospital. I wrapped myself in the coat and scarf, breathing in her smell – still ripe with Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew, the perfume she always wore. The nurse also gave me her wedding and engagement rings. I gave them to my Aunt Helen for safe keeping but never saw them again.

We sat at the hospital from early morning until late at night. Someone brought us coloring books with abstract designs to color, and color we did for hours on end - anything to focus our attention on something small enough to bear.

If fierce desire were enough to keep someone alive, then my mother would have sat up and walked out of that hospital.  I learned that all the fervent prayers, all the deals I tried to make with God, were not going to make her better. Her condition never improved, so a few weeks later we all went back to school. We came home almost every weekend to sit by her side. After several months, the doctors admitted, “There is no hope. Your mother is not going to get better. We recommend that you take her off the ventilator.” She had no living will, no health care proxy or power of attorney.

We struggled with letting her go, and finally decided to take her off the ventilator. She kept on breathing on her own, though she remained unconscious. Still it gave us hope for a while. We spent hours debating about whether she had intentionally squeezed our hands, or it was simply an involuntary movement. We kept looking for signs of miracles.  Meanwhile her chin hair began to grow long. Her eyebrows lost the lovely arch that she carefully honed with her tweezers. The gray in her hair took over from the lovely auburn shade that she dyed her hair.

We decided that she shouldn’t be left alone because the hospital nurses were too busy to take good care of her. I filed a petition to become her conservator so we could use her money to hire private duty nurses to stay with her. It made me feel like I was doing something that might keep her alive. The court never did have an opportunity to decide my petition.

We came home on March 26 to spend her 54th birthday with her. The nurses had put up Happy Birthday signs all over the room, and had tied a ribbon in her hair. They couldn’t do much for her, so they fussed for us. A few days later, we got a call from her doctor. She had developed a urinary infection from her catheter.  The doctors suggested that we not treat it. The decision weighed heavy on us. I am sure that the doctors and the hospital were glad to pass on the responsibility to us in light of their mistake. I thank God that there were no legal disputes, and no one second guessed our choices. It would have been unbearable.

Sunday, April 4, was cold, damp and rainy. I woke up feeling hollow, yet heavy with grief. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies. I called my friend, Benje; I needed the presence of another human being to get through the day. It was that afternoon that I got the call from my Aunt Dorothy; she was with my mother when she died. She felt that I and my siblings should have been the ones to bear witness to my mother’s death. Her judgment added weight to the knife of grief that cut into my heart.

There is no wake, no open casket when a Jew dies. But we needed to see her. She lay on the slab in the funeral home, dressed in a white shroud. There was a veil covering her face. We had decided to have an autopsy of her brain to determine what had happened and they covered her head where they had made the incision.

I realized how much breath had animated her even when she was in a coma. There had been a possibility that like Sleeping Beauty, a kiss, the right kiss, might wake her up. But once we saw her lying there, we grasped death in all its awful majesty.  There was a part of me that regretted seeing her lifeless form which was indelibly imprinted on my mind.

She, who had sung, You Are My Sunshine, to us every night before we went to sleep, had made us feel that we were the sunshine of her life. Almost twenty-five years later, I stood before the New York Court of Appeals to argue the biggest case of my legal career. It was March 26, her birthday. I had worked so hard I got sick, and had asthmatic bronchitis. I was nervous and knew I had to center myself. Moments before they called my case, I sang You Are My Sunshine to myself, and stood up straight like my mother told me, lifted my head up to the heavens, and dedicated my argument to my mother. Years later, one of the judges told me that it was the best argument that he had ever seen, and that he used the tape to teach appellate law at Cornell. I am sure that it was because I radiated the sunshine that my mother had bestowed upon me as a young girl.

“Sitting Shiva on the Faded Sofa" by Leslie B. Neustadt. First published in Prick of the Spindle Journal of Literary Arts, Vol 3.3, September 2009.