I’ve been thinking a lot about final goodbyes lately. One of the challenges of aging is that I find myself at more memorial services than baby showers. In the past few years, I have attended more than my share of funerals of acquaintances – fellow congregants, work colleagues and friends from various organizations to which I belong. And I am always struck when I learn something about the person that surprises me – hobbies, careers, travels, family life. Why didn’t I know that? Why didn’t I take the time to know them better, appreciate them, honor them when they were alive? I’ve wondered when I attended the funeral of an acquaintance.
Recently, it really hit home. Jenny, a longtime family friend and talented artist, designed my new book cover. She died tragically last week. At the celebration of life, her best friend posted questions on the path to the park pavilion. “What was the name of Jenny’s childhood horse?” “What was her favorite snack?” I had no idea. I knew she loved animals, but I didn’t know she wouldn’t kill a spider. And the bigger question for me was - Did she know how much I appreciated her and her work? Had I taken the time to express the extent of my gratitude for the wonderful book cover? I know I never got the chance to tell her I plan to enter the cover in a competition. Opportunity lost.
I saw Vanessa, a regular attendee at our Thursday Mussar class, for the last time just a week before she passed last summer. She shared a lovely poem about a caterpillar transforming to a butterfly. Before I left class, I held her shoulder, and thanked her for the offering. Looking back, I see it as her parting gift to our class. I was going to email her and ask for a copy of the poem. We lost her before I got the chance. Did she know how much her strength and wisdom meant to me? I hope so.
Regrets of unspoken gratitude and love. And then I reflect on the goodbyes I have gotten to say; those feel so much better.
JUDI I visited my dear friend Judi, the day before she passed in 2019 – the same day as Vanessa, July 12, my birthday. Already transitioning, Judi was still able to hear me express my love for her and reflect that love back in a whisper along with “Thanks for all your help.” I told her I owed her thanks because she was my role model, facing her illness with courage, kindness and unending optimism. “I’ve always been a positive person. Why should I change now?” she said several months before her death.
Tom was the big brother I never had and one of the smartest people I ever met. We loved to argue, sometimes heatedly, about politics. He, Jan, Irv and I traveled the world – from Salida, Colorado, to Bora Bora. One year for Christmas he bought us custom-made t-shirts listing all the places we had been together. It was one of his most demonstrative acts. As he was dying, I stood by his bedside and started to tell him what a good friend he was, how much he meant to our family. “Don’t go all sentimental on me,” he said. I laughed, and I was glad he heard me. As emcee at his celebration of life, I wore the t-shirt and got to express the feelings more deeply.
BARBARA Irv and I rushed to New York when his sister, Barbara, was dying. She asked to spend time alone with each family member to say goodbye. Her last words to me as she squeezed my hand were, “I’ll see you again. I’m sure I will.” I nodded and wished my faith were that strong. Then I learned that she told her kids she would come back to visit as a dragonfly. So every time one lands on the nose of my kayak at Bear Creek lake, I think of our dear Barbara.
I was 1,800 miles away when my father died, but I had been with him three weeks earlier. We silently watched a Thanksgiving football game on the overhead TV in his hospital room as I held his hand. Ravaged by cancer, he welcomed the game as a distraction from his pain.
I thought about one of my earliest memories of my father. I was three years old, and peering into the crib of my newborn sister. I said, “Take her back.” My father took my hand and led me into the living room, placing me in front of the small black and white TV. “Let’s watch the Dodgers game.” After finicking with the rabbit ears, he finally sat down by my side, satisfied that we could see more Duke Snider than static snow.
I reflected that on our last day together, watching football was a fitting bookend to our relationship. As I sat by his bedside, staring up at the small screen, I told him I loved him. “Love you too,” he said softly. It was a rare exchange of feelings between us. I hold the memory dear after almost four decades.
Four years ago, my sister, brother and I held my mother as she took her last breath in her own bed as she had wished. I had the privilege of spending the last two weeks of her final journey with her. We played Paul Potts singing opera on my cell phone, and I thanked her for always being there. Her mind was somewhat fuzzy from oxygen deprivation, and she started saying things that were simultaneously amusing and deep.
“I’m not afraid to die, you know,” she blurted out when she met the hospice doctor.
“I have to go. I have to go,” she shouted with urgency one day.
It’s OK, Mom, you can go,” I answered, thinking she meant leave her life behind.
My sister took a different approach. “Where do you have to go?”
“To TwoJays Deli,” Mom replied. She loved their turkey, pastrami and knishes. My brother rushed over and got takeout.
Mom observed me taking notes one morning. “Are you writing another book?” she asked.
“Do you want me to write one about you?”
“No, write one and dedicate it to me,” she answered. And so I did. Your Love Is Blasting in My Heart, A Grandmother’s Journey is dedicated to my mother. A promise kept.
And hopefully a lesson learned about sharing the joys of connection and avoiding the regret of missed opportunities. I stop and reflect: Whom would I like to get to know better, to thank, to honor? And in the words of rabbinic sage Hillel, "If not now, when?"