Frieda and Ellie knew their father Joseph was failing. For the last week he wasn’t eating, and he was drinking very little. Thankfully, the family was together for Rosh Hashanah, the previous month, when his daughters had reserved a room in the nursing home for a private catered dinner. The whole family, including all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, had come locally as well as from Brooklyn, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. They had not known this would be the last time they all would be together.
One sunny morning in the new year, unusually sunny for Oct. 20, 2012, the daughters showed up at the nursing home. They wheeled their father out into the sun. Although at this point, he was unable to speak, he still had his remarkable mind to the very end. He nodded when they asked “Does that sunshine feel good, Dad?” They massaged his bald head. He smiled. One joked about how Joseph had two wonderful daughters, and one was even more wonderful than the other. The other said thank you, and Joseph smiled. He was always the joker of the family, and now his daughters were carrying on the tradition.
When they wheeled him back into his room, he seemed so frail and tired. The daughters kissed their father and walked out of the room so the aides could put him into bed. One minute after they left, the nurses called them. “Your father has taken his last breath.”
“Dad’s last moment of life was with us, in the sunshine, right where he would have wanted it,” the daughters reported in the days after their beloved father’s service. They were still in shock. And then to me, they offered, “You talked about this in your book, how the timing is somehow under their control. It really was. It seemed like he was living for his wedding anniversary and for the holiday.”
The period after death, at the memorial and then sitting Shiva, was spent honoring Dad – his sense of humor, his amazing memory, his strong Latvian accent, how he and his wife Myra were lovebirds in the nursing home, and how his family and community loved him.
At moments, insecurities about care crept in.
“Did we spend enough time with him?” “Why didn’t the nursing home have hospice care?”
Discomfort and anger emerged.
“Mom is not taking it well. She’s upset that he has left her.”
And a vague sense of the coming emptiness in the lives of daughters hovered.
“What will I do without Daddy?” “Where will we celebrate holidays?”
Mourning a life lost is never simple.
Joseph will be missed. He was a gentle soul who later in life cried easily, a former barber who was a pillar of our community, a living memory of the horrors of the Holocaust (who wanted to tell his story only very late in life), an amazing person who regularly grocery shopped despite being legally blind, and the man who never forgot any of the birthdays of his family members, including his extended family. Joseph believed he lived a long life (to 94, almost 95) because many years ago he had kissed the Torah in the Knesset in Israel. His obituary is here.
I know one thing: Joseph’s daughters and his extended family were everything to Joseph, who lost so much in the Holocaust, including his extended family. Just in one day, the Nazis murdered his mother, his two sisters, and his first wife, who was carrying their child. Despite the horrors he had endured in the concentration camps, he managed to maintain such a zest for life.
To the daughters, the family, his wife Myra, and readers who loved Joseph – we must say goodbye to a dear friend. And we must work to keep his story alive.
Thanks to Frieda and Ellie for their blessing on this post.
Copyright Meika Loe
Meika Loe is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Colgate University. She is the author of Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond.