The stark imbalance of power in my parents’ relationship was part of our family’s life as far back as I can remember. Momma was the ultimate authority. She cooked every meal, ran the household, managed the finances, and made all the plans. In her view, Dad was an irritating dreamer, too unrealistic and incompetent to share decision-making. Dad, an impractical man to whom money and the details of life mattered little, depended on her to give a conventional shape to his life.
Then after almost 50 years together, Momma was devastated by disfiguring breast cancer surgery. She awakened every morning terrified that she’d find a recurrence and prowled the house, her right hand cupped under her phantom left breast. Five years later, after Steve and I had moved to Maryland, Momma began to experience severe abdominal pain, signaling blockage in her bowel. Her anxiety skyrocketed. She withdrew into herself, told no one, and avoided all contact with doctors, certain they would find more cancer.
Months of intolerable pain compelled her to tell us the truth about her terrible symptoms. We immediately insisted that she seek medical help. Weak and frightened, Momma submitted to extensive tests at The New York Hospital, where one of Steve’s colleagues agreed to take care of her. After exploratory surgery, my brother Paul, Steve and I met with her doctors. Dad, too agitated to join the conversation, waited at Momma’s bedside. The doctors’ verdict: “The cancer is everywhere. It’s too late for treatment. She has only a few months to live.”
Although no one told Momma the truth about her condition, she understood how close to death she was. Back in her own home, she rarely got out of bed and refused to leave the house. An efficient housekeeper for half a century, she never did another household chore. After a lifetime of taking pride in her appearance, she stopped using make-up and never brushed her hair or put on anything but a nightgown again. Her panic was palpable. No matter how often I made the trip from Maryland, I was never prepared to see this wide-eyed, frightened little woman, her dyed red hair an unkempt jumble of orange and white.
Dad responded to the crisis with boundless, nervous energy. Despite his history of debilitating depressive episodes, he did the grocery shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, and even the difficult task of nursing Momma. During my frequent weekend visits to Brooklyn, my heart achedasI watched him dash around the house, cleaning and dusting, cooking, moving piles of clothes and newspapers from one side of the room to the other, creating neither cleanliness nor order.
From her bed, Momma followed his every move, and it drove her crazy. “No, no,” she screamed, “not like that. Stop it right now. Only God above knows how I suffer with you!”
For years, Momma had complained to her sister and brother, Aunt Rose and Uncle Sam, that she was deeply disappointed in her life with Dad. Many times during her final months, they sat at the kitchen table, listening to her heart-rending moans and observing with obvious disdain Dad’s futile attempts to make her comfortable. They blamed him for Momma’s condition, believing that her years of unhappiness and frustration with him were the true cause of her terminal cancer. Although it pained me to see how anxious Dad became as they stared at him with barely contained contempt, the ache in my own heart drained the energy I needed to confront them.
The cancer continued to spread and Momma deteriorated rapidly, becoming silent and uncommunicative, except when Dad awkwardly attempted to straighten her rumpled sheets or give her medicine. Furious with his ineptitude, her blank stare gave way to blind rage and terrifying screams. Dad mumbled to himself in Yiddish, but did not challenge her. He was determined to keep her at home in her own bed until the end.
The nightmare continued for four months, until the day Momma died. On a gray and windy April morning, we gathered for a graveside burial at Mount Hebron Jewish Cemetery in Flushing, Queens. The cemetery was overcrowded with headstones and graves covering every inch of ground. Plots were arranged at irregular angles to create more space. No matter where we stepped, we walked on someone’s grave. There was barely room for another burial pit.
Momma’s extended family, wailing loudly, stared into the open hole in the ground that waited to receive her casket. The Rabbi, chanting lamentations in Hebrew, shouted to be heard above the sobbing mourners and the din of traffic streaming by on the eight-lane highway next to the cemetery. He approached me, and with a solemn face, ceremoniously ripped the black grosgrain ribbon pinned to my jacket. This ancient tradition, a reminder that my mother had been ripped from my life, left me limp and distraught.
As the gravediggers lowered Momma into the earth, Aunt Rose lurched forward, ready to throw herself onto the casket. “Don’t leave me, Anna,” she shrieked, “I’m coming with you!”
Uncle Sam howled in anguish, and yanked her back to safety.
Standing next to Dad, my arm in his, I felt him disappearing. His descent into bleakness had begun.
Paul and I returned to the house to “sit shiva” with him. We covered all the mirrors and sat in our stocking feet on hard, wooden benches, as Jews have done for thousands of years grieving the death of a loved one. We talked about Momma, told stories, and wept, while Dad gazed blankly into space. His head in his hands, he rocked back and forth.
The next day Aunt Rose and Uncle Sam joined us. We sat in uneasy silence around the kitchen table until Aunt Rose, eyelids swollen, glared at Dad, “Anna’s jewels, Irving, where did you put them? Beebee should have them now.”
“Jewels?” I thought. “Momma had jewels?”
I knew she had a strand of Mikimoto pearls Paul had brought her from Japan, and two inexpensive rings with tiny diamond chips, but nothing I’d call jewels. Many times over the years, Momma said with envy, as she described friends who had “real” diamond rings, “I can’t stand that Frieda. You should see her holding her cigarette, twisting her hand so I have to look at that ugly diamond Joe gave her for their anniversary. It’s the size of a walnut. Well, she can keep Joe and her diamond. I wouldn’t live with him for one day, even if you paid me.”
Now, hearing the accusation in Aunt Rose’s voice, Dad struggled, trying to remember Momma’s secret hiding places. After a few tense moments, he sprang out of his chair. “The ice cubes! Anna hid her diamonds in the ice cubes!”
He hurried to the refrigerator, pulled a container of ice cubes from the freezer, and dumped them onto the kitchen counter. Everyone stared at the ice cubes. No jewels!
We sat without speaking until, once again, Dad’s face lit up. “The beblach! Now I remember. Anna hid her jewels in the beblach.”
He rushed to the pantry, grabbed a box of raw, white lima beans from the shelf, raced back to the kitchen table, and poured them out. There they were, surrounded by raw beans, two rings with diamond chips, so small, you’d need a magnifying glass to be sure they were diamonds. This was the closest Momma ever came to the real thing. That moment of redemptive pleasure was the last time I saw Dad smile.
Within a few weeks, he sank into a profound depression, unable to eat or sleep, never leaving the house. I begged him to come to Maryland and stay with me, but he would not. In daily phone calls, I pleaded, “Dad, you must see a doctor. You need help!” He refused and rambled incoherently in a barely audible voice.
Desperate to save him, Paul and I agreed that Dad was no longer safe at home, that we had to get him to a hospital. Paul drove to the house and found him too confused and exhausted to resist getting into the car. They hurried to Mount Sinai Hospital where Dad spent the next two hours in the intake process, answering questions before being admitted to the psychiatric ward. After several hours, alone in a private room, he used the belt of his bathrobe to end his life.
Seven weeks after Momma’s death, the earth on her grave still freshly turned, we were back at the cemetery. Following a short, subdued ceremony with barely the minyan of ten in attendance as required by Jewish law, we buried Dad where he wanted to be, next to Momma, his wife of forty-nine years.
*This story was previously published by Live Wire Press in their collection entitled In Good Company in 2013.