Following the funeral for my beloved Stu, we held an evening service in my home, led by Rabbi Alan B. Lucas, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn. He had performed the service earlier in the day and offered some remarks after the prayers that were so profound I wanted to share them with you.
He spoke about how difficult it is for people to talk to people who have lost a loved one. He pointed out how there really are no words that can adequately lessen the pain. He explained that some people say, “oh, Stu is in a better place,” “Stu is no longer in pain,” “your pain will pass,” “I feel so sorry for you” and the words go on and on, all well intended.
But the rabbi continued: all a mourner really needs is your presence. In this case silence is golden, but hugs, hand-holding, calls, messages and texts are the most powerful during the difficult days.
I found that so true during this last week.
As I saw Stu failing, with his blood pressure dropping dangerously low, I knew he didn’t want extraordinary measures taken to keep him alive. He had signed a health proxy and DNR (do not resuscitate) request. So when the doctors wanted to insert a tube down his throat, his daughter and I told them not to proceed. It was a painful decision, and now that he couldn’t receive dialysis I knew his time was limited.
There with me in the early morning hours were his daughter Mimi and husband Jim, their son Sam, just back from Tufts University, and dear friend Eddie Fisher, a physician who had lovingly been there over the past months offering personal and professional support. But soon his children left to catch a flight to Florida to see Jon, Stu’s son.
And then there was my son Josh, who never left my side. At about 11 p.m. Friday night, the doctors felt Stu had stabilized, so Josh insisted on driving me back to Long Island to get a few hours of sleep. But by 1:30 a.m. I got a call from the hospital that the situation had worsened. So Josh drove me back to Manhattan as I frantically hoped I’d be there in time to see Stu. I ran to his room and found he was still with me.
But I decided I wanted to take him home. I asked the doctors to disconnect his tubes and arrange for his discharge. My goal was to get him home to have his last breath taken in his own bed. It took hours to get the social worker to meet with me, but finally Dr. Gary Giangola, his surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital, came into the room. With tears in my eyes I beseeched him to make the social worker meet with me and expedite Stu’s release. His power as chairman of the North Shore-LIJ Department of Surgery did the trick. Within minutes I was in touch with the social worker who was a woman who “got it.” She began ferociously working the system to arrange for Stu’s release. She wanted me to have the support of the hospice program but it was Saturday and few arrangements are made on the weekends.
But my friends at the Parker Jewish Institute made magic happen and got their Comprehensive Community Hospice Program in action. They quickly arranged oxygen to be available at the house and for a private ambulance to take Stu and me home. I felt like I was in a race against the clock. The doctors and Beth the social worker warned me that he might die en route, but I was set on my goal of being home with him one last time.
By 2 p.m. the ambulance driver and his assistant were in the room. They bundled Stu up with his hospital gown and blankets wrapped tightly around him and we were on our way. The snow had begun to fall and I covered Stu’s face as we made our way to the doors of the ambulance. I jumped into the seat across from him and held his hand and began telling him “we are going home, you must stay alive.”
I decided to play our wedding song, Elvis Presley’s “Cant Help Falling in Love,” thanks to the assistant driver’s iPhone. I put it to Stu’s ear and we listened as we made our way though the snowflakes and traffic.
Being home was only moments away as I kept up the music and my banter, beseeching him to stay alive. His daughter Eve had called and asked if she could come over with her sons Joe and Lou, and I said of course. We arrived home to my cries of “We’re home! We’re home!” as we made our way into the bedroom. My first action was to take him out of his hospital gown and put on his own pants and one of his favorite mock turtleneck sweaters. It felt good to see him there in his own clothes.
Within a short while the threesome arrived and my son Josh, still at my side, welcomed them into the house. Soon our friends and neighbors, Roseanne and Perry Frankel, also arrived with their daughter Madison to be there with me.
Eve, Lou and Joe had their quiet, private time with Stu and said with many tears their goodbyes. I was so happy they had their chance to be with their grandfather, with whom they had shared a home for many years. With heavy hearts they left.
Only 30 minutes later, Josh came running into the living room and said “I think he’s gone!” I ran to the bedroom and pulled Stu into my arms. Perry, his former partner, followed me into the room and took his pulse. He was still with me. As I held him tightly his life left him and he was gone. But I wouldn’t let him go and the dear ones who were there with me left me to spend time alone with my love. It was a few hours later that the hospice’s gentle Michael Jennings came to the house and made the final arrangements.
By being there for me, Michael made it easier in the final hours. And rubbing my back gently as I sobbed my good byes was Josh, whose powerful presence was silently there for me. No words needed to be spoken.
As the days of sitting shiva, the Jewish custom of receiving people after the funeral, passed, I so appreciated all the people who came to be there for me. Somehow they each gave me the strength to carry on.
Yes, the rabbi was right. There are no words to console me, but the calls, the visits the baskets of food and flowers filled me with hope that I can carry on with Stu gone. It will be a challenge, but one with the help and love of my family, friends and colleagues I hope to conquer.