After years of suffering, pain, infections, hospital stays, multiple bone breaks, and to top it all off–dementia…my beloved mother-in-law, Selma (nee Hillinger) Shwarzstein passed away peacefully in her sleep this past Shabbat.
Many of you have read about her struggles in some of the articles I have written about her and her dementia, over the past few years (here and here for example) . Indeed, it has been very difficult to watch someone you love so dearly suffer for so long. However, as I said at the funeral on Sunday, I can not and will not allow the last 5-7 years of her life define who she was. Thank G-d, she lived to be 85 years old, and the VAST majority of those years were wonderful years, filled with great adventures and good times.
And it is about that I wish to write…
Because I knew my mother-in-law (“ma”) for over 50 years, I can honestly say she was like my second mother. I was zoche (merited) to have my own mother (who should live and be well!) and my “second” mom, Selma. And it is her memory that I wish to write about in this post.
With apologies to Julie Andrews, let’s start at the end, because that is a very good place to start.
The head nurse in Hod Adumim (the facility in which my MIL had been for the last 20 months of her life, here in Maale Adumim) told us the following about the last couple of hours of her life: She went in to check on her at 3:00am on Friday night, and my MIL was indeed awake. Bruria, the nurse, said to her: “How are you Selma?” She replied clearly (which itself was a rarity), “I’m fine, thank you.” Bruria tells us that for some inexplicable reason, she decided to check on her again, at 4:45am. This time, she saw that something was not right and attempted to see if Selma was alright. It immediately was apparent that she had passed away in her sleep.
And what an appropriate end to her life! She died in Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh Elul, and her final words were “THANK YOU.” The truth is that those two words defined who she was.
Whether it was a doctor who had just finished poking and prodding her, or it was a person, who helped her in a store or in the street…her constant mantra was that of הכרת הטוב or “gratitude.” Even when she really wasn’t feeling well (way before her dementia set in), she always had a kind word, and that word was invariably “thank you.”
She spent the early part of her life raising her four daughters along with her first husband, Lou ע”ה and making sure they received a good Jewish education. At times, that came at her own personal expense, as she held down multiple jobs to see to it that she and Lou would have funds to cover some of the burgeoning tuition. And then, tragedy struck, and she was left a widow at a young age.
But, being the woman she was, she began a new chapter in her life, marrying Julius Shwarzstein and celebrating 34 years of marriage together. They traveled; they enjoyed life; they loved each other. And when she was asked by her husband if she wanted to make aliya, her immediate reply was “of course!” And they lived together for 19 years in Israel, before she passed away.
She was a kind, giving, loving, gentle, special woman who taught me what gratitude was. To HER I am most grateful for her greatest gift to me: my wife, Andy.
And I sit now and look at Andy sitting shiva for her mom, my second mother. I look at the rip in her shirt, where she tore kriya, and it all looks and feels so surreal. I sit as many hours as I can with her since I, too, feel like I am sitting shiva. And again, I look a that rip in the shirt; it has such significance. In the role of a rabbi, I have helped dozens and dozens of people tear kriya for a loved one. I have spoken at more funerals than I care to count. But this time, it is different. This time it is personal. This time, that rip in the shirt represents the loss of someone I truly loved and respected.
I must say that Hashem gave her a true bracha in the fact that her life ended so peacefully. A life that had been filled with so many challenges (to put it nicely) near the latter part of her life, came to an end quietly and peacefully on Shabbat….just as she would have wanted it.
I said at her funeral that I had been asked hundreds and hundreds of times over the past few years: “How’s your mother-in-law?” I said that I was never sure how to answer that question. But, today I am: She is Baruch Hashem doing well. She is no longer suffering; she is at peace; and she is with G-d.
Ma, to you I say: Thank YOU. Thank you for the 50+ years that I knew you as a neighbor and as a mother. Thank you for always being a great mother-in-law. And thank you for giving me and Andy the zechut to be there for you during some very difficult days.
Ma, I am sure you know, but your daughter, Andy, took care of you beyond our wildest dreams. A propos of that, another thing I said at the funeral was that it says the reward for honoring your parents is a longer life. I suggested that, when done properly, the life that is extended is that of the PARENT. I truly believe that Andy’s attention to every detail of your medical condition enabled you to have a longer life. And for that, on behalf of ALL who love you, I say to you, Andy: THANK YOU.
May your memory be for a blessing…
To you Sarah Bracha (Selma) bat Eliyahu HaLevi I say:
לכי בשלום ותנוחי על משכבך בשלום, ותעמדי לגורלך לקץ הימין
Rest in peace, Ma. You deserve it…..
All my love,