by MomGrind

airportAirports are strange places, I think as I stand in front of the gate waiting for my father to arrive. His flight is not the only flight to arrive this early afternoon, and a flood of people is coming through the gate. Faces, strange faces, blur into each other, all looking the same. They are special to someone, I’m sure, each of them possessing the ability to light up the face of a few loved ones. But they are strangers to me, and they are annoying because the human clutter they create interferes with my ability to locate my father in the crowd.

Twenty minutes pass by. The little airport screens tell me that his plane has already landed. Where is he? I squint, cursing my useless pair of near-sighted eyes, that probably require a new contacts prescription yet again. What if I can’t locate him? What if his face blends into everyone else’s and they all look the same, what if I never find him?
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I’m so sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye, oma. I love you. You passed away peacefully, at home, in your sleep, at the age of 95, surrounded by family. You were fairly healthy up until last year, when you started deteriorating, your systems systematically shutting down. The past couple of months were rough, and I scheduled a flight to Tel Aviv, hoping to see you this Thanksgiving holiday, but I didn’t make it. You didn’t make it. Which I am told is a good thing, because you were suffering. It was your time and you had to go.

I am crying as I’m typing this, thoughts swirling in my head, and as always sadness turns to anger and I’m angry. I’m angry that although death itself is often very peaceful, the end of life that leads to death is so violent, degrading, vile, and entails so much suffering and loss of dignity. Even in the case of someone like you, who simply died of old age, those last few months were horrible.

I’m angry at myself that I didn’t come to see you sooner. And that I’m here in the States, as much as I love this country, and my dear family is back in Israel, so many miles and hours away.
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by MomGrind

I was deeply touched by the following dedication on one of the books my daughter had borrowed at the library recently – Lucy the Good, by Marianne Musgrove:

“In memory of Dad: the trips to the museum, bush walks in the Gorge, our special rock, the bagatelles and Chocolate Night, Channel Two, the Alhambra and that terry-toweling hat.”

I don’t really understand half of the memories described in the dedication, but that’s exactly why I find it so moving – it obviously captures some very special, private moments between father and daughter. I like that instead of trying to describe the love, or the relationship, it simply captures moments.

It got me thinking. If my children were given the assignment to capture their favorite moments with me in just a few sentences, what would they say? Am I creating enough of these amazing childhood memories, or am I so busy busy busy that I sometimes forget the important things?

Then I thought about the people in my own life and how I would describe them. Most of them are thankfully alive, and that’s exactly my point – I don’t want to wait until loved ones pass away to say these things.

So here’s my attempt at capturing special moments with my loved ones, the living and the dead.

To Mom: long talks about the meaning of life, tanning our legs in the Jerusalem sun, poppy seed cakes at the pool, milk chocolate and Coca Cola when I was sick, meatballs in tomato sauce, and sitting at the kitchen table reading newspapers cover to cover on Friday night.

To Dad: thick pannenkoeken sprinkled with sugar, crying together when Holland loses a soccer game, watching Superman in Eilat’s movie theater, weekend trips to Ammunition Hill, and that redhead Barbie Doll that got a VERY short haircut.

To my husband: freezing together in the Jerusalem winter after that movie, five huge samosas, wearing your T-shirt under my military uniform, Pasta Ido, Seinfeld reruns, my first fillet Mignon, and staying up all night on that first night.

To my brother: Playing poor, Esther and Shmana, laughing so hard at the Seder table that our eyes tear up, surviving Janogly, half an order of falafel for you and a full one for me, and those jelly filled flower shaped cookies.

To grandma Chava: Your purse filled with candy for us, hanging up laundry by colors on that last weekend together, going to Gizbari for fresh bread, fresh tomatoes simply dressed with oil and salt, and that blue dress for my Bat Mitzvah that you loved so much but never got to wear.

To grandpa Yakov: liquor candy in the cupboard, beautifully decorated sukkah and a fragrant etrog, going over old photos together, watching you manually grind meat in that meat grinder, sweet fruit compote for dessert, and the pain in your beautiful blue eyes after grandmother died.

To grandma Miep: long, lazy walks on Shabbat mornings, fragrant boterkoek, plaid wool blankets, colorful cotton balls in the bathroom, apricot pie, and that strong Dutch coffee that kept me up at night but was well worth it.

To grandpa Ari: the way you sprinkled sugar on your leben and ate sandwiches with a knife and a fork, gorgeous salmon mousse decorated with fresh veggies, impeccably dressed in a suit and a tie even on the hottest Mediterranean days, and the way you looked in my direction and smiled when I visited you at the hospital, even though you couldn’t see much by then.

To my friend N.: Slamming down tequila shots in that Jerusalem pub and feeling so grown up, staying up all night talking, borrowing your white jeans and “forgetting” to return them, and trying a different cheesecake every weekend.

To my friend S.: Lunches at Picasso, those detailed 10-page letters that I still keep, trying to figure out what men really want (huh!), broccoli cream soup, and our night in Santa Monica.

I love you all.

The first (and only) time I was described as “pre-dead” was by comedian Jake Johannsen.

His comedy show, a couple of years ago I think in San Francisco, was hilarious. But more than anything, I was touched by how preoccupied he was with aging and with death. Johannsen was talking about how all of us sitting in the club that night are really just pre-dead people, destined to die at some point.

As someone who’s been preoccupied with my own mortality ever since I saw my first wrinkle, I could relate.

Now, realizing that we’re just pre-dead people can have devastating effects. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Levin, watching his dying brother, suddenly realizes that “he had really forgotten and overlooked one little circumstance in life – that death would come and end everything, so it was useless to begin anything.”

Later, he adds that since death awaits us all, everything we do is insignificant, and that “one passes one’s life finding distraction in… work, merely not to think of death.”

Ultimately, Levin does find meaning to his life when he realizes that “One must live for God and not for one’s own needs.” The way I see it, Levin’s faith can be translated into anything beyond “me” and “MY needs” in order to give meaning to life. It can be as simple as parenthood – knowing your children need you gives you a strong reason to live and to live well. Love too can help give meaning, even to a tough existence. My late grandfather Ari was determined to help my frail grandmother Miep survive the holocaust. I’m certain that knowing she depended on him (she would likely have died without him) gave him the power to survive the horror.

Whether we can find meaning or not, we can use the knowledge that we’re pre-dead to become better people. If death awaits, then it truly doesn’t make sense to sweat the small stuff, to bicker and whine and be small-minded. Jealousy, racism, fear, senseless fights and arguments are really a waste of precious time. Being pre-dead can be a very good thing indeed, if instead of pushing it out of our minds, or numbing ourselves with some drug of choice (cigarettes, food, drugs, anti-depressants etc.) we choose to allow ourselves to be conscious of our eventual demise, feel the pain of this horrible fact of life, and refuse to engage in behavior or in activities that are just a horrible waste of our precious time – after all, on average, we only have about 40 years of healthy adulthood – that’s painfully short!

Believe it or not, the idea for this rather weird blog post was sparked by someone cutting in front of me this morning on the highway. I almost allowed his rudeness to ruin my mood and to affect my behavior – until I reminded myself that he, just like me, is pre-dead and so reacting to his smallness just doesn’t make sense. I can – I should – be better than that.

Being pre-dead isn’t so bad after all.

My father was born and raised in the Netherlands. His parents, Miep and the late Arie DeLeeuw, are holocaust survivors who had rebuilt their lives in Holland after the war. Raised in upper middle class Holland during the fifties and sixties, his childhood was pleasant and sheltered, although his family was (understandably) somewhat dysfunctional.

Father left home and immigrated to Israel right after he finished high school, at the age of 18, and enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces. Shortly after that, the young, spoiled Dutch boy had to face a harsh reality when his troop fought in the 1967 Six-Day War.

But that was nothing compared with the death and devastation he experienced during the much harsher Yom Kippur War, in 1973. By then he was married to my mom, and a father to me – a 2 year old toddler. He came back from that war suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

Dad is a gifted artist. He had built a successful career as a graphic designer. The combination of his and my mom’s hard work, discipline and frugality had enabled him to retire well before he turned 60.

Just like my younger daughter, dad is amazingly resilient. He had survived a complicated childhood in a dysfunctional family, and came out of it emotionally unscathed. His attitude is definitely one of “whatever life throws at me, I’ll sure make the most of it.”

My parents are one of the most stable and loving couples I have ever met. It’s a mystery, because they are so very different than each other. I always thought that “opposites attract” was true, but unsustainable. In their case, it had proved to last for the past 40 years.

Balancing out my mom’s down-to-earth seriousness, my father, the creative, fun spirited artist, has taught me these important lessons:

1. Have fun and live in the moment. A wise friend told me a long time ago that the happiest people are those who live in the present. If you live in the past, you tend to be full of regret. If you live in the future, you tend to be anxious and worried. Only if you manage to truly live in the present and enjoy everything that life has to offer NOW, can you be truly happy. While mom and I tend to live in the future, anticipating everything that could go wrong, dad is completely immersed in the present. He enjoys every second. It’s a pleasure to just watch him go through life.

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Dad is a hopeless optimist. He simply refuses to allow life’s small – and big – challenges to weigh him down. He always smiles, laughs, tells a joke. He just can’t see the point in feeling down. For dad, the glass is always half full – even when mom and I look at the exact same glass and insist it’s half empty. His optimism is contagious, though, and whenever I spend some time with him, I notice that I feel better about things too – as if his basic faith that everything will turn out OK has somehow transferred to me.

3. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Dad and my husband are the only two people in my life who can take me out of my fairly narrow comfort zone and have me thank them later.

4. Be generous and kind. We’ve all heard about the concept of Karma, and “what goes around comes around.” Of course, it doesn’t always work out this way – sometimes the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. But dad isn’t really concerned with the philosophy, or with whether his kindness will eventually benefit him. He is kind and generous because he doesn’t know how not to be.

5. Always assume the best about people. Mom and I are classic introverts. We have everything we need inside ourselves, and do not require outside stimuli, or social interaction, to feel happy and complete. Dad is the exact opposite. He loves – even craves – social interaction. He also has this basic belief that people are good, and that if you will do right by people, they will do the same for you.

6. Academic achievements are overrated. As a child, dad had a hard time with traditional schooling, because he was an artist, blessed with spatial intelligence and interpersonal intelligence, while traditional education typically rewards logical-mathematical Intelligence. As an adult, he started his own graphic design business, using his picture smarts and people smarts to become highly successful, and proving to all the naysayers that nontraditional types can succeed too.

I love you, dad. Thank you for being such a positive presence in my life all these years. Happy Father’s Day!

*The photo above was taken in my room, in Jerusalem, in December 1972. I am 18 months old and holding my beloved stuffed toy. Less than a year later, I lost that toy during the Yom Kippur war. The sirens went off. We were running from our home to the public shelter. In the commotion, I had lost it. Mom tells me we later went back to look for it, but we never found it. I cried myself to sleep for a few nights, then went on with my life. When dad had returned from the war, he brought with him a new stuffed toy.

Then and now: On our wedding day in 1993; and in 2010.

I thought the title of the song by Jason Mraz was appropriate, because the whole thing often feels like pure luck. And now that I’m at the age when too many of my friends are struggling, when relationships and marriages are falling apart, I often find it difficult to answer the question, “How come you guys are still so much in love?”

I met my husband when I was 18. It wasn’t love at first sight, but I liked him a lot and felt attracted to him. We started dating, and curiosity and lust gradually turned into love. A deep, committed love. The kind of love that I witnessed as a child, growing with parents who, in their mid sixties, are still in love.

When he asked me to marry him, I said yes, but promptly got cold feet. I needed time – I was only 21 – I was too young. I needed to experiment. Can we take a year off? I begged, and he, wisely, said no. I could leave, but he would not wait for me.

Almost twenty years later, I have a crystal clear image of myself, standing next to my bedroom window, looking out into the night, thinking, trying to make a decision. Suddenly, I knew what I needed to do. I closed my eyes and imagined my life without him. Packing, renting a new apartment, possibly with a roommate. Going about my daily life without him. Preparing and eating meals, shopping, going on trips, studying for tests, partying – going about all the small activities that join into life. Him, not included.

I couldn’t imagine it. It felt so empty, so meaningless. Even the promise of new experiences, of meeting new men and dating again and “making the most of my twenties” did not feel so exciting anymore. Leaving him would be like giving up a part of me – a big part of me. He was the one – and I wasn’t going to turn him into “the one that got away.”

So I married, at the age of 22. He was almost 30. We’ve been together ever since, raising two children, building a life, deepening our commitment and our friendship, keeping the lust, and – most importantly – having fun. We make each other laugh, we make each other think. We have a ton of respect for each other. He’s my best friend and I think I am his, and the gender differences make it all the more interesting.

When people ask me, “What’s your secret? You seem so happy together” I tell them that yes, we are very happy together, but I’m not sure if I can share any secrets or give any tips. A lot of it is luck, after all. But recently I came across a great post by Jonathan Figaro on the Sources of Insight blog, and it got me thinking.

In the post, Jonathan says, “Don’t lose the one that cares about you the most. We all have stories of the one that got away. I had my chance and I lost it. She would call me even when I didn’t have a dime to my name. I hear she’s married now and doing very well for herself. My lesson here is, don’t get so involved in your dreams that you forget about those who care about you the most.”

In the comment I left on that post, I said, “I can’t believe you just brought tears to my eyes with the ‘one that got away’ paragraph. Not because he got away, but because I was smart enough to stay with him, even though I was young and foolish. Twenty years later, we’re still together, and he’s not just my partner, but also my best friend.”

Maybe it’s not just luck. I made a conscious decision NOT to let him get away. And throughout the years, we have made repeated decisions to keep investing in the relationship, to keep it alive, to work at it and – just as important – to keep ourselves interesting and well-read and fit and as attractive as age permits – for each other.

Will it last forever? I hope so. As a former divorce attorney, I’ll never be able to believe in “happily ever after” the way I used to – that innocence has been taken away from me by that tough profession. But for the past twenty years, and for the foreseeable future, I am so very grateful to be in love with my best friend.

Starting at age 13, and until I had my first child at age 28, my number one priority in life was to make it very clear to everyone, including my mom, that I was not like her.

I don’t know what it is about the teenage years that makes us so desperate not just to establish our own identity, but also to separate ourselves from our parents. I guess separating from them is part of growing up, but I wish it wasn’t such a cruel process.

It took me fifteen years to accept that while my mother is not perfect, no one is, and that she has many qualities that I admire; that she loves me deeply – probably more than I realize; and that being like her would NOT be the end of the world.

Now 39 (almost 40!), I look at my 11 years old daughter, who loves me with all her heart and respects me immensely, and I wonder. Will she be like me as a teenager? Will she rebel against everything I stand for? Will I lose her for fifteen years or so? It’s difficult to imagine going through something like this, and part of me hopes I won’t have to. But another part prepares for the possibility that it will happen.

Older and wiser, I now look at my mom through very different eyes. I am in a place where I am able to forgive her mistakes, and ask her to forgive me for mine. I love her deeply, not just because she is my mother and I must, but because I think she’s an amazing person – smart, sharp, resourceful, and fiercely independent. Many of the qualities I like in myself I got from her, and – yes – some of those that I dislike too, such as the tendency to worry too much.

The things my mother taught me, she mostly taught by personal example. She never believed in “Do as I say, not as I do” parenting.

1. Be independent. Now retired, mom was a career woman – a banker – for many years. She always took care of herself, and never allowed herself to become dependent on anyone. In fact, at the age of 17.5 she finished high school and started working to support her own parents, who were struggling financially. Despite winning scholarships to several top notch colleges, higher education wasn’t in the cards for her. Her family was too poor and needed her help.

2. Do the right thing. For eight years, from the day mom started working and until she got married, she gave half her salary to her father, to help support him, her mother and her two younger sisters. It never occurred to her that she could have fun with that money… buy more clothes, enjoy her late teens and early twenties. Her parents needed her, and she was there for them, even if it meant giving up on her own dreams.

3. Be strong. Mom is the strongest person I know. She’s not just strong – she’s tough, and I mean that in a good way. I know she sometimes doubts it, and worries that if something truly bad happens she’ll collapse, but I am certain that whatever destiny throws her way, mom will deal with it beautifully. She always has.

4. Work hard. Mom worked full time from age 17.5 until she retired at age 62. She hardly ever took sick days, and except for 5 months of maternity leave after the birth of each of her two children, she basically worked nonstop. Mom was never afraid of hard work. She’s always been an early riser and was always the last one to go to bed at the end of the day. I’m happy for her that now she finally gets to sleep in and stay in bed a little later in the morning. She deserves the rest.

5. Marry a good man who respects you and stay away from “bad boys.” Mom always wanted me to get married and have kids – there was no question abut that, but she never wanted me to compromise. She issued stern warnings against “bad boys,” and apparently she had issued them early enough – while I was still young enough to listen to her – that they sunk in. I’m sure that the fact that she had married a kind, faithful man – my dad – helped too. I never wanted anything to do with bad guys, and except for a very brief period of dating a jerk, I always found smart, kind, and faithful men irresistible. I even married one. 🙂

6. Respect money and be financially responsible. Mom grew up poor. Really poor. A family of five in one bedroom (the living room was converted at night into a second bedroom), no heating, and food that was carefully portioned out. She worked hard to pull herself out of the working class, all the way into the upper middle class. Just like all people who grew up poor, she knows how important money is, and the hardship people suffer when they lack money. It’s not that she views money as a goal – but she appreciates financial security and financial independence in a way that someone who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth simply cannot.

Thank you for these important lessons, mom. I love you. Happy Mother’s Day.

In the photo: Mom and I, Jerusalem, 1972.