Giving Meaning to the Death of My Yiddishe Mother

Copyright Rabbi Eli Hecht
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Recently I was working at my school office planning a day of classes and interviews when suddenly I was notified of an incoming call from New York.  It was my cousin Shimon, a hospital chaplain and a fine rabbi. 

“Have you heard the news?” he asked.  I thought his voice sounded pensive and without waiting for an answer he went on to say “There has been a fire, your mother didn’t make it and your father is in the hospital.”  I was completely overwhelmed.  I literally stopped breathing and felt as if I was going to faint.   After a while I took some deep breaths and exhaled slowly.  Cousin Shimon asked if I was alright and proceeded to tell me that he was waiting in the hospital room and that I should come to New York as soon as possible.

I could not get out of my chair nor could I speak.  I wondered how this could be.  My 81-year-old mother lived at home with my father and a home health worker.  She had been bedridden for seven years and recently, through immense therapy and physical effort, she had begun to take small footsteps and would walk with a walker each day for a short distance.  What was my father doing in the hospital?  I wondered.

Living close to Long Beach airport in California I tried to find one of the earliest flights out to New York.  I was in luck and there was a flight a couple of hours later.  I ran home, prepared my small carry-on bag and headed for the door.  My wife met me as I was leaving.  “Are we going out for my birthday?” she asked.  “No” I replied.  “Please sit down, I have awful news.  A fire at my parents home and now my mother was no more and who knows what is the condition of my father” I said.  The shocking news was devastating and I began to cry as did my wife.

Shortly after I was driven to the airport and I was able to grab the last seat available on that flight.  A sad trip to the Big Apple.

For the next 4 to 5 hours my mind worked overtime.  I wondered if my father was alive, and who started the fire?  Was the house completely burned?  Was anyone else involved?

Arriving at the New York J.F.K. airport the flight attendant announced “Today is the coldest day in the New York, 5 degrees below plus there is a wind factor that increased the cold.  Bundle up, New York is not California.”  How right he was. 

My son and daughter met me by the gate.  Zaydee is alright and he is in a small motel room with my brother from Connecticut.  I was relieved on hearing that my father was released from the hospital.  But he, too, is over 81-years-old and for almost 60 years he has been married to my dear mother.  They both have been inseparable.  They produced 9 children.  All of us are teachers, rabbis or community activists.  We all are graduates of religious seminaries and are married with children and grandchildren.  We consider our good fortune is due to the hard work of our esteemed and beloved parents.

Our parents worked hard.  We are called a lucky family but I know that the harder our parents worked in caring and nurturing the luckier we got.  Yes, it has been said that you need skill when you have luck.  You may ask if you have luck then why do you need skill.  The answer is that you need the skill in order not to ruin your luck.

I arrived at the motel.  My brothers and son-in-laws plus some grandchildren were there.  My father said “Thank G‑d I am alive.”  It is only because Chanie, his granddaughter, was in the home that he was able to run for his life.  Chanie and her baby were at the home visiting when the home health person called fire.  The house was engulfed in flames.  My mother called from her bed “Get some water.”  But by the time my father came with a bucket of water the room was full of dark smoke and flames.  The firemen arrived but they were not from the area and they could not find a fire hydrant, nor could they enter the burning home.  My father screamed and wanted to enter the home but was restrained.  After a few minutes the firemen entered the home and said that the fire had consumed the entire home but strangely the bed in which my mother was in was fully intact and her body was not burned by the flames.  She had died in less than 60 seconds from smoke inhalation.

The fire inspector came and explained that the regular fire station, just a few blocks away, was closed for the day as they were taking physical exams and the fire truck that came was from a different area.  He explained the confusion of the firemen and the haphazard way in which the firemen had acted.  There is a saying that when G‑d assigned jobs to his angels he told the Angel of Death to do his work but he protested saying “I don’t want to be blamed for taking a life.  I’ll be hated and cursed.”  “No” answered G‑d Almighty.  “People will never blame you.  They will blame the firemen, doctors, police and the public servants.  They will even hire a lawyer to prove it.”  I know that when the time comes nothing or nobody can extend life or take life.  There is a time for everyone.

During the night the daughters and sons began to arrive from Michigan, Connecticut, Nice, France, England, Israel, San Francisco and Southern California.  All night grandchildren arrived from Chicago, Philadelphia and Florida.  So many beautiful souls all grieving for a great matriarch. 

My mother always considered herself a quiet lady, putting her husband, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren before her.  She always told my dad, the President of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, a rabbinical council for 600 rabbis, to do his work.  My mom always encouraged him to travel and travel he did.  Israel, Washington D.C., Bangkok, Thailand, Germany, England, Switzerland, Italy.  You name a country and my dear father has been there, performing a spiritual service, all with the help and encouragement of our dear mother.

As the day went by hundreds of rabbis, teachers, judges, newspaper editors, businessmen, police chiefs and the mayor of New York came by expressing their sorrow.  Little children also came by and joined in the services being held in honor of my mother.  The head rabbinical court rabbis came to pray while the former Chief Rabbi of Israel personally called, crying and trying to give comfort.

There is a saying “There are those that can speak about the dead and really have nothing to say while those that cannot speak have much to say.”  Sadly enough the family experienced both groups. 

How do I make sense of this tragedy?

I, for one, found comfort in a short but powerful E-mail I received from an unknown mother.  It read “After finding out about your mother I will try to be the best Yiddishe mother possible.  I will be better than ever.”  How comforting were these few words and gave meaning to the death of a Yiddishe mother, transferring her heroic sacrifices to the next generation of mothers.

This article was written on a lonely plane ride home from New York to California.