Dec 14 2019

Calling Mom

December 14 would have been my mother’s 93rd birthday.

She died about two weeks after she turned 85. I was with her the last month as she progressively passed away as the result of a no longer functioning pair of kidneys. There was no birthday cake served on that birthday, neither was her very favorite treat, ice cream. She didn’t really know that it was her birthday as she lay in her bed surrounded on both sides by hospital bed bars. The hours passed quietly that December day in the middle of New Jersey. A few friends called me but other than that the day itself went unnoticed. The next day, my uncle Wally, mom’s little brother and his wife Rosemary came out to us with a cake. My cousins Ed and Nora came too. Rosemary brought a lovely cake she made for Mom. We showed it to her but she was in her own world by then and couldn’t really notice it. We went out for Chinese food – mom stayed in her bed serenely unaware that we had been there.  After we came back we ate the cake together, without Mom, in the small staff dining room near her room. When Wally and Rosemary and Nora and Ed left, I gave the cake to the staff to share.

Today here in Stockholm, was a cold, grey day full of rain. The kind of day you don’t really want to go outside in, unless you absolutely have to. The kind of days we have had a lot of the past two months. I needed to go to the grocery store so, there you are…I had to go out. As I walked trying to avoid muddy puddles, my hood up against the rain, dragging my shopping cart behind me, I found that the day seemed to suit my mood. I thought about how long it had been since I last called my mom and told her about the weather here in Stockholm. Eight years. Hard to figure. I have spent my entire sixth decade without my mom.

She had spent her entire sixth decade without me, except for the two weeks a year that I came home to visit. I moved to Sweden when she was 61. Back in those days international phone calls were expensive and thus infrequent. Did she ever tell me that she was sad that I had moved so far away. That she missed me and wished I was there? That she loved me? Not really. Those were not the kind of words that passed between members of my family very frequently. I know she did though – miss me that is…and love me. I think she was happy that I had finally found a guy who was willing to put up with me and marry me. That he dragged me across an ocean was something else. And then we had a kid and made her and my father grandparents. That made her happy too. The once a year visits to help my parents get to know their grandchild were always too short. Then SKYPE happened and we could do more frequent calls and she and Bevin could actually look at each other when they talked. That made the distance less.

The last years before she moved to her independent living apartment at Monroe Village, I called her a lot. We didn’t really have much to say. She wasn’t so interested in talking about the past and the future was so uncertain. We talked about dinner and weather and how Bevin was doing in school. She frequently asked when we would next come to visit. I kept saying we would come visit but later. After a while, the reason I called her every day was to make sure she could answer the phone. After she met Marty, I didn’t have to call so often. She was busy and not so alone. There was someone there who looked after her. And I think she looked after him. They kept each other company.

But today, on her birthday, as I walked in the rain, I really felt like I wanted to call my mom, to talk to her. To say hi, to tell her how I was doing, how we are still trying to get Bevin to move into the apartment he bought, how life was going.

I lived far away from my mother for so many years. But I always had in the back of my mind that she was just over there, out of sight, but just a phone call away. I am an expert at procrastination. So as I walked, trying to keep my boots from getting too muddy, I said to myself, I’ll call her tomorrow.

And tomorrow, I will say it again.

Me and Mom eating Chinese food at home in Stockholm. 2006


Jan 16 2018

Death and life

The North Chapel

The North Chapel

I went to a funeral on Friday; for a woman who was exactly the same age as I am. I have to admit that I didn’t really know her very well. We circulated amongst the same circle of American friends here in Stockholm. While I had socialized with her IRL a number of times, it was mainly through the modern world of social media that I got to know her. She was a writer, among other things, and it was through her blog that I knew her best – that was where she kept us updated on the progress of her illness that eventually got the upper hand.

It was a very nice funeral. It wasn’t the first I had attended here in Sweden so I sort of knew the ropes; I think it was my 7th actually. Is that odd to keep count of, the number of funerals one has occasion to attend? The weather was better than one might expect in Stockholm, in January – it wasn’t snowing at least or even raining but just a cold gray cheerless kind of day that we have had more than enough of this past winter. She got a pretty good turnout, in spite of the weather and it being just an ordinary Friday. I saw a lot of the Americans I know here, the people she knew too, as we all stood outside waiting to go into the chapel. Some of them I had seen recently, others – it had been a while, most of them I meet on Facebook. You search through the crowd finding the familiar faces, you go over to them, you hug, ask them how they are – an unnecessary question actually. You could tell by their faces how they were. And a funeral was not really the appropriate place to catch up on things. 

The service was calm, lovely and felt meaningful, personal. Her husband and two daughters gave emotional heartbreaking eulogies. Other friends of hers went up and talked about her. Two recorded songs were played towards the end of the service. By that Hawaiian singer. The notes of his ukulele floated up and filled the small chapel with images of sand and beach and warm sunny days. The second song was “Over the Rainbow”, one of my favorite songs since I was a small child. It wasn’t Judy Garland but maybe almost better.

After the service we all went back outside and waited for the hearse with the casket to begin a slow advance towards the gravesite with everyone following behind. That was new for me. It felt very ceremonial, to walk behind the hearse – a sombre procession on a cold gray day. At the gravesite, family members carried the casket to the grave and it was lowered in. A rectangular hole, six feet deep with a pale casket at the bottom. I know I’ve seen graves in movies or in photos but this was the first time I stood next to an open grave in real life. “It’s so deep.” was all I could think. And so final. I tossed my pink rose onto the casket lying there at the bottom. And said good-bye.

When I started writing this piece, I had only planned on putting a few words up on Facebook – to say I had been to a funeral and it had gotten me thinking about the whole getting older thing. And then I would link to a post I had written about aging. But the words grew more and more about the funeral and so ended up here instead.

I don’t think, when I was younger, that funerals disturbed me all that much. I was young. Illness and death were far away. Sad. But far away. As I age and as my Baby Boomer generation ages, death is less far away. But the people who I have known, cared about, loved, who have died, don’t seem dead to me. They are still alive – in my head. But I just can no longer call them. My smart phone seems to have lost their number. And even if I could call them, they wouldn’t answer me. But I am not going to spend my time thinking about death. It’s not really interesting to me. I’d rather think about the journey  – the process of aging. Who am I at 66 years old, the same age as my friend whose journey is over? What am I becoming? How am I different from my 25 year old self. Or am I still the same?

 Here’s a link to that older post I was going to link to on Facebook. It’s called I’m still a lot like I was and its actually about life not death.


Oct 10 2016

Day of Atonement

This evening is the eve of the Jewish Holiday Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is probably one of the most important holidays in the Jewish Calendar. Unlike most of the other Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is not celebrated by eating a large quantity of food. On Yom Kippur one is supposed to fast for the entire day. And one is supposed to atone for the sins you have committed in the past year – to say one is sorry, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive.

This evening is also the evening before I leave for my trip to New York City. I stand next to my bed and look at the piles of clothing and other things that I have been laying out – choosing what to bring and what to leave behind. Is this item what I want to take with me on my trip or is it something I want to and can leave behind me, unneeded?

I feel these piles are also an apt metaphor for Yom Kippur. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur one must ask forgiveness from those one has wronged. And on Yom Kippur you are judged whether you have done right. I have hurt people. I have said unkind things. For this I am so very sorry. And like the items on my bed that I choose not to bring with me on my trip, I would rather not carry my atonement and its subsequent forgiveness with me. It’s not enough to just ask for forgiveness. The other half of the equation is that forgiveness is given. Without that, the books can not be closed and the journey becomes harder to continue.

I guess when I was younger, I thought that by the time I had reached 65 I would have figured out Life, be settled – know where I have come from, know where I am, know where I am going. But even at 65, it is still all so confusing. Where am I going? How will I live my life? What am I doing?

Tomorrow I will be traveling to New York City – the city of my heart. The first time back to the East Coast in over four years. The place I left almost 30 years ago to live here in Stockholm. I will be staying there for a whole month – the longest time back there in over 20 years. I am no longer the same person that packed her bags in 1987 to move to a foreign land. How will it feel to be reunited with my heart? Will we even recognize each other?

And after that month, I will return here to my home, Stockholm, to pick up the pieces of my life once again, hopefully forgiven. With all my baggage, all the pieces taken with me and even those I thought to leave behind – all the pieces of my life.


Apr 26 2016

Passover 2016

This year was a very busy one for me Passover-wise. I organized or celebrated or participated in almost 4 Seders this past weekend. The planning process started many weeks ago for two of them. While not an actual Seder, the weekend started off on Friday evening with dinner at the home of the chair of the Progressive Judaism i Stockholm association. Together with other board members, I had a chance to sit down to a wonderful dinner and a lively conversation with Rabbi Eli Reich who would lead the PJS Seder that I would attend on Saturday evening. Later that night, at 12.30 am, I sat down with my cousins in New Jersey at their Seder via SKYPE. And finally on Sunday was my own J.A.P.S.* Seder which I have been leading since the late 1990s. 

I had the following words to say before we started this year’s Seder.

Passover seder 2016

Passover seder 2016

 

Hi everyone. I want to start off by saying that I am very glad to see all of us gathered here together again to celebrate Passover.

Two days ago, on Friday night, I was able to take part in the Seder that my cousins held in New Jersey. At midnight, my laptop sat on my kitchen counter while I prepared the matzah balls which we will all share later this evening. A similar laptop sat at the dining table in my cousin’s house in the US. Through the miracle of modern tech, I was able to say hello to my uncle & aunt and all their children and grandchildren. And they were able to see me sitting here in Stockholm as I listened to them saying the prayers and eating their matzah.  

I think our group of Jewish Americans here in Stockholm have been gathering, most of us at least, to celebrate this holiday since about 1998. Back then our children were all little kids and now as I look around, a good many of those kids are looking pretty grown up these days. When I used to make my list of who were coming to a J.A.P.S. gathering I usually grouped people by family and the emails went out to the grownups. But now our younger family members are starting to have their own position on my list. Many of you have had your own emails for quite awhile already. You, Carly coming with Peter, you have your own space on that list, as do Nadine with Mattias. As one gets to the point of volunteering your own contribution of what to bring to our holiday gatherings, you get your own place on the list. And that is as it should be.

For all the years I attended Passover Seders when I still lived in New York, I don’t think I ever brought anything more involved than a bouquet of flowers to either my mother or my aunt’s house. My Mother and my Aunt took care of all the food. My Grandmother while she was alive contributed the chopped liver.

The holiday of Passover is a time for looking backward, as we remind ourselves of the days when we were slaves in Egypt; a time for looking at the present and being grateful that we can live our lives as free human beings; and a time for looking forward when we end the service with the thought of next year in Jerusalem.

Probably the idea of looking back is why, as Passover draws closer, I often find myself thinking of past Seders which I have been part of with my family and my cousins.  Most of my family members were loud, noisy and opinionated and seriously lacking in any diplomatic skills. Traits which I have also inherited, for both good and bad. No one was able to finish a sentence before someone else butted in and every statement was met with a rebuttal. My father and my aunt, who both married into the family learned to keep pretty quiet. Each family gathering contained at least one argument about something and rarely did we get through a whole meal without someone leaving the table crying. We just accepted that as normal and saw no problem with it. I don’t know what the outsiders I occasionally brought with me must have thought of us. But regardless of all that, I still find myself remembering those Seders fondly because of the memory of family that they bring back. And that was something I missed, here in Sweden, family.

This group of people, all of you sitting here tonight are here because I gathered all of you together! I didn’t do it for any of you or to satisfy your needs. I did it totally selfishly – I did it for myself. Because I wanted a family that I could feel comfortable sharing Passover with. I had no way of knowing if the people I met almost 20 years ago would still be here with me, sitting in front of me, today. But here you are.

Starting in June I will officially be retired, a pensionär as we say here in Swedish. I have no idea how this happened. How did I get so old? I admit that it was not something I was looking forward to. But here I am. Standing on the brink of a new chapter of life.

The words at the end of the Seder about “next year in Jerusalem” are often believed by the orthodox to express the hope that in the future the Jews will return to Israel and rebuild the temple. I don’t take it so literally. I believe that it is a metaphor used to express the belief and the hope that we Jews will have a next year. And another. And another. That we will have a future.

And I for one can say, that as I enter this new chapter of my life, this uncharted future, I am so glad that I can start this journey with this family that sits before me.

So now let us start our Seder, and retell the story of our past, be grateful for our present and look forward to our future.

 

*J.A.P.S. – Jewish American Parents in Stockholm


Mar 5 2016

PTSD

Its been over two months now since I last went to work at my job as graphic designer at IGBP. In December, I had a great time during my week in San Francisco with my now former co-workers. In January I met up with a few of them again when I went to my former work place to hand in my elevator key and assorted final documents. We sat around and had fika together. We talked about getting together again later in the month – maybe for drinks or even dinner.

At every workplace, there are always going to be people who find new jobs or whatever and leave. And that is normal. Sometimes one stays in touch, sometimes they are never to be seen again except maybe unexpectedly on a street corner. Many of my oldest and closest friends are people I’ve taken with me on my life journey from a place of work. And the thing is, you never know in advance who, from the job, that will be. Some workmates fade away and some stick around.  But the closing of IGBP was a bit different. Yes, a few souls saw the writing on the wall and left before we closed but it didn’t feel like they really left. They still felt like part of us anyway. But when a place closes down, scattering everyone, all at the same time, that feels different. Its almost too abrupt to really take in. So I sit here wondering what happened to my life. Because the place one works is a very large part of one’s life.

This morning a former co-worker called me. She reminded me that I had never answered her email from more than a month ago. How was I, she wanted to know. Yes, how am I, in my current stage of unemployment? I don’t really know.

I do the things I have to do. I dealt with försäkringskassan regarding my sprained ankle and cracked elbow when I first got home from California. I signed up with Arbetsförmedlingen so they would know I was unemployed and with my A-kassan so that I would get unemployment benefits while looking for a new job. I had a meeting with my adviser from Trygghetsrådet to once more discuss my updating of my CV. I worked to finish my updated Graphic portfolio and put it up online. And I made appointments with my physical therapist to get my injured limbs back in working order. All of this took time and lots of paperwork, phone calls and the odd meeting now and again. Getting myself to do it was like pulling teeth but since I had to do it, I did it. And in between doing them I did very little else.

I slept a lot, often not rising till noon. I stared at the face of my smart phone, obsessively looking at Facebook and Twitter. I re-read Outlander novels while lying on my bed and played the various episodes on the TV while I made dinner in the evening. I didn’t need to look at the TV – I knew each episode by heart so listening was good enough. I went to the grocery store to buy food. Occaisionally I would actually go out and meet some friend but mainly I stayed home. Hiding in my cave. Like the good crabby Cancerian that I was. Life had just gotten too big for me. Too overwhelming. Too confusing. So I am just hunkering down and working on ignoring it as much as possible. Until it figures itself out.