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Curved Road Ahead

There’s always something magical to waking up in New York City, something which makes me want to take my computer down to the nearest Starbucks (or the other one, a block away) and get writing.

It’s cold outside, so I’ll stay in my hotel room.

Yet the aura permeates. I barely slept all night. As if I need to move at that much more feverish a pace when I’m here. Here, we can do it all.

Work, work, work, work.

I lived here once, once upon a time. I lived the dream, as they say.

And then I came back, one year ago exactly, a kid from Los Angeles looking for a job. And somehow I ended up in Dallas of all places, that backwater of Judaism and life and civilization and culture.

Except it’s not.

I found in some small hick town in the south the most cultured of places, the most temperate of attitudes, the most mild of approaches, a place where Judaism soars, the grass grows green and the people smile. I fell in love with an entirely new way of life.

The funny thing is how we come to believe that the reality we know is the reality as it is wholly, reality as it should be, reality as best it can be.

I remember vividly, when I lived here, thinking how could I ever live anywhere else. New York was where I had come to, it was where I would die. This was the center. This was ground zero. This was the core.

This was where I had to be.

But I’m not. And things have worked out pretty damn well, to boot.

And now I come back to New York, back to sit through interviews of young rabbinical students about to be released into the world. Only this time I sit on the opposite side of the table, eager to welcome a new colleague into the wonderful family I’ve found down in the Republic.

It’s funny, the twists and turns that life takes. You never really know where things will end up. They rarely end up where you think they will.

That is, after all, what Kevin Arnold taught us in the series finale of The Wonder Years.

Some things work out. Others don’t. Life takes twist and turns.

And the trick is to find yourself sitting on the opposite side of the table from where you once were, or finding yourself at another table entirely, or maybe even no table, and realizing, celebrating and enjoying the blessing implicit within that new vantage point.

A year ago I had no clue that my mom would now be dead. Heck, I didn’t even know that she was sick. But I also had no clue of the new heights that life would bring me to all the while.

And I certainly had no clue that life would bring me right back here to New York, one year later to the day, so I could sit early in a New York morning and write, and feel oh so New York for getting straight to work on this cold winter day.

Argyle

On the last day of my mom’s life, I tended to her various needs, helping her move around in bed, rubbing her back, keeping her smiling, and rubbing her back some more.

At one point, I sat on her side and showed her three ties.

“Which one should I wear to your funeral?” I asked.

In retrospect, it seems trite, seems almost disrespectful or cavalier to have asked. It feels cruel to write these words. But, at the time, it was the best I could do to bring order, reason and control to a world spinning off without end. Let’s decide what we can. Let’s make it how she wants.

I wasn’t the only one.

Mom spent some of her final hours planning her funeral, and our mourning.

No flowers. Pine coffin. Pink napkins. No DZ Akin’s catering during shiva.

She didn’t want her funeral to be maudlin. She wanted a celebration of her life.

And so that’s what we did.

There were moments when we each broke, moments when we wallowed in the tragedy. But, for the most part, we cried through our laughs, reflecting on how much we loved her, not how much we missed her. We sat seven days of shiva in awe over the woman – the mother, daughter, sister and wife – we came to know so much better in her death. We poked fun, and smiled, and celebrated all she accomplished in her far too few years through our sadness.

Mom’s body still lay warm in the other room when my uncle prodded my grandparents to realize that it would only be right to take us all on a “Lori Bolotin memorial cruise.”

Why cry, when you can laugh?

Three weeks later, shiva is all a blur. It seems like eons ago. I’m sure that I haven’t seen my mom in years.

And as time fades the memories of mom’s suffering, the experience of our angst and worry, the visions of her sickness, I’m left realizing that I just miss her.

More than anything in the world.

I no longer feel relieved that she’s no longer in pain. I’m no longer comforted that this madness is over. I’m just a son, who misses his mom.

But in my more sanguine moments, I can sit comfortably for a moment or two and accept that this should be hard, that healing will take a long time. That there is no sense in what happened and that is OK.

Life is messy. We control much less than we pretend to.

People die. They die too young. They die without reason. And they suffer too much along the way.

My mom was one such person.

But she was also a person who, through her death, came to understand just how messy life is, that it’s not black and white, but black and white and gray, and a little more black and a little white, all mishmashed together in a messy contorted reality.

All her life she had thought, she had lived as if the opposite were true.

But it’s not.

And we can fight that fact all we want. But that’s just a waste of the time we do have.

On that day, that day before she left this world, when I sat there, showing her ties, my mom did not like the pink tie I showed her.

“Too much,” she said.

She did not like the black one either.

“Too formal.”

She chose for me, to wear on the day of her funeral, the day we celebrated what she gave to this world an argyle tie of black and white and grey stripes, all criss-crossing each other in one big mess of a statement.

Touché, mom.

Touché.

30,000 Feet

Two weeks ago, I sat on an airplane, drinking some wine to ease the pain. My seat mate turned and asked what was taking me to San Diego.

“I’m going home to watch my mom die,” I said.

And so it was. The woman I came home to was a world away from the woman I had left only three weeks prior. This was a woman who looked like cancer. This was a woman who knew she was dying.

The next few days are a blur. Conversations about hospice. Learning that morphine would prevent her from feeling like she was drowning. The tears. The goodbyes. The hugs.

She asked me, “What will I do without you?” She told me, “Goodnight sweetie,” and then died only hours later.

The one memory clearer than all others is running to grab Shanna as she got out of the car so that I could hold her tight as I told her mom was gone.

There’s no way to fully prepare for someone you love to die. All the more so, there’s no way to be ready for the inevitable when they are so unfairly young, when they have suffered so much, and when you’ve thought – when you’ve assured them – all the while that they’re getting better.

It’s been a week and a half since I buried my mom. My beard is uncomfortably long. A week of shiva and home and grieving has left my belt uncomfortably tight.

Yet it’s never been harder to leave San Diego.

The world feels broken – upside down at least. It does not yet make sense.

Maybe it never will.

But my mom’s memory lives on. It lives on in the hundreds of friends and family who helped us to mourn these past few weeks. It lives on in the thousands of lives she touched during her short time on this earth.

It lives on in me, a son who wishes he’d spent a few fewer hours being angry about things that didn’t matter and resenting attributes that were unchangeable, a few years less being annoyed and distant.

When I started rabbinical school, my mom would joke about how “we” would learn so much now that “we” were studying to be a rabbi. She was more proud of my journey than almost anything.

I am heartbroken that she never got to see me in action. She was the one who knew that Dallas was where I would go from the beginning. There are so many accomplishments, so many successes, so many excitements that I want to get on my phone and call her to tell her about.

But her line is disconnected. There’s no one there to answer.

And I want more than anything to cry on her lap. To hold her tight and have her tell me everything is going to be all right.

But I can’t.

My writing follows a fairly normal course of emotion, starting high, moving low, and coming up high again at the end. Almost pollyannish.

But this one can’t.

Or maybe it can.

My mom was an absurdly complex woman who lived a relatively simple life. She cared about family, about her home, about her Howie. She wanted people to like her.

They did.

And I loved her more than anything in the world.

I don’t know how I’ll live without her. But I know that I have no other options. It made her uncomfortable knowing that we were even sad about her.

So we’ll live on.

And we’ll name our kids after her. And we’ll color things pink because of her. And we’ll miss her. Oh we’ll miss her.

Because we love her.

And we always will.

Lori Ann

For most of my life I was more than my mom’s son. I was also her confidant, her chief negotiator, and, too often, her psychologist.

Yes, your parents are amazing, I would assure her. Yes, so and so does like you, I would affirm. No, you cannot send that email without beginning World War 3.

She would send the email anyway.

I fought, for 30 years, to protect my mom. From the world, and from herself.

And she would always say, “What would I do without you?”

What would I do without you?

I was there at the beginning, the day she learned – through the most horrific chain of events – that she had been lied to; that her cancer was not barely stage one but very much stage four.

That was the day she learned she’d die.

And, I’ll note, that was also the day she called back her doctor, a few hours later, with a small sense of pride, to ask if he’d ever had a more dramatic patient.

I sat with her her, outside UCLA hospital, her head on my shoulder, and held her. There were no words to convey. It was just heart-breaking.

What would I do without you? She said.

But then, only a few days ago, when I rushed home to watch my mom die, I sat with her in the ICU, telling her I love her, telling her we’ll be with her until the end, telling her goodbye.

She moved in and out of lucidity, but a moment came, tears began to stream down her face, and she said, “What will I do without you?”

That was the moment I died inside, the moment I realized I could not protect her anymore. Not from the world, not from herself, certainly not from cancer.

But it was also the moment I finally internalized that, as ugly a toll as this disease had taken on my mom in less than six months; as unfair as it was, as meaningless as it seemed, I would not let my mom’s memory be defined by the way she died.

It takes a special woman to be eulogized – positively – by two husbands. It takes a special woman to – only hours after she died – have her home filled with her ex-sisters in law, women who still love her, women who cried over her suffering and her passing as much as anyone else.

It takes a special woman to be cared for day and night by friends as committed to her as family; bringing her food; painting her nails; gossiping good gossip with her even in the ICU. Over the last few weeks I’ve taken moments to thank them for being such good friends for my mom; each one responded the same way – “You mom was so easy to be friends with. We are only doing a fraction of what she would do – what she did do – for us.” Apparently, my mom was a good friend.

And apparently, she carried weight in this community – laboring for the betterment of our people and our institutions. I never knew the extent to which she was adored, the extent to which she was successful. She was too modest. Too focussed on the import of her work to worry about building her name.

I only knew her as a mom.

And she was the best mom a son could ask for.

My mom was fickle, but never a fair weather friend. My mom lacked confidence, but never conviction. My mom lacked pride, but never poise.

And the center of her world, the whole reason for her existence, was us.

She spoiled Shanna rotten.

She loved my dad till the day she died.

Family was what concerned her when, in July of each year she started planning Thanksgiving, and in October she started arranging Passover. She gave everything for me and Shanna, everything for her parents, everything for her brother, everything for Julia and Eliana, who she loved like her own kids, everything for Howard, everything even for my dad.

And home was where she sustained her family. Home was her castle. Her security blanket. She loved it as much as family itself. She would be so excited to be having so many guests coming over to see her impeccable design.

A story.

Three years ago we were in Tahiti celebrating my grandma’s birthday. We were in heaven on earth, on a boat adorned in decadence. And on that first night, I sat in a beautiful dining room with my mom and Howard, overlooking the most perfect beaches in the world.

My mom started crying.

She was homesick. In Tahiti. On a cruise. Surrounded by those she loved. She was homesick.

And so, it offers a level of solace that mom got to come home before she died. She left behind the wires and probes, the sounds and surroundings, and spent one last day in her castle.

She saw friends. She sat with family. She even managed a few smiles.

In one moment of lucidity she looked up at us and asked – “Is today the day?”

“Only when you’re ready, mom.” I said.

A few hours later, my vigil was done for the day, and I went to say goodbye. I gave her a hug, and a kiss on her bald head, and told her I’d see her in the morning.

She was quiet. Tired. Exhausted.

I walked toward the door and a voice said loud and clear, “Good night sweetie.”

Good night mom. The world will not be the same without you. Nieman Marcus and Nordstrom and Diet Coke and Lifetime Television will all be worse in your absence. I don’t know what I’ll do without you. But I know that you’ll never be without me.

Good night.

I’m Sorry

I visited my family in San Diego over Labor Day.

One night, everyone came over and we brought in dinner from a local take-out restaurant. I was sitting across from my mom as we ate. She had barbecued chicken; I had barbecued salmon.

Horrible horrible salmon.

My mom noticed that I wasn’t eating, asked me why not, and I told her that the salmon was not very good.

And so, as might be expected from any Jewish mother, she apologized. “I’m sorry,” she said.

I’ll admit, I was taken back by the apology. She didn’t make the salmon; she didn’t buy the salmon; she didn’t tell me to eat the salmon. In fact, she had no part whatsoever in the chain of events that led that bad-tasting dead fish to find its way into my mouth.

And yet, there she was, apologizing.

I brushed off the comment at the time. But I could not shake the episode from my thoughts. Because I found it interesting that she would waste one ounce of life feeling remorseful over something for which she had no control; that she would waste words from her mouth apologizing for something of no consequence, of no import. I found it sad that something so meaningless could lead someone to feel badly, for me, about their self, maybe both.

I was troubled, because we had gone down this road before, on a much greater scale, only three months prior.

As many of you know, one week after my ordination this May, my mom was diagnosed with stage-IV synovial sarcoma: an acute cancer in her knee which metastasized throughout her lungs. I remember like yesterday the phone call.

“David,” she said. “I have some bad news.”

That’s where my memory goes black.

I do not remember how she described that bad news. I do not remember her telling me that the pain in her leg was actually an exceedingly rare cancer; I do not remember her telling me that that rare cancer had spread into fifty tumors throughout her lungs. Or of how scared she was, or how difficult the road ahead may be, or that she may die.

The next thing that I remember, remember so clearly and vividly that it might as well have happened today, is her saying two words which have haunted me since.

She said, “I’m sorry.” Read more