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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Ethel Konigsberg, 1928-2007

My mother died last Saturday night.

That is to say, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, resulting in almost immediate brain death. Shortly after suffering the hemorrhage, she lost all her brain functions. She was kept on machines for a couple of days, allowing the entire family to congregate, and also to allow the New York State So-and-so board to legally declare her brain dead, and terminate the life support, at which point she ... I don't know. Died for real, I suppose.

If this sounds tragic, it is, in more ways than one. My mother was 79 years old. This may seem like an old age, but she was a vital, active person. In fact, the hemorrhage occurred mid-stride, moving from dinner to spending the evening with her boyfriend. My mother may have had a 79-year-old body, but she had a very active brain, and a body that kept her on the go. As my brother said, she had the body of a 60-year old. There was no pressing medical issue: in the last 12 years, she had been hospitalized maybe three times: once for back problems, once last month to have a stent installed, and once more, as I've described, at the end of her life. The many doctors (including those that are family friends) insisted that neither the stent nor other possible contributing factors had anything to do with the hemorrhage. The other thing every doctor said (including those that are family friends) was that she didn't know what hit her. When she died, the only ones that knew were absolutely everyone else. She died in motion.

I don't believe it was her time to die. She has a brother ten years older who, while primarily serving as my loving uncle, served as a sort of barometer to me. Since women live longer then men, and my mother was in good health, I expected unfailingly that my mother had at least ten more years of life in her. It turns out I was wrong.

It also turns out that the idea that you could die at any moment isn't just true, but is likely to happen to someone you know. I am amazed at the number of people who have told me they suffered a similar loss: "My friend died like this at 41," said the doorman of my brother's building.

Over the last four years, my wife and I have laid in bed and admitted secretly to each other about ourselves, "I'm so lucky that my mother is alive at this stage in my life. If she died, I don't know what I'd do." I guess at some point we'll pick up the pieces and start move on, but this is all so fresh, so if you asked me what I am going to do, I'll tell you: I have no idea what I'll do.

The relationship I have had with my mother in the last fifteen years, however, has been a fabulous one. We became friends as adults: this has given me a large part of my adult happiness. We talked often, and I didn't refrain from sharing things with her, so when she died, I felt like there was nothing left unsaid. When the nurse removed life support from my mother, and her body died, I sat with her. I told her who was visiting, what I was planning to do, some recent news, and some secrets that I had to keep from her. By doing that, I shifted from being hysterical to being complete. Mostly complete, that is. Grieving is a difficult process.

Then I realized there were some other final thoughts I had to share with her. I wrote those up as a eulogy, which I shared at the funeral the very next day. Now, almost a week later, I see there were other things my mother needs to know. I guess this will never end.

If you tell me she's in a better place, I'll say you're full of crap. She was in a fabulous place: full of life and happiness. She was with her friends and surrounded by love and hope. She was 79 years old, looking toward the future. The dirt isn't a better place for her.

While I'm being honest, please spare the "She's looking down from above" story. Unless you have some concrete proof, I'll take my comfort knowing she was one of the lucky few: she was happy and in motion, and she died quickly, with no knowledge, planning her next adventure.

One last happy facet before I conclude: this woman was loved, loved, loved, and the number of people that knew her and loved her was growing faster than the number of people that were forgetting her. That's not a bad way to go. Our job is to remember her.
If you are interested in making a contribution in the memory of my mother, please consider the Hebrew Free Burial Association, which can be found on the web at This organization gives destitute Jews a proper and dignified Jewish burial, and is an organization that was close to my mother's heart.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Robert, I am your cousin Gayle Silver, but my married name is Siegel. My late father, George Silver was your father's first cousin, from the Baltimore cousins. You may or may not remember me, but I remember you as a younger boy. I just heard about your Mother and I am in shock! Ira Lipson just told me the news. My son is about to be Bar Mitzvah'ed next weekend and your mother emailed me two monhs ago that she was not up for traveling much anymore. Ira and I spoke tonight I mentioned that your mother wasn't poming and I was disappointed and that is when he told me the news! Your mother and I emailed often. She was very special to me, I suppose because she was a special lady, more ways than one. She helped me wih a family tree I wrote a few years ago and hooked me up wih Abe & Berta Savetman she also told me a lot about my grandparents and your grandmother Bertha.

I AM SOOOOOOO VERY SORRY for your loss. My email address is: I would love to hear from you and Joel or Peter, but please know my heartfelt sympathy is traveling to you at this moment.
Fondly, Gayle Silver Siegel