Thursday, April 04, 2013

Skype shiva

An unsung hero died yesterday. I told you about her five years ago, the old Jewish Romanian woman who lived on the same floor as my friends J and A on the Upper West Side, whom we called "Neighbor." (Her real name was Esther, or Ernestina, shortened to Tina.) The young caretaker from Guinea-Bissau, the first careaker in years who had been able to make Neighbor smile, called J and A in Minneapolis yesterday morning, in tears. Neighbor's life wasn't easy, but she was an artist of life.

It was a long life, lived in many countries and languages with resourcefulness and wit. A wartime childhood, losing a world and most of her family to Soviets and Nazis, with an amazing story of survival up and back down Eastern Europe with her mother (who couldn't speak unaccented German) and a dwindling stock of family silver to exchange for food, shelter, protection. Years in Italy, and Israel, and then in the US, where she worked for 26 years without a rest to make a life for her son. And then at last some travel for pleasure, tours every moment of which she could recall as if it were yesterday. Books, in the many languages she knew fluently (from high school!). And, as she became infirm, a long decline in her apartment on West 90th Street.

I have no doubt the best part of its last 16 years was the care and admiration of J and A, who became like the daughters or nieces she never had. Especially happy moments were festive meals like Passover and Thanksgiving, when Neighbor made her way slowly past the elevator landing to J and A's apartment and bantered and laughed (and ate, how she could eat - only no vegetables!) with people honored to share a table with her. Otherwise she was alone, except for daily visits from J and A, which had become daily phone calls when J and A moved to Minnesota last year. Her son checked in infrequently. J and A brought her food every time they cooked. It was they connected her to cable television, to the internet (she loved learning, loved "my Wikipedia"), to a Holocaust survivors care organization, and even to a rabbi. (Neighbor wasn't religious but that didn't mean she didn't have questions for God; she picked my brain about it sometimes, too. What could I possibly say?)

We sat a kind of remote shiva for her last night; Neighbor would have appreciated the strange new world of technology which made it possible. As we communed through skype, J called up an app on her iPhone which sang the Kaddish (we had the option of Ashkenazi or Sephardic) as they followed along - the words were transliterated. Then we drank a toast - they had champagne, the only thing Neighbor would drink; I had a campari, my regular drink when visiting J and A - and shared stories, as one does, never knowing if it would end in mirth or tears (or both). We hadn't seen - even skype seen - each other in months. Remembering Neighbor brought us back together.

Neighbor had been asking God to let her die for years and years. "She won," said A. "Te deum," said I. "We mourn, but she's free."

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