Searching through the remains of the past, a daughter finds what she’s been missing.
The author dedicates this article to her parents, Mimi and George Mishkoff, z″l″
By A.Z. Cohn
My parents died when I was relatively young — my father when I was 22, and my mother 10 years later. For 25 years I’ve been orphaned of both parents, quite unusual in this age of advanced medical science and longer life spans. All the recent talk of the “sandwich generation” leaves me cold (and out in the cold), unable to relate, removed from that reality. On one hand, I see my friends dealing with their aged parents and I think, “Hey, at least you have parents,” and on the other hand I’m secretly relieved that I don’t have to go through that particular ordeal. My four children never met their grandfather and barely remember my mother, but, on the other hand, I’m not juggling the needs of kids and grandkids (14 and counting!) with those of elderly parents. Classic good news and bad news.
One of the downsides of not having parents to care for is not having the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah (the good deed) of honoring one’s parents. This is a biggie as commandments go — one of the Top Ten. If my parents were alive, I’d possibly be able to cultivate the unselfish, nurturing, caring part of me that is woefully undeveloped. Yes, I raised my kids fairly well, but I’ve never had the chance to “give back” to those who raised me; this is my loss and it probably affects me in ways that I’m unaware of. Not only do I not have parents who love me the way that only parents do, but I will never be able to return the “favor” — and I’m not sure which is worse.
As it turns out, though, this problem was not entirely irreversible. Seven years ago, I married Teddy (second marriage for both of us), who is four years younger than me, and he came with amazingly healthy, living parents. They welcomed me into their family, as did Teddy’s two sisters, but the relationship faced a major obstacle — they lived in New York while we live in Israel. As hardy as they were, they didn’t like the 12-hour flight or the packing or the jet lag (and who could blame them). They visited once in those seven years — for my stepson’s Bar Mitzvah — but that was it. Teddy and I started flying there annually — for my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday, for instance — but, still, it’s hard for a relationship to flourish under those conditions.
Then, three years ago, my father-in-law, Joe, was diagnosed with duodenal cancer. We got The Call (which anyone living far from family dreads) and flew immediately, not knowing if he’d be dead or alive when we got there. We arrived to find him sitting up in the ICU, making an unexpected, even miraculous comeback, though still in need of hospitalization.
Teddy and I stayed near the hospital (mostly in Joe’s room) for the next few days. This is when I discovered that, as much as I may have wanted to play the Honor Your Parents card, I was never going to be able to get full credit, no matter how caring, attentive or selfless I would be. Tending to one’s in-laws is a piece of cake compared to caring for one’s own parents, which is fraught with emotional baggage and angst. As opposed to Teddy, I came in with a clean slate, ready to do some good, eager to help, patient and caring; Teddy, with the same good intentions but with 50 years of history, was…different. He stuck it out — we actually had a pretty nice time during those few days — but it was a strain for him, an emotional whirlwind. I was the objective, serene Florence Nightingale-in-Law; Teddy was the very emotionally laden Dr. StrangeSon.
My father-in-law’s cancer spread to the liver after a year, but he fought it tenaciously and his 88-year-old body refused to capitulate. Finally, about a year ago, it was clear that he was actually dying. We saw him in May 2011, after which he took a drastic turn for the worse, and we returned in August, not really prepared for the very sick man we found. Once again, I discovered that it’s much easier to be the daughter-in-law than the son. “Where’s Aliza?” my father-in-law would ask repeatedly, and only occasionally, “Where’s Teddy?” He talked to me; raged at Teddy. He told me he knew he was dying, that he was ready; he told Teddy to go home.
Teddy and I both helped out during that week (almost managing to vanquish the guilt that comes from living 6,000 miles away from a sick parent), but I wasn’t fooled into thinking that I was getting the true daughter experience. As involved as I was, I was still operating with the inevitable distance that lack of a blood relationship creates. I could do more because there was less emotion; I could help more because I was less invested; I could care more because I loved less. The mitzvah of honoring one’s parents falls on children-in-law as well, but I realized that I’d never be able to fulfill this deed to its fullest extent. That boat had sailed when my parents died; all I could ever do was paddle alongside, a good-deed wannabe.
We left after a week, and my father-in-law seemed somewhat improved, bolstered by our visit. So we were surprised when he died four days later; we returned for the funeral and for Teddy, his mother and his sisters to sit shiva. This was in September; since then, my mother-in-law has been coping, but she lives alone and I worried about her. After a few months I started thinking about how I could help — how I could get some of those Honor points. Yes, I had accepted the fact that they were of somewhat diminished value — like I was now being marked on a lower curve than my classmates — but I still felt the need to do something for a parent figure, in lieu of an actual parent.
And then I had it! My mother-in-law lived a somewhat cluttered existence; my beloved husband and his sisters were of the same persuasion. I, on the other hand, though far from a neat freak, am very organized and, to me, clutter equals confusion, which leads to chaos, which is the source of many of life’s ills, such as depression, despair and general malaise. Without me, I realized, Joe’s clothes and possessions could easily fill closets, drawers, wall units, and armoires forever, leaving my mother-in-law with way less room than she could otherwise have if the …stuff…was disposed of. This good deed had my name written all over it. This was a dream deed, actually — I get to fly to another country and throw out someone else’s junk.
I floated the idea to my mother-in-law and she jumped on it. I think she was more interested in simply having my full attention for a week; the cleaning-up part was probably secondary. It was a win-win situation — I’d get to declutter and organize, and my mother-in-law would have almost full-time company for the duration of my stay. She’s pretty chatty and, once again, our lack of shared genes allows me to be an available and attentive companion, unencumbered by judgment or anxiety. This was gonna be great, I thought.
And it was! I found the task somewhat more daunting than I had expected (the cleanup part, not the companion-for-a-week aspect), but I was definitely the man for the job. Unbeknownst to my mother-in-law I had my eye not just on Joe’s clothes but also on the piles and piles of papers that she had accumulated over the years (as a teacher and as someone who has possibly never thrown out a piece of mail in her life).
I started with the clothing, which was everywhere in great abundance, sorting through — among other things — hundreds of ties, sweaters, shirts, jackets and pairs of shoes. I stuffed garbage bags (which — insanely — I had brought with me from Israel, sort of like a hit man traveling with his own weapons) with unusable things; I filled boxes with garments to give to charity; and I made piles of still-in-good-shape items for children, grandchildren, nephews and friends to choose from, should they want a souvenir from Joe’s life.
Once I got the clothing out of the way, I tackled the papers, trying to glance at each document long enough to ascertain that it wasn’t Microsoft stock from when it was worth two cents a share or whether a long overdue bill had mushroomed into a debt of thousands of dollars. Once again, my emotional detachment came in handy — a closer family member may have been slowed by sentiment and reminiscence — though even I paused when I unearthed my in-laws’ 60-year-old ketubah (their marriage contract) and photos of my husband when he was in kindergarten. In deference to the ties that bind, I created a folder for “nostalgia” where I put the odd second-grade report card, Mother’s Day card, and correspondence. Mostly, though, I threw stuff out like I was possessed, exposing floors, walls and surfaces that hadn’t seen the light of day in a decade.
In between bouts of fevered purging, my mother-in-law, Ethel, and I would shop, schmooze and dine out (she insisted on paying for everything — another few points off the self-righteous meter for me). I chauffeured her around in her big American Buick, we talked and talked and talked (i.e., I listened, listened and listened), and we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. I even helped her pack for a trip to Florida that she was making a few days after my departure.
Amid all the organizing, sorting, cleaning and discarding, we bonded. When I left, it was hard to say good-bye. Everyone was most appreciative — my sisters-in-law in particular — but, truthfully, I was the real beneficiary. My weeklong search-and-destroy mission wasn’t nearly the same as caring for a parent in his or her waning years; shopping in Costco and eating out every night is far from a sacrifice. This was hardly the true act of kindness and generosity that I see my friends performing for their ailing and dependent parents; I will never have the pressing opportunity to really perform that mitzvah (I have the utmost respect for those who do, and I am left wondering if I ever could). But in cleaning up the remnants of another person’s life, I discovered what had been missing in mine. For a week, I had what every child ultimately wants (especially the child whose parents die young) — I had my mother’s undivided attention and love. I gave what I could; I got more than I ever could have imagined.
A.Z. Cohn is a U.S.-born writer and a grandmother of 14 who has lived in Israel for almost 30 years. She has been published in The New York Times (in the “Modern Love” column) and in Lilith.
A.L. Cohn dedicates this article to her parents, Mimi and George Mishkoff, z”l”