Tonight/tomorrow marks ten years (on the Jewish calendar) since my sister, Ellen (or Elana to many), died. This past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about this time ten years ago, when she finally went to the doctor, was sent immediately to the hospital, had a bone marrow biopsy, and received the devastating diagnosis that led to her death just a few days later.
I remember so vividly the conversations I had with her earlier that week. She had gone off a two-year experimental protocol of chemo to treat the symptoms of her aggressive remitting-recurring MS and had started experiencing some new and odd symptoms. Shira, her eldest of four children, finally convinced her to see her doctor. I could hear the fear in Ellen’s voice. I think she already knew what was coming. Daily conversations from Wednesday-Friday kept me up to date and confirmed the worst – acute leukemia, too advanced to treat. Get your affairs in order quickly.
Shira stayed with Ellen overnight. The next morning, my phone rang; it was Shira calling. It was both Shabbat and Chag (a festival day), so I knew if she was calling it must be urgent. “Ema has a brain bleed. Get here as soon as you can. They don’t know if she’s going to recover.”
Traveling from Jacksonville, FL to Boston proved to be a challenge, especially since I was wearing a boot for a broken bone in my foot. Flying through Atlanta, because my connecting flight was in a different concourse, the airport staff would not transport me in a cart. I missed my connecting flight by two minutes even though the gate agent at my arrival gate had called ahead and asked them to hold the flight. In fact, my nephew, Ben, was able to get there from Israel before I did! By the time I arrived Sunday morning, there was no detectable brain activity. Ellen had suffered a massive stroke. Shira, Ben, Leora, Yoni, her husband, Dan, and I sat vigil for the next 24 hours. There were halachic (Jewish law) questions about whether or not the ventilator could be removed and whether or not medication that might prolong the beating of her heart could be withheld. I called my parents and booked a flight for my father; my mother was not well enough to travel. I Skyped with Kenny and Missy so that they could have the opportunity to say their goodbyes to their Doda (aunt).
Monday early afternoon, Dan left the hospital to pick up my father at the airport. It was at that time that Ellen’s heart stopped, and I held her hand as she passed from this world to the next. Of course we’ll never know for sure, but I believe her neshama (soul) was waiting to depart for that time when neither her husband nor her father were there in order to spare them the pain of that moment.
Four times a year, we say Yizkor (remembrance) prayers and light yahrzeit (annual remembrance) candles for our immediate family members who are no longer with us. I always feel strange lighting the candles on Simchat Torah, knowing that I will light a solitary candle just two days later. This year, I decided to reserve that lighting for tonight, having observed Yizkor just two weeks ago on Yom Kippur.
So tonight at sundown I will light a yahrzeit candle and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in Ellen’s memory. Ten years. So much has happened. So many times I’ve wanted to pick up the phone and call. So many times I’ve felt all alone, especially when dealing with my parents’ deaths, even though I was surrounded by my own family and friends.
It’s true, time does heal, and the thoughts or connections that used to bring floods of tears come far less frequently… but they still come, especially when I braid my round High Holy Day challot, plan my holiday menu, make a recipe she gave me, or think of the son- and daughters-in-law and beautiful grandchildren she never got to meet. Or when I share stories, such as how we divided up the art our parents gifted us, delicately negotiating with different color post-its and loads of laughter. Always laughter. Thankfully, I’m now able to call up the memories of love and laughter to suppress the tears and fill my heart with gratitude for the happier times we shared. Tonight I’ll look through the photos and allow the tears to fall and the love and happy memories to flood my heart, as I do every year on this date.
Yizkor Elohim et nishmat achoti Eidel Gittel Elana bat Menachem u’Mariashe Rishe she-halcha l’olama. May God remember the soul of my beloved sister, Ellen/Elana Nouriel, who has gone to her eternal home. For the sake of her precious soul, let my memories, my prayers, and my acts of goodness bring honor to her memory. May she be at one with the One who is life eternal, and may the beauty of her life shine through all who were blessed to know her forevermore.