More than a Minyan

In my professional work, we have used the iceberg as a symbol of what is said “above” the water line and what is felt/sensed/not said “below” it.  Usually our advice has been to take what is below and get it into some form that can be shared.  Or, at least for your own self, understand the connection between the cold and dark below and what surfaces into the heat and light of the air above.  It is what is.  In my transition to daughter-without-mother, I am standing at the top of that proverbial iceberg.  Though it seems my job is not to transfix and transform the held-back to the spoken, but rather to grapple through bedrock into the freedom of the deep blue see (not sea).

It was exactly seven days since she had passed.  My mother.  Although, mathematically speaking, not until 7:11 that night.  Somehow a corner convenience store worked its way into her leaving story.  I think it was all the secret trips for Hershey bars and diet root beer, the two cancelling each other out, in the relentless effort of “being beautiful and thin again.” As a teen, in the required act of differentiation, I stridently and independently, switched it to diet coke. I will be my own person as I sip-n-snack in your shadow.

Never before have I been a Jewish mourner.  I have mourned three due to death and three due to love. The first two were Catholic, the 2nd atheist. The other three, long continuations into the next phase: without you.

A Jewish mourner (of death, though maybe we should use it for love too) is a mourner with a footpath.  First week, first month, first year.  Even every year after is a milestone marker of passage.  The guest book the funeral guys gave me comes with her yartzheit dates listed until 2036. Her last journal entries were dated 2027 or 2034 — dementia connecting her to the future of what was to be at the end.

In the squall of getting from the night she died to the Sunday afternoon memorial service, I was consumed by the constancy of detail.  Some say we do this to distract during the rawness of just-fresh- death.  I was agitated to annoyance – exhausticated. Then came Shiva.  The ritual, communal logic.

I fidgeted over “would we have a minyan”in order to say Kaddish.  Ten people, by Jewish law, makes a minyan.  Then again, we are Reform Jews.  There can be two of us or ten of us to be a minyan. If we are called to pray we do: may this mother’s soul pass through to peace/may this mourner’s heart push through to the “see” (not sea).

So one week out, this path meets me in gratitude for a more-than-a-minyan of menches (really, really good people) who came to stand, sit, eat, pray, with this mourner (and then clean up, so I didn’t have to).  You greeted me with the kindness and generosity of your wisdom: laughter takes you out of the hollow of sorrow; so do kids; and Milano cookies with red wine in bed. “There is a very real realness –  you being from her and not her…In the shadow of what she couldn’t give you, you have become who you are – the mother that you are – a good mother – a caring and loving and devoted mother – and for this we are grateful.”

So today, one week out, this minyan-mourning-shiva- path etched from some ancient text becomes the GPS of choice for my travels outside-in,  through tiny, icy crevices, to  deliver on the  promise, over time-undefined, of a greater depth –  though maybe not ease – as her memory becomes  blessing , if not joy.

© Gabriella Strecker, 2017

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Resident Essentials

These two were a whirlwind with a squeamish streak, buoyed by a bedrock of black-humor. To the outside ear they likely seemed callous – maybe even disrespectful and mean.  To their inside hearts it was a balm – this ability to turn the awful hurt into a caricature of perspective. Eleven years of institutional living bagged in less than ninety minutes.

The moment they crossed the invisible crime scene tape, yellow and slimed with debris, they could feel it.  The room was clinging.  It hadn’t been touched (like evidence).  There were towels on the floor, the bed askew, the TV turned over on its face.  Fine – the logistics of a stretcher in a small space made the corners hard to maneuver, but no one thought to right it? To restore a semblance of “home” that less than 36 hours before had been the pinnacle of care, the grace and dignity of senior living?

On the heels of her passing, “home” was a heavy-aired room, looking exactly like every other room in this Hilton of long term care (and dying).  It’s different in a hospital – some people are being born, some saved, a life turned around.  Here everyone is dying – different pace, different reason – but always the same outcome.   The hot, muggy room tells us so.  Opening the window helps a bit, but cannot remove the residue of resignation to this end result.

In the swarm of the last few days, it’s hard to remember who said it – maybe a cousin.  They know someone who runs “Death Cafes” (hand to G*d, as they say, that’s what it’s called).  People come together, I guess, at Starbucks or Peets, to talk about death.   Like the act of dying.  Like when the last gasp is heard.

This seems like something our dynamic duo would not enjoy.  The seriousness of such a subject would be discomforting. Likely not the place where saying “yuck” while holding the departed’s old, crappy shirt would be considered good process, even if it is still crusted with some kind of food-made-mush to accommodate a compromised swallow.  The cleverly designed, yet blatantly sad, “Resident Essentials” clothing line that looks like your average polyester dress with a peter pan collar, but has all the bells-and-whistle-openings-and-access of a hospital johnny – who do you give this to? You might say, “the girl next door,” but donating back is fiercely forbidden for fear of someone saying “Why is she wearing my mother’s….” I guess it happens, not that I personally would have noticed (or minded).  At this point, is ownership relevant?  The team largely leaves our two cleaners be as they rummage and reject much of the remnants:  stuffed animals and costume jewelry purchased downstairs in the “little store” – a treat amidst a monotony of days.

The parade of aides came in one by one that last night. They said good bye or prayed over the foot of the bed.  They told stories.  The irony of their sweet nostalgia for her descent (dissent?) rang awkwardly in its truth.   Eight bags of garbage to be removed when facilities does the deep clean and repaint, turning the room for the next person.  Some family, somewhere, is so relieved today because finally, finally, after so much work and worry and waiting they have found a place where their person will be safe, get good care, and have as rich a life as possible when dementia has taken the rest.

©Gabriella Strecker, 2017

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A Palliative Playlist

They tell me hearing is the last sense to go; seems plausible given the eye brows still rise and furrow at the sound of my voice.  In a more active place, like an ICU, the goal is to “turn the bed,” so it’s more like a palliative push.  In long-term care, comfort is prolonged.  So my job is to fill the time.   I rummage through drawers and old notebooks.  I read out loud until agitation (hers and mine) sets in.  Then, I turn to song.  I sing along.  I cry.  I do these two things at the same time…

As I neither want to get in your way, nor rush you out the door, “Let the light guide your way. Hold every memory as you go. And every road you take, will always lead you home1. Along the way, “Nobody can tell ya. There’s only one song worth singin’. They may try and sell ya. ‘Cause it hangs them up to see someone like you.  But you’ve gotta make your own kind of music. Sing your own special song. Even if nobody else sings along.” 2

“Just so you know,” you’d say to me when I was small, “Parents are people. People with children. When parents were little, they used to be kids…but then they grew. And now parents are grown-ups…There are a lot of things…parents can do.”3

For instance when I, “Work all night on a drink of rum,” 4 it’s because, “I’ve looked at clouds [as] rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air.   But now they only block the sun…So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way…it’s life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know life at all .”5

You don’t believe in G*d, you have told, written, preached to me; a Jewish atheist like your mom.  I don’t know if I believe or not, though I know you think I know. Either way, over the years, I have tried, not always gracefully for sure, to serve yours: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed? 6

Your love, a reformed Catholic, strummed on the guitar for you: “Come, sing a song of joy for peace shall come.”7   You answered with your full force: “I need your sweet inspiration. I need you here on my mind every hour of the day. Without your sweet inspiration, the lonely hours of the night just don’t go my way.” 8

I sort of feel that way myself right now.  Not to be crass, and obviously don’t mind me, but I’m waiting to be released from mothering you, my mother.  No rush, of course, proceed at your own pace, but know I believe we are ready.  So maybe just: “Ease on down, ease on down the road.. Don’t you carry nothin’ that might be a load. Come on, ease on down, ease on down the road. “9

And as you do, I will sing to you my favorite bedtime prayer, HashkiveinuIt will blanket you:“…Adonai, remove wrongdoing from before us and behind us, and shelter us in the shadow of your wings…You protect us in all our goings and comings for life and for now until eternity…Amen.10

  1. Wiz Khalifa, See You Again
  2. The Mamas and the Papas, Make Your Own Kind of Music
  3. Harry Belafonte and Marlo Thomas, Parents are People
  4. Harry Belafonte, Day-O, The Banana Boat Song
  5. Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now
  6. Woody Guthrie, Amazing Grace
  7. Ode to Joy
  8. Yandall Sisters, Sweet Inspiration
  9. Diana Ross, The Wiz
  10. Hashkiveinu, Jewish Prayer


©Gabriella Strecker, 2017

photo courtesy of


I don’t want to be a bad person, but I don’t want to confuse the universe.  It’s hard to keep the messages clear.  Let her go, but not because I am heartless, but because she is not happy or living really. Okay, maybe a little bit because she tortured me. She was my sadist, nightmarishly focused on reaching down my throat and grabbing the very voice within me, so at last she would know who she was…

Year after year they tell me it’s end stage.   Dementia: the slowest path to death known to man.  She’s lost everything, not even a scrap of self left.  In the end of her life so it was throughout – blocking herself from love and then yelling as if it’s our fault. She swears like a sailor. Even with her eyes closed.  Not a recognition or response in sight.

Every case management meeting I have to re review the advanced directives.  How much clearer do you want me to be? No intubation. No ER. No food. No IV fluids.  No antibiotics. Yes morphine, a double dose, and hit me with it too, would you?  I got pain that needs easing.  Even though I am deciding again and again on care and comfort, it can’t be hidden.  I am the gracious murderer, not curing, but ending.  My personal Passover – a future freedom discovered. Her personal  Easter – a historic capture ended.

I know they judge me harshly, the sing-song, nursing home aides from Haiti.  For my own sanity I don’t go visit for a few weeks. What? You question me?  After over twenty years of managing her life, being her only care taker, I can’t have a break every once in a while?  There is no one else to step in.  I have nothing but this pretty-much-already-gone-mother who tried to end herself so many times, and messed it up. So now it’s me here waiting. I mean, this could have been taken care of years ago.

“You will regret not working things through with her when she dies,”  people have told me.  Maybe.  When she goes (or if) will I cry?  Like maybe it’s going to creep up on me out of nowhere.  I am not sure.

But where will I put her?  These  ashes of a life spent loving through hating. Where do these things belong? Back to the earth seems unrighteous somehow – future generations and all.

©Gabriella Strecker, 2016

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Christmas Traditions

“Dear Dolores,” she wrote from the waiting area outside gate 10 at an airport in Korea in a town she cannot pronounce.  When in the US, she takes advantage of the jet-lagged-earned-gold-medallion-status and goes to the lounge.  But in other countries, curiosity drives her out of the quiet, soft-chaired luxury awarded to the too-much-traveled (or really wealthy traveled), so she can be in silent absorption of a different-from-her-world- view from the hard-backed seats left for the rest of us.

In this view of airport Korea, the waiting area floors are wood, and the older women seem to suck their teeth – an inhaling sigh-like spittle-y sound.   Reminds her of the space between Dolores’ top two front teeth, and how there was a pondering that space made as Dolores would lean back to assess: “phstich.”  Or something like that involving the lips, the teeth, the breath, the time to respond extenuated.  “Dear Dolores,” she writes…

It is almost Christmas.  A holiday I have little need for, but for how it reminds me of my childhood rescue by the love of a woman who never wanted kids.  You are Christmas.  It seems I have grown up (under my own nose) to be you without ever meaning to; but, of course, I must have tried:  a management consultant; a person who would give the shirt off her back; who spends money if she has it, knowing not the value of saving for a future that might be cut short; a community builder; a protector of the unprotected.

You traveled up and down the East Coast of the US. I travel zig-zag across the Globe.  And here we both are/were trying to teach kindness, ease, structured chaos and creativity, fun – even if unsustainable.   In the end, our lessons are sort of straightforward: don’t lash out.   It’s as easy as that.  Don’t hurt others on purpose.  We know how inexcusably, frequently common it is, and so we have/had job security – you and I – helping ordinary people be not so extraordinarily unkind, so ridiculously often.

Remember, Dolores?  Today, in the US it is the 22nd, we would not even be thinking about Christmas yet.  Despite the world around us taped up with lights and wreaths, we would still be in work mode.  Your small but iron-wrought -Italian- family would buy out the store of pepperoni and olives, the smelts and fried bread, the basil for pesto: Christmas Eve dinner after midnight mass.  Most years, we did not go en masse. They went.  I waited at home with you for my one present on Christmas Eve.  You would be downstairs wrapping yourself into a packaged frenzy for the morning’s openings.  When we did go, it was to the same church where we would later hold your funeral mass.  My head would rest on your shoulder as Latin passed over us in a Gregorian calm. I gave a eulogy, that day in the church just up from the channel crossing. Thirty years old in time, a scared infant orphan in mind, that day of those tears.

Christmas Eve was your day.  That was tradition.  Trees and wreaths bought only after 6pm – for the best deal.  In the snow, on a ladder, ice and wind no care, up the wreaths were put.  An A-frame house makes for 5 wreaths by the way – left and right, up and down, and one in the middle at the tip of the A.  All presents were bought after noon on the 24th – mad dash-mall time before the stores closed early.  We had lists. We split up.   We organized – me in charge of the lipstick and nail polish sets (Estee Lauder).  Deep reds, hot pinks, whatever you thought suited our Alta Kalka’s’ personalities…we matched them up.   Like you patched me up; a Christmas tradition in the making.

© Gabriella Strecker, 2016

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Seoul Rain

I was totally in my, “the world is a lovely place” mode until I sat down at the “Bar Rouge,” ground floor, JW Mariott, Seoul, Korea.  And there I was met with the expatriate echo of Americans – loud.  The one Korean-American woman gets it the worst, because everyone assumes she speaks the language.  It’s its own racism  – assumptions made because you look the same.

Before their raging argument about why Aleppo is called Aleppo, and is CNN right to do so given that it is clearly the Italian name, my mind was in a soft and warm place.  The only one who didn’t seem to know it was going to rain, my hair is just-out-of-the-shower sopped.  This is not so hard to believe given the weather conditions, but amazing since, three, yes, three, whole women, walked next to me at some point in the traverse from office to hotel and included me in their umbrella.  Each time I jumped with surprise: a woman at my side with a silent nod and an askance smile.  Three-for-three they speak no English; one-for-one, I speak not a word of Korean. They share a kindness.   Three in a row – unattached to each other, separated by time, each with the same instinct. My mind boggles to compute the reasoning, so unfamiliar with this impulsive gesture of generosity.

Can you imagine in New York City or Boston or Chicago or Paris or Madrid or Lisbon or London, or any of many other places, a person sharing an umbrella with a stranger, never mind three in a row?  Walking as far as they could to escort me dry?  The first got me turned around from walking the wrong way.  She asked me in every-other-word English, “why did no map?”  I tried to explain; showed her how the phone displayed the address but not the route. Ugh with the GPS.

I am bounded by curiosity.  Is it that my curly hair stands out farther than my face to name me as “other.”  Is it the wide hips?  Is it that for once I am not wearing all black (my usual uniform)?  Ironically, by the way, because it seems this is a city center dressed entirely in black.    Or is this just the way it’s done – a city where people care for each other in simple, simple ways?

The moment I stepped off the jetway into customs, I remembered that feeling – being aware of my race.  Hadn’t felt it since Japan, but there it is. I am white and Jewish and Italian and none of that means much, tells no such rich, ethnic narrative, because I am not what is – Korean.

As an aside: I realize I have gotten inconsistent about writing this blog mostly because I was trying to save myself to write a book. Like a fighter who refuses sex before a big match for fear of weakening himself. But let’s face it, the world passes by each day.  It is of complete marvel or complete desperation.  And I feel the need to record.

For all I have for my self-regulation is this one day, this current time zone, this single sip of water, this watching my boy turn fourteen last week, this airline on time or cancelled, this departure date, this meeting that has got me completely frazzled as to how anyone manages to get from one day to another. It is a wonder.  Being human is harder than anything else I’ve ever known. The vastness of it mesmerizes me. And the next thing I know, in a country where everyone knew to bring an umbrella, I am covered by a stranger, shielded from the rain.

©Gabriella Strecker, 2016

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Box o’ Life

It stood standing in the corner of the dining room for weeks – an entire quarter of corporate results came, went; stock ratings changed from hold to buy and back again.  The world moved. The box did not.  It’s not that it was foreboding or even stressful.  So why leave it? Laziness?  Though that isn’t exactly Isabella’s thing.   Apathy – that’s a little it.  All the things in this box used to mean something to her, enough for her to save them anyway.  These little slivered notions of time palp a faded feeling, somewhere in her inner back corner, but barely.  It takes her this long to unpack this pack-of-life-past because she is afraid. Afraid she won’t remember. And unsure. Unsure if that is a natural aging process; a brain overloaded with daily life; or the entrance of Lady Dementia. Stage Left.

In the box are things Isabella thinks you might expect – though not totally sure – is she or is she not on the sine curve of “normal?” She wonders what would be in someone else’s box. There is a note that was passed between three eighth graders. She – being one of them – a serial of nothingness during a class that had lost their attention. There are papers written in high school and college with what to her seem like cruel jokes of teaching: “No Fragments in a Title.  This is weak.  This is not a poem.”   Isabella’s chest rises with a giggle.  Almost everything she ever writes today is fragment-full.  Huh.  Inevitability of self? Or stupidity of classroom telling and yelling?

There are many a notebook – journal after journal in this box – the bane of her existence. Isabella has learned that writing things down leads to discovery; and discovery leads to conflict; and that leads to running solo down the road towards an ending you can’t imagine; and when you get to it, you are lost.   So no.  Journals cannot stay.  Plus, who knows what things she has done wrong in her life that she wrote in there as if they were learning experiences. Now she has a child, and that child might find these scribbles upon her death if she stuffs them in a closet. And then what things would be revealed that she never planned as part of being Mama.

And that’s just the nut of it. This box – full of memories she cannot recollect – are they footprints from the past, trails to the future of finally understanding her pieced together self, or just the real-time reinforcement of what is happening? She cannot remember.  Her mind is clouding over.  Words that used to spring forward, now hang back in some recess she can’t find.  Ideas that could be come back to later, because they would still be there, now flee the scene as if not wanting to be questioned as the only witness.

What is this aging mind? Accelerated, unseeable-on-scan, but quietly  shutting down her brain section-by-section.  Sun-setting consciousness like a failing company.  Last one out, shut the lights.  Neurological fissures leaving bits and pieces unconnected.  Forever going forward without the puzzle completed.  They say in the end you are really only alone, and her mind seems committed to that goal.  Closing in on itself.  Darkening.  Shrinking its radius.  Isabella sorts the box into two. One to go the basement – let the boy find the honor roll certificate that will make him smile – and one to go to her closet to be read before thrown.  See if it jogs anything.   If in some period of time, yet to be named, she has not read the rest of that box, she will throw it.  Gone before she is…not to risk discovery.

©Gabriella Strecker, 2016

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