So many have died, it’s hard to know where to begin.
My Zede died in Miami in 1958, but the funeral was in DC where we lived. At the time, children weren’t taken to funerals, at least that’s what I was told, we should be spared sadness. We sat Shiva at my home. I had a new Kodak box camera and took black and white pictures of my family on the front steps of my first home. I still have the pictures.
My aunt Charlotte died that same year of breast cancer and was buried out in California. My mother made dozens of trips away from home to take care of her during the months before her death. For a long time, they wouldn’t tell my grandmother that she was dying, so I also wasn’t told. I remember staying with my grandmother in her bed on the night Charlotte died, listening to her sobbing quietly.
My aunt Louise died in a car accident, 1965, on the road from DC to Miami, with my uncle Irv witnessing the accident as he followed in another car. There were no limited-access highways through the Carolinas in those days, just a 2-lane road. She crossed the median. My memory fails me, but I think someone in the car she hit was also killed in the accident and I think a pet bird traveling with her in the car also perished. My father immediately flew down to the accident location to console his brother.
My father died of metastasized liver cancer at age 59. He did not seem ill when I last saw him in Florida at Thanksgiving. He died on 12/22/73; I was 23. I did not make it home to see him again before he died. At the time, my son was 4, and my dad and I were just beginning to heal from several years of estrangement.
Jon Greenberg, my closest friend during the years I lived in NYC, died of complications of AIDS at St. Vincent hospital on July 12th 1993. I can’t begin to count or mention all the men and women I know during my years in NYC who died of HIV/AIDS. I miss Jon terribly, still.
John Bayard Britton, a friend and physician who provided abortion services in Florida, was shot in the head and murdered in Pensacola in 1994 by Paul Hill, a rabid anti-abortion freak. Bayard was aware of the risk. He was wearing a bullet proof vest when he died.
Linda Frosty Grey, friend and comrade whom I worked with in Tallahassee, Florida at the Feminist Women’s Health Center, died of breast cancer the same year that Bayard was murdered. She delayed diagnosis and treatment because she had no health insurance.
My mom died in April 2001 of lymphoma. Unlike my dad, who died within weeks of being diagnosed with cancer, Ede was ill for several years before she died. I am grateful for having time with her during those last years. She died in her own apartment and I fulfilled a promise to take care of her and do everything possible to help her stay in her own home until her death.
There are many other deaths that have touched me and changed me deeply, far too many to mention. These deaths combined have all have taught me to be present to death and the act of dying, to hold fast to the truth of death, and to embrace death in my imagination as worthy of both contemplation and personal involvement.
As of 2011, all of my mother’s and father’s siblings and spouses have died, save one uncle that I haven’t had contact with in decades. The mantle of oldest generation has been passed on to my generation. It’s a strange burden, but not an unwelcome one.