Sunday, May 18, 2008

'My 50th Birthday' by Marla Lukofsky

It was a hot sunny humid day on July 3rd, 2006 in Toronto. Nothing unusual about that. Summers are pretty brutal here. But today was special. It was my birthday, my 50th to be exact. The big 5-0. Some say it’s a turning point in one’s life. I’ll let ya know.

I woke up very early from my restless night’s sleep and began my day as I usually did. A hot cup of instant coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and sat on my balcony staring out at the active world around me.
'What are they so busy with?' I wondered as I alternated between my smoke and my java. 'And why do they feel the need to keep spinning like little tops on a board game?' When my cup was empty and my butt was put out, I headed outside and walked my dog in a haze of sad feelings. I bumped into a woman on the beltline, who told me about ‘the glass being half full’ rhetoric. I didn’t respond to her words, as I usually would have since those types of phrases bring out the debater in me, but my heart wasn’t in it.

Soon after, I drove to synagogue for morning prayers and saw my two older sisters, Elaine and Fern, standing in the hallway. At first I thought, 'Wow, they came to pray with me.' So moved by that thought, I started to cry. Elaine, my middle sister comforted me. Fernie laughed nervously not knowing what to do with my vulnerable feelings. After some discussion I found out that my sisters were actually there to support a friend’s last day of Kaddish prayers and were on their way out. So, they weren’t there for me after all, I realized.

Elaine asked if I wanted her to stay with me for the later service. “Yes, I would Elaine. That would be really nice”, I gratefully replied. Once we got settled in our favorite pew, my sister stood right beside me and put her arm around my shoulders holding me throughout the entire service. Her touch felt like heaven. Most of the ladies I became friendly with at that synagogue were away for the July 3rd weekend, and the pews seemed emptier than usual. But who isn’t away when it’s my birthday. It’s the long weekend every year, ya know. When I was younger, I took it personally that no one was in town on my ‘special day’ but now that I am older, I know better and I still take it personally. I said hello to the few familiar faces and some wished me well.

Thirty minutes later, the service concluded. I told my sister Elaine that I needed to go to the cemetery. She said she understood and asked if I wanted her to come along with me. At first I thought ‘no, I want to be alone’. And then I realized that deep, deep down, I did want her to come and be with me so I said “Yes Elaine, please come with me. I’d like that. But first walk me to my car. I have to show you something, something strange that I did.” She took my hand and we walked over to my car. When we got to my tin haven, I opened my car door and grabbed an envelope off of my passenger’s seat. I handed it to Elaine without saying a word. She looked at the outside of the envelope’s inscription and read it to herself.
‘ To Marla… From Mommy.’ Elaine looked back up at me, smiled and nodded her head with understanding and acceptance. “I don’t think this is strange at all,” she said. “May I read the inside of the card?”
“ Yes…please” I replied.

Elaine opened the card and silently read it slowly and carefully, taking her time, absorbing every word with the utmost concentration. She looked back up at my face and said, “ Yes, Marla, this is all true.” My eyes began to tear up.
“Why don’t we take one car to the cemetery Marla and you can drive. I know you like to drive and you’re such a good driver”, Elaine suggested.
“Ok, Elaine,” I sniffled.

When my sister and I arrived at the empty cemetery parking lot, we could see that the long weekend had not only affected my birthday, but the amount of visitors who would have usually come to see their loved ones as well. It was so quiet, so peaceful, just a perfect day for a visit.
Elaine and I stood at the fresh looking grave. The earth was still settling in.

Elaine offered to read out loud the card I had shown her. I agreed, “That would be good if you could do that for me Elaine, because I can’t.” There was a sprinkler nearby which kept spritzing us every two minutes and it interfered a bit with our time together at the grave site but it did not stop us for a moment.

She began to read my card with great feeling and meaning, making the most out of every single word, as if she knew how much it meant to me, to give me something, some strength, some peace, something that there are no words for. As I heard the words being read, I started to cry and suddenly I cried harder than I had cried all year. Harder than I knew I could cry. My tears came from the depth of my very soul and resonated from my belly. I was making up for lost time, I guess. Elaine put her arm around me, comforting me as I wept, and the sprinkler continued to spritz us as she continued to speak aloud its contents.

The words in the card were:
I know I have a wonderful daughter in you
because I see your strengths and talents and all your hard work.
I see your warmth, your thoughtfulness, and the way you care about other people…
I see the person you are inside-
The goodness and generosity that are so much a part of your daily life,
And I want you to know how much I love you and how grateful I’ll
Always be to have you as my daughter.
Happy Birthday

As we stood in front of my mother’s gravestone, which she shared with my father who died a year and a half before her, we read over the dates of my parent’s death out loud, together.
Louis Lukofsky: Died June 1, 2004
Ruth Lukofsky: Died February 9th, 2006

I felt the need to explain to Elaine why I got the card.
“You see Elaine, I went to Shoppers Drug Mart to buy some toiletries, the night before my birthday, when suddenly I steered straight towards the card section specifically to the ‘birthday for daughters’ section. It was as if I had no control over my body. I riffled through many cards, reading one after the other, trying to quench a thirst I had, in finding a card that I thought Mommy might give me if she could have. I just had to find the right one and buy it and pretend somehow that Mommy gave it to me.”
Elaine listened intently. I continued.

"You know Mommy was an honest person and didn’t flower things up. She would never give me a card saying that I was the perfect child who never gave her a bit of trouble. On the contrary, her cards always said something specific and true, with some details of that particular person. I was so relieved when I found a card where I heard her voice coming through. After I bought it, I took it home, placed it on a stool and hovered over it like a rare fragile gem. I couldn’t sign it. How could I? That would be wrong. So I just stared at it for hours. Later on, I put it in its envelope, went down to the underground garage and put it in my car to take to the cemetery.”

Elaine said my mother’s spirit and memory guided me to the store, to that aisle, and to that very card, and she added that my mother would have indeed thought those things of me if she could have lived to tell them to me.

While standing at my mother’s grave, I felt the need to ask Elaine a very important question that had been burdening me since my mom died. It was in regard to my mother’s request for me to help wrap her in the ritual burial shroud. I was concerned of my mother’s mental status at the time.
“ Did she know what she was asking of me Elaine? Was it real?”
Elaine assured me that at the time, it was one of the last times my mother spoke with great purpose and clarity. She requested to see her sister, her best friend and her rabbi to make her last requests known.
I told Elaine, "Mommy asked me in private, if and only if I could handle it, would I wrap her in the burial shroud after she dies. And if I can’t handle it she will understand. I didn’t even know what a burial shroud was but I knew one thing for sure. I knew I could handle it because I would do anything for my mother in time of need and I told her just that. 'I can do that for you Mommy… I will do anything for you… and I can handle it.'
And Mommy said to me, 'I knew you could…that’s why I asked you.'

Elaine responded.
“ Marla, do you think those are the words of a person who is not in control of their mind and thoughts? Those are the words of a person who knows exactly what she wants. Mommy told the rabbi of her unique burial wish. She told Fernie and me separately that she wanted you to wrap her in the shroud. She knew this might be the last time she would be able to talk like this and let her wishes be known. Marla…don’t think for a moment that she didn’t know what she asked of you. She knew what you did for Daddy…staying with his body all that time, getting it cleaned up in the hospital and placing him in the body bag and waiting by his grave until the last drop of soil was put on him. She knew if you could do all that, then you could do this for her. She didn’t ask Fernie or me because she knew we couldn’t handle it. That’s not our strengths. It’s yours. So if anyone questions Mommy’s request to you, ignore them, and remember that others did not understand your relationship with Mommy. You two were very similar. You two have strengths in being devoted to loved ones."

After listening to all that Elaine had said, I felt more at peace with my query. I then spoke to my mother out loud, in my own words, from my heart and Elaine listened quietly and patiently. Finally I was finished. I cannot share what I said to my mother. Some things are private.

We walked back to the car, and drove over to pick up my sister Fernie. Then we headed out to 'Sushi on Bloor' for my birthday lunch. So there we were, me and my sisters, going out for lunch together, just the three of us, instead of it being five. It felt so strange without my parents joining us.

While we ate our sushi delights, my sisters pulled out my birthday cards.
I read Fernie’s first and it was lovely. “Thank you Fernie”, I said.

Then I read Elaine’s three cards. She always gave more than one you see.
The first one was from Charly, my dog, thanking me for giving him a good life and saving him from the pound and impending death.
The second one was a mushy meaningful one for being a special sister to her. And the last one…was a card in an envelope that had an inscription on it saying ‘ To My Daughter, From Mommy’.
I looked back up at Elaine, shocked and desperately asked her, “ Did Mommy pick this out for me before she got too sick? Is this really from her?”
“No”, Elaine said sadly.  “I picked it out myself yesterday."
Then it hit me. That’s why Elaine didn’t think it was so strange, me buying a card on behalf of my mother to me, because that’s exactly what Elaine did too. We shared the same thought. We have a special understanding Elaine and I. She asked me to read her card.
I did:

‘Dear Daughter,
On your birthday, I want you to know that, in my heart, you’re always with me. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about you, care about you, and wish good things for you…
Not a day goes by when I don’t appreciate how lucky I am to have a wonderful daughter like you.
With Love on your Birthday and Always,’
Love Mommy. Elaine wrote the signature but it still felt that it had come from my mother in a way. The gesture meant a lot to me.

I locked eyes with my sister and cried openly. Then Elaine cried too and finally, Fernie opened up her floodgates and joined us in tears. Elaine reached out and held our hands. She said, “ Mommy would be happy you are celebrating your birthday Marla. That’s what she wanted you to do.” I was still torn with the feelings of celebrations on such a sad day.
I added, “ Mommy would be happy that we are sitting here together, the three of us, talking and sharing our thoughts and feelings and emotions.”
So there we were, the three Lukofsky girls, crying, holding each other and eating sushi. I wondered what the restaurant staff was thinking. But in the end, it really doesn’t matter what anyone thought of us. It was real and it was honest.

My mother told me, on July 3rd 2005, as she lay in her hospital bed receiving her first of three chemo treatments to slow down the leukemia, that she would be with me on my next birthday, my big 5-0. Her exact words were,
“ I’m sorry for ruining this birthday for you, but I will make it up to you for your next one and it’s that special birthday, the big 5-0.” Of course I assured her that she wasn’t ruining my birthday or any other birthday and never could. I assured her that my birthday wasn’t important to me but her health was. I assured her that there was nowhere else I’d rather be than by her side. And as she spoke of her wishes for me for the next year, I wondered, ‘will you be with me Mommy, to celebrate my 50th birthday, as you would want, as I would want? Will you?’

My mom died in February, six months before my 50th birthday, July 3rd 2006. Not having my mom there, made it very hard for me to celebrate my ‘special birthday’. I attended and partook in certain activities, a gathering of friends after my sister’s lunch, but I was walking through most of it. Just going through the motions. It felt wrong to enjoy the day. It felt wrong to be joyous. Someone was missing from the picture. I did my best to get through it all because I know that’s what she would have wanted me to do, or at least to try. And as I reflect upon all that had happened that day, I could see that in a different way, my mother was with me after all. On some level, on some alternative dimension, my mother was indeed with me.

By: Marla Lukofsky
July 2006

No comments: