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Drew Litowitz

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A Night Indisputably Different From All Other Nights

Posted: 04/ 6/2012 7:50 am

One of the last things I did before I flew home was attend my college's hillel Seder on the first night of Passover. My mother, a Jewish mother of the classical sort -- guilt-generous, overly sentimental, occasionally overbearing, worrisome, eccentric, commanding, the whole package -- was in the hospital. A seldom-seen, spiritual part of me thought that going to the Seder would make some sort of difference. As if somehow, the knowledge that her perfect Jewish son was breaking unleavened bread with some of Skidmore College's most wholesome Jewish girls would bring her back to health. In my mind, I was making a grand celestial gesture.

A day and a half earlier, my mother had been struck by a truck while waiting to cross the George Washington Parkway on an after-work jog. She was pinned underneath the overturned vehicle, after its driver looked up too late to realize the traffic ahead of him had stopped to let her cross (the law in DC, mind you). A crowd of good Samaritans lifted the truck off of her while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

My mom was conscious and able to tell EMTs my father's cell phone number. CAT scans and X-rays discovered some broken ribs, a fractured wrist, a broken leg, and some minor internal bleeding. No spinal injuries and no brain damage. We believed we were in the clear.

This was no surprise, though. No surprise for a woman who had traveled through India on her own with a broken foot, had run five miles every day with a sciatic nerve condition, had finished a five-mile jog with a broken wrist she obtained while slipping on ice midway through. This was a woman who literally seemed impervious to physical disturbance, never letting anything -- even a Yom Kippur fast -- get in the way of her workout routine. She probably even thought she was fine, while everybody else on the scene clamored for help. This was a woman who once told my brother to stop being a baby as he lay on the hot front lawn with a shattered femur, ultimately landing him in a body cast.

The surprise came four-and-a-half days later, when, after a chemical-induced coma of the same length, she was weaned off the external lung, the dialysis machine, every state-of-the-art piece of equipment George Washington University had in their arsenal, and laid to rest. Of all things, ultimately, her collision-damaged intestines had failed her, and so had all of the machines pushing for their recovery. After a good fight and a traumatizing, hopelessly uncomfortable, unbearable wait for medical updates, our loving, invincible beacon of hope was gone. We would never be the same.

Needless to say, last Passover was no ordinary one. Not that any of our Passovers were ever all that ordinary. Our family was the sort that feigned religiosity while vacationing in exotic locations. Our Jewish guilt only ran so deep. One mock-Seder was held in a government-issued mansion in Senegal while visiting our next-door neighbors, who had moved there for the father's job at the World Bank. We had to explain that Ethiopian injera did not fit the Passover bill.

Still, something about last year's Passover felt ridiculous in a familiar way. The night I was at my school's Seder, my family held a dinky little Seder of their own in the hospital's cafeteria. This night was indisputably different from all other nights.

I can only imagine what it was like: everybody there laughing and making the most of a horrible situation, the fear of losing somebody they loved hanging over their heads, but all the while joking about the laughably pathetic nature of conducting a Seder inside a hospital, paper plates, plastic knives, and all. Really, the whole situation screamed my mother. Part of me wishes I were there for it, because, despite everything else, it almost sounded fun.

Even in writing this, I imagine her being a part of that Seder, instead of a room over on her deathbed. I can see her laughing and making jokes with each passage of the haggadah, simultaneously mocking and celebrating, with everybody else feeding off her energy.

If nothing else, Karen Dubin was an outlandish, yet congenial host. She always made everybody feel like they mattered and belonged, whether it was one of her best friends, or a friend of a friend's friend with no plans that evening. For as long as I can remember, we had large Passover Seders at my house, inviting anybody who wanted to join, including our non-Jewish friends. It wasn't about the holiday so much as it was about bringing people together to celebrate family and friendships.

In many ways, last year was no different. Even in her broken, unconscious state, she managed to bring all of these people who cared about her together, to make the most of something awful, and enjoy one another's company. That, to me, says more about my mother than I ever could. She wouldn't have had it any other way.

With Passover, and the one-year anniversary of her death, approaching fast, I find myself in a particularly strange situation, wondering if I have a choice in how to move forward. Do I look back at last year with regret, wondering why I ever thought going to my school's Seder would make any difference, why Passover even matters anymore, following my religious apathy? Does Passover become a dreaded holiday, one that always reminds us of her final days? Will her absence be so heavily felt that I find it hard to enjoy the moments she should be a part of? Or does it become a chance to embrace her memory? Will we find it in ourselves to keep her spirit alive, capturing the good-natured, fun-loving, commanding presence we lost so tragically? Only time will tell.

I know that nothing will ever be the same without her. But, I also believe that what she would want more than anything else is to see everybody together, making the most of our new situation: turning a few miserable souls with paper plates into a room full of laughter, never forgetting hers.

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