Conjuring The Dead

08/28/2013 07:00 am ET | Updated Oct 28, 2013


Almost five years ago my husband and I moved back to the city -- two blocks away from a bar my father, Morry, once owned on South Street in Philadelphia. In Morry's day it was named by its address, 1509; now it's a popular dive bar, Bob and Barbara's.

Often, when I pass by my dad's old bar, I imagine him coming out to greet me and giving me a big hug. Then I'd show him my beautiful home close-by; he'd love it. But sadly I know that no matter how long I stare at that door, he will never emerge.

Then I think of my mom, Sally, who in the last years of her life couldn't grasp that she had outlived many of those she loved most in the world.

By then, in her late 80s, she was living in a Jewish nursing home in suburban Trenton. During most visits, she'd ask, "Where's my mother? I'm so worried about her."

I didn't know how to answer. At first I'd tell her that her mother was no longer alive, but when that didn't work I began to bluff, "She'll be in touch soon."

"Really?" she'd ask. "It's not like her. I haven't heard from her in a while."

Eventually, I experienced my mother's confusion in stereo when, along with my husband, I took my mother to visit her baby brother, 87-year-old Sam, who also suffered from dementia.

Uncle Sam was usually excited to see her, but this time, his first words were, "That's not my sister. My sister is younger."

Her face dropped along with mine. "Sam, it's me, Sally," she said.

By the time my older and only sister, Renee, and her family joined, Sam was finally ready to believe Sally.

That's when the theater of the absurd began.

"Where's Mickey?" Sam said, referring to their beloved uncle who had been dead for more than 10 years.

"I don't know," said Sally. "He hasn't called me for a long time."

"How can we reach him?" said Sam.

"I'm not sure where he could have gone," said Sally.

"Do you have his phone number?" asked Sam.

Renee and I stood behind my mother and uncle, saddened and shocked by their total disconnect with reality. In response, we could have cried, but instead we began to laugh, covering our mouths to muffle the involuntary sounds. Hearing the two of them conspiring, it almost seemed that we were the crazy ones.

Sadly, this was one of our last visits to Sam. He died shortly after. My sister and I debated whether to take my mother to the funeral. We didn't want to upset her, but he was her brother so we took her. Seeing friends and family distracted her from the ceremony, which seemed to go over her head. She appeared dazed, but not distressed.

The trouble came days later when people offered their condolences. She'd get a sympathy card and read it. Surprised and freshly wounded she'd say to me, "Sam died." Then she would weep inconsolably.

I'd comfort her; we'd walk down the hall and a well-meaning friend would say, "Sally, I'm so sorry your brother died," and her tears would flow again.

Things settled down when the condolences stopped, but often she still asked for those who'd died years earlier.

Thirty-two years after my grandmother Rose died, 14 years after my Uncle Mickey died, five years after my dad Morry died and two years after my Uncle Sam died, in 2005, my mom Sally passed away and joined those she had long missed.

Now deep into my own middle age, I understand more about the loss she was experiencing. As Camus once said, "I don't want to die. I don't want anyone I love to die." But both are inevitable.

So yes, I'd love to see my father when I walk by his old bar, but I have to admit that, in 2013, not seeing him is good. Though it sometimes hurts, it means I still can tell the difference between the living and the dead.

(A version of this essay first appeared on

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