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Menachem Rosensaft

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Remembering Sandra: Eulogy for a Friend

Posted: 12/29/11 08:59 AM ET

Sandra Gabrilove Saltzman, who died late on the night of December 24, 2011, at the age of 63, attended the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan, Fieldston High School in Riverdale, NY, Brown University, and New York University School of Law. This eulogy was delivered at her funeral on December 28, 2011

How can I say good-bye to someone who has been an integral part of my life for over 54 years? How do we reconcile ourselves to the heartbreaking reality that our beloved Sandra is no longer physically with us? For months now, we have tried to prepare ourselves for this inevitability, but it was Sandy herself, with her quiet good humor, with her courage and absolute lack of self-pity, who made us believe that we might still have more time, that the void we have in our hearts today might be put off at least a little while longer.

For more than 35 years, ever since Sandy and Michael came back to New York from California, we lived in adjoining buildings. My wife Jeanie and I knew when they were home, and they knew the same about us, from seeing the lights in the windows of our respective apartments. Throughout the past months, since Sandy returned home from the hospital to be where she so desperately wanted to be, that light provided a reassurance, an artificial hope. Seeing it at night, I knew that I would speak with Sandy the next day, that we would see each other tomorrow. Since late Saturday night, her window has been dark, and a spark, a beautiful star that brightened and warmed our lives, has vanished to be replaced by memories.

Today, I speak not only for myself, for my wife Jeanie, Jodi, and Mike who considered Sandy part of our family, or for our classmates from Fieldston who grew up with Sandy. As I gathered memories together in my mind over the past several days, I kept hearing my mother's voice, telling me what to say, what she would have wanted me to say.

Sandy was an extraordinary, truly wonderful human being. "She only hates not loving, and her passion is friendship," was the quote she chose to accompany her picture in the Fieldglass, our yearbook of which she was the business editor, when we graduated from Fieldston. It captured her personality and her always gently expressed individuality. These words reflected two of her guiding principles perfectly.

Sandy loved her parents, her sister Janice, her brother-in-law Michael, and her nephews Mark and Matthew with her entire being. She adored, and was completely in love with, her husband Michael in whom she found her spiritual and intellectual counterpart. She loved Michael's brother Alan, her sister-in-law Joanne, and her niece Lauren, without reservation. And she was devoted to her friends with an equal affection and sincerity that made us fully reciprocate the emotion. There was nothing in her power she would not do for any of us, and we knew it without Sandy ever having to put those feelings into words.

Sandy was turned off by anything crass, by anyone she felt was manipulative or insincere. When she was disappointed in someone or became disillusioned, she simply stopped talking about that person, and firmly, without ever raising her voice, instructed us to do the same in her presence.

I first got to know Sandy when I arrived at Ethical in fourth grade from Switzerland. Smart, funny, popular, she took the time to befriend an outsider who spoke little English and whose interest in sports lay in skiing, not baseball, and soccer rather than football. Our friendship grew as we shared our childhood thoughts and aspirations. Sandy loved animals and wanted to become a veterinarian. She enjoyed formal dancing -- the two of us came in second in a sixth grade dance contest -- and was drawn to art, to literature, to everything that reflected beauty and elegance. She was also drawn to sports, but always with a distinctive flair. At Fieldston she was on the girls' varsity hockey team, and was co-captain of the cheerleaders' squad. She never lost either her natural kindness or the moral compass that set her priorities. She was always elegant in an understated, non-ostentatious way. Above all, she was a true friend, always prepared to extend a helping hand or listen to another's problems, without expecting anything in return.

Somewhere along the line, she developed a unique relationship with my mother. They were two kindred spirits who understood each other and enjoyed each other's company. During our high school years at Fieldston, I would often come home to find Sandy sitting with my mother, absorbed in a discussion that was meaningful to them both. Their bond continued and strengthened over the years, entirely independent of the friendship Sandy and I shared. After she introduced Michael to Jeanie and me, she next took him to meet my mother. It was not that she sought her approval, but that she was certain that my mother would also appreciate all his exceptional qualities. After my father died, Sandy visited my mother regularly for over twenty years, sometimes with Michael, most often by herself, and they would play Canasta or discuss the latest art exhibit in town, or just talk about whatever was on their minds.

Sandy also had a very special relationship with our daughter, Jodi, which grew over family vacations, Canasta games at my mother's, and meetings in the neighborhood. For Jodi's birthday, Sandy and Michael once bought her a beautiful leather-bound copy of Sense and Sensibility, which inspired Jodi to read the entire collection of Jane Austen novels. To this day, Sense and Sensibility is her favorite book, and she thinks of Sandy every time she re-reads it. Jodi was truly inspired by Sandy's elegance, intellect and tenacity. When Jodi was 11, Sandy invited Jodi to visit her at the District Attorney's office. To this day, Jodi says that was the day she realized that a woman could be a brilliant, powerful and respected lawyer. Now a lawyer herself, Jodi considers Sandy to be one of her most significant role models, for which Jeanie and I will be forever grateful.

As a child, I discovered paradise in the idyllic Royal Hotel in San Remo on the Italian Riviera. When Sandy went there for the first time with our family, she grasped its magic and it became her and Michael's escape from day-to-day reality as well. Its timeless elegance fit her personality perfectly. In the late afternoon, she would sit in the hotel garden and silently absorb the Mediterranean's spectacular beauty. She loved shopping for clothes in its boutiques, and to visit art museums on the French side of the border. But San Remo also engaged her culinary curiosity. In one of our last conversations last week, she remembered and laughed about the time she asked the chef to make a particular rabbit dish that required the hotel to purchase special ingredients from the market. In the mornings, before settling in the shade near the swimming pool with a book, she would instruct the maitre d' what she and Michael wanted for lunch that day, and it would always be both unusual and delicious.

Sandy was brilliant and always, always intellectually curious. She never thought that she knew everything about anything, but wanted to know more, to learn, to absorb what others knew. A voracious reader, as was Michael, she wanted to understand the thought processes behind the creation of any book in front of her. And she wanted to use her knowledge, her many skills and abilities, to help others, devoting herself to advancing the ideals she held dear.

After graduating from New York University Law School and several years in California, she became an Assistant District Attorney in Robert Morgengthau's office in Manhattan for 18 years, rising to become deputy chief of the special prosecutions bureau and assistant deputy chief of the investigation division, specializing in the investigation of complex white collar crimes. There, she mentored many of today's top litigators before teaching for several years at NYU Law School.

Sandy and Michael were always great fun to be with. Inseparable, they never made their friends feel excluded. San Remo blends in my memory with Chatham, Massachusetts, where Jeanie and I vacationed one summer with them. It was the year after my father had died, and they wanted to take us away for a break. Of course, Sandy made all the arrangements. And then there were the countless dinners at restaurants Sandy wanted to explore. One of Sandy's greatest pleasures was to celebrate life. The party she organized for Michael's 50th birthday was spectacular, with her exquisite taste reflected in every detail. None of us who were there will ever forget her happiness and pride when in 2007 the Mount Sinai division of endocrinology was renamed the Hilda and J. Lester Gabrilove Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Bone Disease in honor of her father and in memory of her mother. And after Michael died, despite her profound sadness, she threw a 60th birthday party for herself so that she could be together with her family and friends to mark that special day.

Sadly, tragically, the last 14 years were extremely difficult for Sandy. In 1997 she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and had to stop working. Eerily, her beloved mother died on December 25, 2002, exactly nine years before Sandy. Then Michael, whose health had always been delicate, became seriously ill, and Sandy took care of him with single-minded devotion until he succumbed in early January of 2008. And just as she was beginning to get her strength back, to return to her old self, tragedy struck last year with the diagnosis of her final illness.

Throughout it all, Sandy never lost her spark, her wit, her thoughtfulness for her family and friends. Until the last, she wanted to know about us, how we were doing, what was new and exciting in our lives.

This past summer in the hospital, Sandy was most concerned not by her illness but by the possibility that she might have to go to a strange place, and her one fervent hope was that she might be able to go home, to be in her room, surrounded by her treasured Japanese works of art, by her and Michael's books, and by the photographs that reminded her of happier days. This wish at least was granted her, thanks for the most part to Janice's devotion and care.

Janice, you were the best sister anyone could have, and you provided Sandy with a unique reassurance and sense of comfort that allowed her to go on for as long as she could, and to live every one of her days in dignity, knowing that she was loved, knowing that she could remain at home until her strength at long last gave out.

There is much more to say, and we will have occasion to share our memories in the days, weeks and years to come. Last Tuesday, Sandy told me that her greatest fear was of being alone, and that when she would be sedated, unable to react, the doctors had told her that she would still be able to hear us speaking to her. I promised her that I would visit her every day, a promise I was able to keep.

But now, we must continue to speak to her, if only in our thoughts, so that she will know that we remember her and all the happiness and beauty that she brought into our lives, and that she is not alone.

"Eli, Eli," wrote the young Jewish poet Hannah Szenes, "Shelo yigamer le'olam - Hachol vehayam, Rishrush shel hamayim, Berak hashamayim, T'filat ha'adam."

"My God, My God, may these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the water, lightning in heaven, the prayer of man."

Sandy would have identified with these words, with the sense of infinity in the elements of nature that surrounded her. Let us, in turn, add our promise that our memories of Sandy and our love for her will similarly never end.