My mother's name was Sonny. She was born as "Sophie" into a large Jewish family of nine children in the town of Wattenscheid, near the city of Dortmund, Germany, before Hitler's rise to power. Her father, Mendel, was a hard-working, self-made man who rose out of poverty to become a wealthy merchant. Her mother, my grandmother, Bertha, was a kind and generous person who gave charitably to poor Jewish and non-Jewish families alike.
My mom, who I affectionately called "Bubee," passed away a few minutes after midnight on August 24th. Her Hebrew name was "Seesel" -- "Sweet". To me, and to those who knew her, she was very sweet. She died, as she wanted, in her own home in Plantation, near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. It was my honor to live near her and become her friend and caregiver for the last 11 years of her life.
I was grateful that she didn't go into a nursing home. Both she and I had seen too many of these institutions filled with elderly, vulnerable people left virtually abandoned by their adult children living thousands of miles away -- and they too often died, sooner than later, of loneliness.
When she was healthier, my dad, Owen, had arranged a home healthcare plan for the two of them. And so when Mom needed help, in addition to my own, we had a nurse with her every day for several years, part or full time. It was the best decision Dad ever made. And I complemented the nurse's presence by visiting her several times a day. I always interviewed these nurses and made sure they were not only competent but caring people too.
In 2002, I came from New York to be with her to help her through a medical crisis. She had developed breast cancer, a quite virulent tumor -- and she needed a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. As she was transported into the operation room, I held her hand, seeing the fear in her eyes and hearing her sob gently as they rolled her away. My heart truly went out for her. If I could, I would have taken her place. I loved her too much to see her have to go through this ordeal.
But then, upon her return from surgery, she lay in her hospital bed, completely alert, to the surgeon's surprise and doing arm exercises -- arms out, arms up, arms in. Bubee was quite a trooper. She had always been a trooper.
During and after the chemotherapy and radiation, I also administered an alternative remedy, a fermented soy beverage from China that boosted the immune system by 600 percent, and I believe this helped her in her recovery quite a bit, especially in keeping possible, future cancer from recurring. Mom trusted me to find the remedies that could help her, even if she wasn't convinced they would. But she trusted me -- for she knew that behind the trust was love -- and she knew, I believe, how much I loved her.
Though her oncologist's prognosis was only six months, even with surgery, chemo and radiation, Mom defied his prediction, and went into remission. The cancer never recurred.
Later, though, her breathing became difficult and we learned that the valves in her heart were beginning to falter. In the last two years, we brought in oxygen tanks, and Mom stayed on oxygen at home.
I did everything I could to support her -- with massage, with adjusting her medications by coordinating carefully with her doctor, Dr. Pathak -- by introducing her to alternative medicine, especially homeopathic remedies, by hugging her constantly, by buying her some of her favorite foods (though in the last few months she couldn't eat much) and by letting her know how special a human being she was.
The biggest healing factor, beyond nurse's aides, beyond oxygen tanks, beyond medication and alternative remedies, was love. I remember walking into her bedroom in the evenings and seeing her face light up. "Thank God you're here," she would say, "You have no idea how your presence lifts my spirits!"
As her condition worsened, three of her valves had becomc dysfunctional. She only had one properly working valve, and a little past midnight on August 24th, the fourth valve stopped working. I hope and pray she was sleeping, after having taken her sleeping pill, a little earlier. I had said good night to her at 11 p.m., with my last words the same as every night, "Bubee, call me if you need me." She smiled.
Earlier in the evening, she said to me something she had said before, "Michael, I'm suffering. I don't want to go on any more." And though she had said it before, this time there was a little more edge to those words. Earlier that day, she had the most difficult day of any previous day. I was genuinely worried. But she rallied, as she was prone to do, so I didn't think that would be her last day. But sadly, it turned out to be.
At 12:30, I received a call from our nurse's aide. She was crying, "Michael rush over, your Mom isn't breathing." I was there in two minutes, and administered mouth to mouth. But I saw she was gone. For four and a half hours, I sat with her, praying to God that she go into the Light, holding and caressing her hand -- telling her how much I loved her -- and letting her know she was free from pain now and could move on into the hands of heavenly caretakers and her beloved relatives, especially her mother and grandmother, my dear father Owen and my sisters Susan and Heddy who had passed away in accidents years before.
Dr. Pathak had already told me there wasn't that much time left, but I didn't want to focus on that. He told me, "Let's hope when her time comes, she'll just pass quietly in her sleep." I hope that was the case.
A picture I have of Mom, at age two, surrounded by her older siblings, depicted the cutest, cherubic-looking little girl in a tiny hooped skirt. Another picture, when she was about 12, has her standing among these same siblings looking forlorn. I intuited that she appeared so needing to be seen, and yet lost in a sea of faces.
Unlike my Dad's family, who were poor with most destroyed by the Nazis, Mom's family found ways to surreptitiously flee Germany. My mom, and her brother David, escaped with the Torah from the Dortmund synagogue. They saved that Torah, along with their lives, and came to the Bronx, NY, where her family settled before moving to Brooklyn.
Mom married my Dad, who she knew in Dortmund. Though they knew each other a bit in Dortmund, they really met when both had managed to escape to America. And they married.
My Dad was a decorated war hero -- having joined Darby's First Ranger Battalion - part of Patton's Fifth Army -- and he was one of the few survivors in the First Wave Assault during the invasion of Anzio, in Sicily. Upon returning home, he married my Mom. They had three children -- I was the eldest, followed by Susan, followed by Heddy.
The Schwager family had its share of sorrow. For Susan, at age 23, died in a private plane crash with our first cousin Luba Lisa, a well-known singer and actress. And dear Heddy, at age 36, died in a car crash. Mom and Dad grieved intensely over both losses, as did I -- but somehow, survivors themselves, they survived -- but not without the emotional scars of these terrible losses.
When my mom was younger, I remember a day -- I think I was 8 years old, when I was attacked by a gang of teenage thugs near our home in Bayside, NY. Someone yelled, "Mrs. Schwager, Michael is being attacked." Well within minutes, there was this little lady, with a broomstick in her arms, running like flash lightning to the scene and summarily beating the boys with the broom 'til they ran away in fear. I never forgot that day. I saw the warrior in my mom. I was so proud of her.
I also remember the day my mom found her first job. She was absolutely thrilled. It was as a beautician. And I remember her happiness when she brought her first tips home -- nickels, dimes and quarters -- and laid them out on the bed and started counting, with a smile. You see, my mom so longed to be productive, so longed for fulfillment. Not just as a mother and housewife, but as a person of independence. She found some of that as a cosmetologist -- but not total fulfillment. By the way, those nickels, dimes and quarters paid for my Bar Mitzvah, a wonderful Bar Mitzvah. Thank you Bubee!
My mom had many talents. She could have been a great interior designer or a Soprano Opera Singer. I remember those wonderful family outings we had, where Mom filled the air with the joy of her beautiful voice. And she was a voracious reader. She loved novels and could devour books faster than I ever could! Sadly, like many of her generation, she was suppressed in her dreams, as were her sisters, by a more old fashioned vision of what girls were supposed to do in life - be mothers and housewives -- but not much more. I always felt that was part of Bubee's pain -- the lack of fulfillment she felt -- because there was so much talent inside her longing to be freed.
I feel sorry for so many women of that generation, and even later generations, who were suppressed in the expression of their God-given gifts.
I remember a story about the Dalai Lama, the great Tibetan Buddhist leader, who announced that we should have more women leaders of nations -- for women have great compassion and would naturally find ways to prevent wars and conflicts. And he also said he believed the next Dalai Lama should be a woman! I really believe that would have put a smile on my beloved mom's face had she heard that story!
There is so much more to my Mom, as there is to every life. She was a small person in size but not in being! She dressed impeccably, and her nails were always perfectly manicured by her! She was the most organized person I have every known in my life, and she had a great talent for interior design, as was evidenced by her beautiful home.
She was a real soul. You could "feel" her presence, her self-containment. She had real feeling and heart for other people. I remember, during Dr. King's crusade for civil rights, and the harshness he and so many African Americans endured during the marches, she would watch on TV and cry. Having been a survivor of Nazi brutality, she deeply empathized with others' struggles. I remember her many times saying, "It's time to come together as one human family. Please God."
Mom often would take care of her sisters when they were ill or her friends here in South Florida, and if they were in hospital, she would visit them often. She had a stoic, feisty and brave side. But she also suffered from worries about loved ones, about her grandson Scott who she didn't see too often and her great granddaughter Emily, who she never physically met. She was sad about that. She worried about the precariousness of life, about the loss of her dear daughters and she sometimes suffered from loneliness.
I know she loved me so much, and was grateful that I stayed by her and supported her emotionally and tangibly during her elder years. She sometimes would say to me, "If you weren't around, I wouldn't be here."
And now on this Mother's Day, feeling the void caused by her absence, I know I can stand here and say, I was my Mom's best friend. I helped her. And I am thankful to God for having been honored with that opportunity. She was a courageous, compassionate and loving soul. Bubee: I love you and always will. And I can say this, without reservation: Mothers are truly God's greatest gift of unconditional love here on Earth.
Mike Schwager is a speech writer, publicist, media interview coach and reputation repair consultant (www.mediamavens (dot) com, and www.TVtraining (dot) tv. He is host of "The Enrichment Hour," a spiritual, humanitarian radio show. His blog is www.EnrichOurWorld (dot) net. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.