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Robert J. Elisberg Headshot

Happily, It is a Wonderful Life

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The other day, my mother, Betty Lou Elisberg, passed away at age 87. No one need read any farther. That acknowledgement is plenty enough. Nothing famous here today. But if you decide to, I hope you'll enjoy knowing about a life worth knowing.

As best as I can recall, my mother only told two jokes in her life. To be clear, she loved jokes. She just didn't always get them - which was a life-challenge to my father who was always telling them. But she wanted to get them. She wanted to get everything. She didn't ever want to miss anything. If she was watching a movie and missed a joke, she'd insist you explain it. Even if that meant missing the next four minutes of the movie.

But you had to answer. Because ignoring this sweet, gentle, dear, quiet, lovely woman was never an option. She was utterly, stunningly, other-worldly dogged. I always told her that she was a woman who wouldn't take "No. No. No - No - No -No. No , No, No, No, NoNoNoNoNoNo NoNoNoNoNoNo" for an answer.

But that doggedness didn't just touch getting answers, it pretty much described her life. People would see this frail, fragile, petite lady, but in truth, she was among the toughest people you ever met.

She was unrelenting. I called her the Energizer Bunny, because she just kept going. Nothing stopped her. When post-polio rudely came back late in her life, taking away her neck muscles, she would simply push her head back up, go out to dinner, go to the theater, go for visits, go on - and just go on and on and on. She just wouldn't be stopped.

And she never complained. This wonderful person who lived pretty much most of her life in pain, wouldn't complain. It was her life. It was life. She accepted it.

The closest I came to ever hearing her complain was a couple years ago. "Mom," I asked her, "after polio, post-polio, a stroke, stent and now macular degeneration - do you ever think of looking up and saying, 'Okay, God, I get it. You can move on to someone else now." And after a short pause, she quietly said, "Yeah."

That was it. That was the most I ever heard her complain.

She didn't complain. Even later, when she had a tracheotomy, pacemaker and recovered from cardiac arrest. And also spent seven months in a hospital.

She was just a heroically sweet, lovely person. But then, she had good genes for that. She was her mother's daughter. My Grandma Rose. They were quite a wonderful pair.

The thing is, it's not just that she was so nice - but that she sort of expected that everyone was nice. If I needed to pick one story to best describe my mother, it probably came a few years back. My father Ed had to get up very early one Chicago morning, but their alarm clock wasn't working. What to do? Well - she telephoned WFMT, her adored favorite radio station, perhaps the premier classical station in the country, which she regularly called with questions...and she asked the morning host if he'd give them a wake-up call. He was going to be up anyway, she figured - it didn't occur to her that he'd say no. Yet here's the thing: because it was this sweet woman who always called him...he said "yes." And so, at 6:30 in the morning, my folks got their wake-up call from Carl Grapentine of WFMT.

My mother just loved being nice to people. And she adored her family and relatives. She was a wonderful, deeply supportive mother to my brother John and me. But - oh, did she ever love my father.

In the 66 years they were married, they always said that they only had one argument. And it was only about a new play they'd gone to. She loved it, and he thought it was "the worst damned thing" he'd ever seen. By the way, years later I finally saw the play. My mother was right.

But deep as their love was, my father was also the long-suffering recipient of one little-known quirk of my mother.

For reasons no one could ever understand, this ethereally sweet woman, who only told two jokes in her life, LOVED April Fool's Day. Just absolutely loved it. And even though every year we knew it was coming, she still always got you. But especially, she always got my poor father.

Because, you see, she would always get him as soon as he would wake up. Before he had a chance to even realize what day it was. Still bleary-eyed. She'd get him. April Fool! Every time, every year.

And so, that's why it's appropriate to close with one particular April Fool's joke, because I think it tells a lot, about a lot of things.

A few years ago, she had called to tell me some unfortunate news. That the wonderful Elizabeth Fernando - who has been helping my folks for years and is close to an angel on earth - had to leave because she was going to be working full-time at her other job. This was a very big loss, and I said so.

And immediately - "April Fool!!!" She got me. And I heard Elizabeth laughing in the background. Eventually Elizabeth got on the phone. "How could you believe that, Bob?" she kept laughing. "How could you believe that?? Don't you know that I'm never going to leave mommy?! Never."

My mother had two sons. But her relationship with Elizabeth was, in many ways, like mother and daughter. And that speaks volumes about both of them.

And that brings us to now. I'm deeply saddened by losing my mother. But her sweet, unrelenting force throughout a difficult life, uncomplaining, was so strong, so heroic, such a role model that her presence will always be here. I loved her, but I was also in awe of her. And the reality is, we could have lost her at any time over the previous 55 years, so I've always looked at the past as a half-century bonus.

I'm so lucky for her life. And I celebrate it.

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