Barry Schwartz was raised in a Conservative Jewish Family in a small town in western New York. Today he is the president of LIFE (Living Independently Forever), a company serving adults with learning disabilities on Cape Cod, Mass.
Supporting My Partner through the Death of Her Parent
It began as a usual Monday morning. I got out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and made the coffee. Joyce and our two boys awoke and we all eventually gathered around the kitchen table for breakfast. After breakfast I was getting dressed for work. At about 6:30 a.m. the phone rang and Joyce answered it--only a second or two later I heard this mournful cry from my wife, "No, oh no, no, no, no." I'll never forget the sound of her voice. It went on for a few minutes as I looked on helplessly and ignorant of what horrible news had transposed my happy wife into a sobbing and shuddering mass of emotion. And then it became clear with her next emotional cry, "No, not Arthur, It can't be."
Just the previous night Arthur had sat at our dining room table, joking about how much he enjoyed Joyce's cooking and that he wasn't sure how much time he had left on this earth but he wanted to enjoy every minute of it with this kind of food. He was in great spirits, having played golf in the afternoon, and now was enjoying a great meal, plus dessert. He even had a second piece of cake.
The call came from Joyce's sister-in-law. Apparently Arthur had had a massive stroke in the middle of the night. The ambulance had been called, but it was too late. Arthur had passed from this world to the world beyond. I hugged Joyce and together we explained to our boys what had happened. We all cried and hugged each other.
Joyce and I had been married for ten years. We were an interfaith couple--I was raised Jewish but became unaffiliated and non-observant the day I left home for college. Joyce's family was Italian and Catholic but also unaffiliated and non-observant, although Joyce, as an adolescent, had begun worshiping at Sunday services. She continued following this spiritual journey into adulthood. Early in our dating relationship I had expressed my desire to raise my children in the Jewish faith and Joyce was comfortable with that direction. For many years we celebrated both Jewish holidays and Christmas and Easter. After taking a course sponsored by UAHC titled Yours, Mine and Ours, I gained a deeper appreciation for Joyce's spirituality and what she had given up to have a Jewish family. Joyce, meanwhile, was learning all she could about Judaism and was fascinated with its history and focus on family. It was in 1996 that Joyce decided that she wanted to adopt Judaism as her religion.
On this painful day, Joyce's immediate family quickly gathered at the family home to support Joyce's mother, Olga, and each other. We were all in disbelief and shock. Arthur was like the rock of Gibraltar, anchoring the entire family. At his wake, hundreds of people lined up, some waiting as long as an hour to pay their respects to the family. We learned that Arthur had anchored many others as well, young and old, rich and poor. Arthur was his own man. He treated everyone in the same manner; he never needed to feed his own ego; he was respectful; he had his opinions but wouldn't try to convince you that his view was the right one; he had a great laugh; and people were attracted to him like a magnet.
Joyce was especially close to Arthur, and he to her. Although he was her step-father, she always said he was the only father she ever knew, and she truly loved and appreciated him. Several months before we were married, she asked Arthur if he would formally adopt her. She felt she was choosing her father, and he was choosing her.
I, too, felt a special closeness with Arthur. From the very beginning, he and Olga would come to our home to celebrate Jewish holidays. He loved our Passover seder, although he always would joke about the time it took before we got to the dinner part of the ritual. He was a man who asked very little, but for whom you always wanted to do something. His death was a real loss for me as well, and I had only known Arthur for twelve years.
Joyce and I were mutually supportive of each other. I knew we had to go through this mourning period together. Our reality was forever changed. Arthur would not be at any future family gatherings: he wouldn't be sitting in his chair when we visited, and he wouldn't be there to proudly watch his grandchildren mature into adulthood.
There seemed nothing that I could do but to be by Joyce's side. For the next seven days we shared stories about Arthur, laughing and crying. We brought our boys into the conversation and comforted them in their own personal sense of loss of their Grampie--the only Grampie they ever knew. Our youngest son, Mark, shared that he was so happy that the last time he had seen Grampie he had given him a really big hug. Our oldest son, Matt, talked about the golf clubs that Grampie had given him, but then he realized Grampie would never again take him for rides in the golf cart or give him any more golf lessons.
The immediate family, with spouses (about nine of us), went to the funeral home to help Olga make the burial arrangements. We all tried to be helpful while still deferring to Olga to make the final decisions. Arthur, himself, had already scripted part of his final chapter. As he was finalizing his will only six months earlier, he told Joyce and Olga, in no uncertain terms, that he did not want to be buried in a suit, since he rarely wore one. Rather, he wanted to be buried in his golf clothes and have his golf clubs by the side of his casket at the wake. This was Arthur--I'm sure he laughed to himself as he thought about it.
We had to go to the cemetery to pick out a burial plot. Everyone went to the cemetery--each person looking for the perfect place for Arthur's final resting place. We went up and down each section until Olga found it. We all agreed--it was close to the road, since Arthur liked convenience; it was in a prominent spot, because Arthur enjoyed being in the spotlight; and it was under a large maple tree to provide the shade for his peaceful rest.
Meanwhile, Arthur's sisters had their own ideas about Arthur's funeral service. Despite Arthur's disinterest in religion, his sisters felt he should be given a proper send-off--including a full Mass with four priests officiating. This was in sharp contrast to Arthur's real life, creating a new challenge for the immediate family: respecting Arthur's sisters while simultaneously respecting Arthur and the life he lived. Joyce's sister Dee had the answer. We would weave our own service into the formal church service. Dee would read a poem, granddaughter Lindsay would share her own personal farewell, and I was asked to provide the eulogy. After the eulogy, a friend of the family would sing "You are the Wind Beneath My Wings." I was honored by the request to give the eulogy--it was a last gift I could give to Arthur, and I knew what I wanted to write, although I didn't think I would be able to deliver it due to my strong emotions.
Joyce and I spent the next few days talking and being with her family. Writing the eulogy was a comforting task, reflecting back on what I admired about Arthur. His strength and character as well as his love of family would fill my eyes with tears.
The funeral service was very special due to Dee's taking charge of part of the service, and I somehow was able to deliver the eulogy. That night at our home, we had a memorial service with our close friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Joyce's entire B'nai Mitzvah class, which had been meeting weekly for the past year in preparation for their group adult Bat Mitzvah, showed up with food and hugs of support. Our cantor Norman Janis led us in prayer and song. It was very comforting to both of us, but for Joyce it was especially consoling.
Reflecting on that time, I think my most helpful contribution was being fully involved--sharing her grief, sharing our memories of specific times with Arthur and what made him happy, crying together, and holding each other. We periodically visit Arthur's grave and share thoughts and memories that Arthur would have appreciated.
A few months ago, Joyce asked me to pick up a copy of her birth certificate at Boston City Hall, which was needed for our upcoming trip to Canada. It was a Friday, and I was not happy about the prospect of finding the time that afternoon, locating a parking spot, and then waiting in line at City Hall. Joyce had given me her birth father's name, the hospital at which she was born, and I knew her birth date. I filled out the required forms, paid the fee and waited. About ten minutes later the clerk came back to say that I didn't have the right name of Joyce's father. I assured the clerk that my wife had given me the right name. The clerk looked me in the eye and then asked me about my relationship with the party involved, and I explained that I was her husband. There was another delay but then the clerk came back with the birth certificate and I asked what the problem was. She showed me the birth certificate, and on the line listing Joyce's father was the name Arthur D'Allessandro. Along with the birth date there was the date of the adoption. The father that Joyce had chosen was printed on her birth certificate. Tears came to my eyes as I realized what a wonderful gift this would be for the most important person in my life--my wife and best friend Joyce.