My previous post on this blog, which I wrote a fortnight ago, was the first one that I had posted in the nearly five years this blog has been active that Vivien hadn’t read before it went up and out. And now that she’s no longer here to warn me diplomatically when my emotions got the better of me, as they often did, I have to get used to the idea that I am now my own critic and censor. Like many other things, it ain’t going to be easy.
Married just a month short of 54 years, best friends for longer than that, 62 years of togetherness have come to an end and I will just have to get on with life, as best I can, on my own. As my late mother told me 25 years ago, a week after my father passed away, it’s too easy to sink. She just said in her matter-of-fact way that she had to be like all the other people she saw on the street and get out and do normal things; the following day she registered for bridge classes and never looked back, playing three or four days a week with different groups. I’m not going to take lessons in playing bridge (my mother also informed me that I didn’t have a “card-playing brain”) but I will find other things to do.
It has been a weird few weeks. For starters, it had been perhaps over 10 years since such a long time had gone by without my shooting a single photograph with a camera although I took a small number with the phone’s camera—but really very few. The extended photo break was, of course, caused by the fact that for most of the period from July 2 to July 18, I was ensconced in a chair beside a bed in a ward in Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv during daylight hours, while the doctors tried to identify and locate the source of some nasty bacteria that had decided to come to life inside Vivien’s body. Unfortunately, even after a fortnight of “investigation” they didn’t succeed and the end came after an unfortunate piece of negligence on the part of one of the nurses as a result of which she survived less than 24 hours.
Notwithstanding the outcome of the events, it’s always an interesting experience to observe the goings-on in hospitals. Some years ago, while in London for a short stay, the same lady found herself with a lung infection and was treated at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, an event which extended our planned short stay in the U.K. by a fortnight, something that appealed to me even if the circumstances of the prolongation were far from ideal. During the few days in hospital and in the five or six days following discharge, there were visits from doctors, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists and others who treated her, in hospital and at home. I counted 16 different people who looked after her (not including ancillary staff such as cleaners and the like). The treatment was highly professional and that was to be expected. However, what really struck me then was that all but two of these professionals originated outside the U.K. That was long before Brexit “got done” and it does make one think. And here we are in Israel, which is sometimes (and more frequently than in the past) referred to as a willing successor to South Africa as the apartheid state and, indeed, there are many things that once can criticize in this country. Yet when I looked around me at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, I saw a group of medical staff working together as a team. It made no difference whether they were Jewish, Muslim or Christian, whether they were secular or religious, whether they were native born or immigrants from the former USSR or Ethiopia, they worked as one and gave the best treatment they could. It is a side of Israel that the foreign media never if ever report on or are wilfully ignorant of but which exists in every hospital and healthcare clinic in this country.
Vivien passed away early on Saturday morning July 18. Our son, Dov, arrived from London two days earlier, ostensibly to spend 14 days in self-isolation and the third week with Vivien. He managed to speak with her on the phone after he arrived, travelling to my sister to quarantine in Northern Israel. However, he didn’t succeed in seeing his mother in person. Neither did our daughter Shuli who had emerged from self-isolation around the same time, having been required to quarantine when a classmate of her 9-year old daughter had been diagnosed with Covid-19, an event which required all the Grade 3 kids in the school and their parents to hide themselves away for the duration. Shuli managed to see Vivien the evening before she died but by that time she got to the hospital, Vee was already on a ventilator.
We arranged the funeral for Monday as Dov needed to receive permission to leave his place of quarantine in order to be with us. Permission was granted and he also received authorisation to continue his period of self-isolation in Tel Aviv. We were restricted to a maximum of 18 attendees at the funeral so after we had accounted for immediate family, I had the task of choosing from among friends and relatives and that was not at all n easy task.
As we assembled prior to the interment, I asked the representative of the Burial Society what was permitted in the ceremony prior to burial. Expecting to be told that one could only do this and definitely not that, I was pleasantly surprised when his response was “Whatever you want. We respect the wishes of each family.” I asked if we could have music and again he responded that there was no problem and then when I asked if a woman would be permitted to sing (hearing a woman’s voice is a no-no among many religious Jews), I discovered that this was simply a non-issue.
So I delivered a eulogy, which concluded with the words from the end of Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, a piece of music that Vivien loved
“When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble … in thy breast.
Remember me, remember me, but ah! Forget my fate.
And as I finished, three friends of Shuli and Tami, Rachel Ringelstein (vocal), accompanied by Tali Goldberg (violin) and Yael Patish-Comforty (viola) performed the aria. (The video above is of the same aria but, obviously, performed by others elsewhere.)
Dov composed a special piece for Vivien and then all three of our children delivered their own words, followed by an old friend and neighbour from Haifa, Sammy Beris.
And then, to everybody’s surprise, Shuli produced a bluetooth speaker and we listened as a friend and colleague of Shuli’s, Maya Belsitzman (cello, vocals and arranger), with Matan Ephrat (drums), Tali Goldberg and Sharon Cohen (violins) and Shuli herself (viola) belted out Vivien’s signature tune, When You’re Smiling, from a concert performed earlier this year at the Israel Jazz Festival while all 18 of us present sang along with gusto.
After the funeral, the shivah, the seven-day mourning period began and ended last Sunday morning with a large family hug and tears. It was an “interesting” week. The apartment filled up with a constant stream of musicians and both Dov and I had friends, neighbours and former colleagues visit as well. Shivah is truly a wonderful institution.
Although I stopped being a regular synagogue attender a long time ago (The Almighty and I stopped speaking to one another some years ago) I find reciting the kaddish, the prayer for the departed, a catharsis. As an old acquaintance from Dublin, Mashey Bernstein, a person whom Vivien and I hosted half a century ago in Los Angeles when he arrived to become a graduate student and later a faculty member in the Writing Program at UC Santa Barbara, reinventing himself in the process, wrote in an article published in The Jewish Chronicle after his mother died nearly 30 years ago, “The kaddish has a peculiar effect on people. Recalcitrant sons who have not stepped inside a synagogue for years suddenly appear three times a day to recite the prayer. Those who had bad relations with their parents weep profusely as they utter the words. For loving children, it offers comfort and consolation. Whatever the case, reciting the words [in Aramaic], the formula, the mantra, unites the child in some primeval way with tradition, with the voices of equally bereft children who have recited the words over thousands of years. With their recitation, they find peace.” And what Mashey wrote about children and their parents is equally true of husband and wife. When I recite the kaddish, it’s not the meaning of the words that I react to but to the rhythm of the words and the responses. This is what causes the memories to flood and the emotions to flow.
Immediately after Vivien’s passing and before the shivah began at 10.00 each morning, I decided that the best way to begin the healing process would be to try to return to what I’d been doing almost every day day for the previous 12 years, and that is to go for a morning walk, camera in hand.
Other family members did different things then and in the days of corona lockdown that had preceded it. Tami took to water-colour painting and found it extremely relaxing and soothing.
Gali, aged 9, enjoyed drawing and also started to paint so that Vivien was able to view the painting below each day she was in the hospital as I had taped it to the end of her bed.
Shuli, meanwhile, was working on her iPad drawing skills and decided to teach herself animation. She took a story that Vivien had written for children over 20 years ago, set to a short piece of music for string quartet, Polka, by Dmitri Shostakovich and decided to animate it. Vivien managed to hear and see the first two minutes of it but Shuli didn’t manage to finish it before she died. She posted it to YouTube and sent the link to Facebook friends, so in a way, lots more people managed to enjoy it than Vivien would have ever imagined and that would have made her extremely happy. (Shuli worked on the Hebrew version first and then I discovered on Viv’s laptop that there was also an English version, so that went up, too. The Hebrew version is slightly better quality.)
Like everywhere else, live performances have vanished from the scene. However, just a couple of days after Vivien was hospitalized, Shuli performed in the first of what was planned as a mini-festival of three concerts during the first week of July at the Israel Conservatory of Music down the street. The auditorium was about 60% full of masked people sitting at a socially acceptable distance from one another and she managed to perform in a Haydn string quartet (Op. 33 #1) and the Brahms piano quintet. However, the following day, the cabinet or the government or the minister (nobody really knew at the time who was making decisions or why) decided that all halls should be closed and that was the end of that.
Then, two days before the end came, I managed to attend the rehearsal of a twice-cancelled concert by the Carmel Quartet, entitled Baroque Avant-Garde. The quartet had decided to record the concert the following day and send it to series subscribers in a few weeks’ time. I would have liked to have been able to attend the recording session at the Conservatory the following day but the timing was off for at just about the same time as it was about to start, all hell had broken loose at the hospital. Tami heard the news after the session had come to an end.
After two weeks in quarantine and two free days, Dov has returned to London to his own family to yet a further fortnight of quarantine. He was great company while he was here but I have to get used to something else.
Thus I enter a new phase of life, a “Brave New World”. After 62 years of togetherness and almost 54 years of married life, I have to become used to living alone. It won’t be easy but my mother is my model in that regard. “Keep busy; it’s too easy to sink!”, so I will find lots of things to do. I have to — there’s really no alternative.
I can only hope that Vee would have approved of what I’ve written this time around and that I haven’t committed too many errors of judgement or indiscretions!