Perhaps an hour ago, I got an email from my Rabbi stating that a close friend had lost her battle with cancer and had passed away this morning. In our Jewish tradition, she will be buried quickly, at 3:00 this afternoon because tomorrow is Passover. Ellen Rosenthal was the wife and best friend of my business adviser and partner, Allen, for more than 40 years. She was intelligent, lovely, a loving mother and grandmother, an independent and strong thinker, and an important part of our congregation. I am closer to Allen. He is my mentor, a surrogate father, a spiritual student in the same class in our synagogue for a long time before I moved to New York and got married. Our first project was a meditation CD based on the story of The Utterance. Yet, Ellen was always patient about that project and a good listener about my “missions” which are invariably related to my desire to turn what is seemingly evil into something good… even when I rambled on and ranted more than I should have.
When my children went to live with their father in 2007; I was decidedly unhappy about it and my friends, and especially the Rosenthals, were looking out for me, while allowing me to maintain my dignity. Ellen was quietly generous, sharing her family with me, and for years in a row, a place for me at the Passover table when I would otherwise have been alone. She put up with frequent interruptions and demands on Allen’s time for our projects and my adjustment to life as a non-custodial mother. A few years ago, while her mother Miriam was very ill, Ellen and I had to rush her home before the holiday began because she was too ill to make it through the Seder. When Miriam finally passed away, Allen and Ellen gave me one of Miriam’s watches. Miriam had survived for 16 long, agonizing, days through the unthinkable, without being able to even swallow any food, at the end of her life. She certainly became a symbol of perseverance for me.
Last year Ellen was too sick to orchestrate Passover dinner, and I had optimistically hoped we’d be together with her well again this year. But, a few weeks ago I was told that Ellen would not make it much longer and I’ve been planning when I would return to say good-bye and wait.
I can’t make it back in time for the funeral in a few short hours; and I can only hope that Ellen, who I am sure thought that her “small” kindnesses towards me were ordinary, truly understood how much the gift of inclusion was to me at such a transformational time of my life. I love her, and her family, like my own.
Our friends are calling furiously with plans and trying to find one another on the eve of the holiday. Tears flowing… and I pulled out Miriam’s watch and held it in my hand, and this time this watch is representative of how fleeting time is with our loved ones, and how it belies the importance of people who mean so much to you; the way that suddenly the time you thought you would have to say “thank you”, “I love you” or even “I am sorry” has evaporated.
Our loss of Ellen made me realize how very important it is for friends and family to know how to respond to someone who is in pain in the way that she did. See, Ellen, gave a ‘small act of tremendous generosity’ with the gifts of a seat at her holiday dinner table; by counting on me to help her when she needed me; a willingness to listen sometimes; and sharing the people that she loved, and that love her, with me.
Yes, great acts are important, and wonderful if they can be managed, but sometimes it is the smallest, random, seemingly insignificant acts that bring a person relief, and a sense of belonging, and a sense of normalcy to an otherwise upside down world. Ellen, thank you, you were a blessing in our worlds.