My brother Joel is still dead :-(. I read a good book on sibling loss and was struck by someone quoted as saying "It's 17 months and every day I think 'he's still dead'." I don't know if I'll feel that way at 17 months but I do now. I think about him - and his family - every day and wish I could be geographically closer to my sister-in-law and nieces.
The lovely and talented rpics invited me and my kids to her wonderful house on Fire Island for the end of June/early July. We love Fire Island and love Ruth and family, so it sounded like a great plan. It had two potential problems, though. One was that I was waiting to hear when I'd have surgery for thyroid cancer, so I didn't know if it would conflict and the other that a close friend of mine was dying of metastasized breast cancer. The surgery got scheduled for August 2, so that worked out. And we left it that I'd plan on going if Cecelia was still alive by the time we were supposed to leave, and come back, if necessary. The kids would go anyway.
Cecelia was my lover for over two years and there was a time when we thought we'd stay together but, as Bertie Worcester would say, no business resulted. We did stay friends, though, and I was one of her main supports during her illness. Last spring/summer/fall I spent a lot of time with her, staying with her after chemo treatments and helping out in other ways. It looked like she was going to beat this thing, but it ended up metastasizing to her brain, and then her spine, and it became clear she wouldn't survive. She was staying with her brother, and then in hospital, and then in hospice all out in NJ a couple of hours drive away. I managed to visit her a couple of times a week and called her every day.
A week ago Wednesday when we were supposed to leave for Fire Island, Cecelia was still hanging on in hospice, but we knew it wasn't long. We arrived early afternoon, and Cecelia died later that afternoon/early evening. So I went back on Thursday, funeral was Friday, I came back to Fire Island Saturday night, we came home Monday. So a disjointed vacation, but I got some time at the beach and Ruth kindly hosted the kids the whole time.
The funeral was lovely. Our rabbi from Park Slope Jewish Center officiated, and she's brilliant and compassionate and insightful and totally wonderful. Several friends spoke too, including me. What I said is behind the cut.
Hi, my name is Dale Rosenberg. Cecelia and I were a couple for about 2.5 years, and friends forever. I want to say a little about the Cecelia Urban I knew.
She was a passionate, committed Jew. She was drawn to Jewish spirituality and mysticism and was always learning, growing in her Judaism. We loved “doing Jewish” together – sharing shabbos and holidays, going to Park Slope Jewish Center - PSJC (which she loved), studying together both in adult ed classes and on our own. She was very, very spiritual and I am very, very not spiritual and have always been drawn to the practical and intellectual side of Judaism. We felt it was good to be together for that; we evened each other out a bit. And I’ll tell you, my stock at PSJC rose when I brought Cecelia there. She had the most beautiful voice and the most heartfelt davening. People would stop us after services and say that sitting near us in shul enhanced their spiritual experience. Believe me, that never happened to me before Cecelia.
She had a Jewish soul that was always striving, and also a Jewish sense of humor – about the soul and about everything else. She had always been drawn to the melodies and stories of neo-Hasidism. Lately she’d also been taken with the Kirtan Rabbi, who mixes Indian-inspired melodies and Jewish mysticism in call and response chants of Jewish prayers. She found it a true spiritual experience, but when she talked to me about him, she always started with (singing) “Kirtan Rabbi sings this song, doo dah doo dah.” I loved the mix of fervent spirituality and ironic humor she embodied and it was there to the end.
She was also a committed public interest lawyer. She had a job where it’s a given that you almost never succeed: a public defender who did only appeals. She won a case when we had just started dating and when we were celebrating she said to me, “Enjoy this. You’ll never see it again.” She did actually win a few more in the time we were together but she took on a task, again and again, that was bound to failure most of the time, believing everyone deserved an honest and spirited defense. And sometimes, she used to say to me, when we do win we make good law.
She was a great dancer. We took swing dancing classes together and she was a very popular partner because when she led even if you had two left feet – as I do – you felt like you could dance.
She was a great friend, to those far and near. We spent a week in France with her friends Helene and Patrick and my kids and I were just taken into the circle of that friendship in a wholehearted way that was completely lovely. Meanwhile at home, I loved her friendship with Beth and Ken, who lived below her while we were a couple. Beth and Cecelia decided they were Lucy and Ethel – I think this was better for Ken than for me because he got to be Ricky. I do want to say that they have been the most devoted friends Cecelia could have hoped for and that getting closer to Beth while coordinating some of Cecelia’s support during her illness has been one of the bright spots in this awful year.
The last time I saw Cecelia was last Saturday night. I’ve been coming after work mostly to visit her and it’s a long trip and I always felt rushed. But this time I came early and was able to stay for hours and spend time with her with Peter and with Beth and Ken and alone. We read to her – we read letters from her dear friends Yitzchak Buxbaum and Carole Foreman and read special prayers for Gay Pride Shabbat. We told stories; we told her about the passage of marriage equality in NY and we all celebrated that. I don’t know how much she understood. She was mostly not able to speak. But she opened her eyes a few times and did say a clear “Hi, Beth!” when Beth walked in, which was remarkable at that point in her decline.
The decline was so swift and so unexpected in a lot of ways. It’s just a few months ago that we thought she was going to recover completely. It’s just a few weeks ago that she was sharp and funny and able to talk about what was happening to her. My brother Joel, who was very fond of Cecelia, died just four weeks ago and when I called her up to tell her she was full of stories about him. A week later I couldn’t even talk to her on the phone. I still called every day, because I said I would, and left messages, but she wasn’t able most of the time to talk clearly on the phone and shortly thereafter – with the exception of a “Hi Beth” couldn’t talk much at all. I think a lot of us are still reeling from how quickly it all happened.
Cecelia was a very optimistic person, much more so than I am – another area we balanced each other out a bit. She did happy endings; I did practical details. And one of the things she always used to say to me in tough times – one of her mottos – was “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” Well, it is not okay at all that Cecelia died. So it can’t be the end of her. We who loved her have to keep her memory alive and her spirit will stay with us.
So, next challenge: dealing with my illness. I'm scheduled for surgery in a few weeks. I'm actually looking forward to it - how sick is that? Partly for some symptom relief - I won't get any relief from fatigue and can't hope to lose weight until it's all over and I'm on thyroid meds, but the sore throat should be better after surgery - it was last time. But mostly I'm looking forward to the recuperation. I'm having surgery on Tuesday, coming home on Wednesday, and will be home the rest of the week. And I just think it will be paradise to have nothing I have to do for a few days - I'll read, watch movies and just relax.