My sister-in-law was the unknowing cause of my husband meeting me.
Sixty-nine years ago today she married Irv Tanzman, a member of a large hotel-owning family in Parksville, formerly a Catskills resort town. My husband became a busboy, and then a waiter, at one of those hotels. I, at 17, was coincidentally a counselor in the busy day camp at the same hotel.
Influence or talent really wasn’t needed to get one of those jobs. They paid less than a pittance, and the housing provided was primitive, to be kind. But, if you ever wanted to make a shidduch between Jewish college students, there was absolutely no better place to do it, even unintentionally. It was serendipity.
So it was Parksville, the place that had brought together my parents, also serendipitously, that did it again, and within a few short years the Tanzmans, Irv and Florence, became my sister-in-law and brother-in-law. And so it was.
Through the years each couple had children and then grandchildren and then great-grandchildren. They visited us in Herzliya and in Jerusalem. We had the usual holiday meals together and kept in constant phone contact. All was well, but life, as we know it, always comes to an end. As a matter of fact, no one has ever escaped this life alive! It’s not a surprise. No one gets out alive.
Yet we always are surprised, shocked, and disbelieving when that angel named Death shows up. I remember the haunting introduction to John O’Hara’s book “Appointment in Samarra.” Based upon a play by W. Somerset Maugham, the book argues that men cannot avoid their appointments with death. The inevitable will always happen. Always. No argument here.
Florence Tanzman, 90, had an appointment with death. She had grown up in Brooklyn, the elder sister by four and a half years, and a role model to my husband. She taught him many things. When we were about to get married, she was the authority who exemplified how young couples furnished their new homes. We learned, for example, not to buy the first of anything that we saw. We were to shop and see everything that was available before making a decision, whether it be about bedroom furniture or cutlery or dishes. We were dutiful students, learning that retail was a forbidden word. Eventually we bought a bedroom set that Irv was able to get us wholesale. We had learned. We still have that bedroom set.
She was a fashionista, which I am emphatically not. Even Florence was unable to teach me the basics. Tomorrow I will dress, unsuitably no doubt, for her funeral.
Her death this week was shocking. It shouldn’t have been. The first clue was actually on Thanksgiving, when she and Irv didn’t attend dinner at their club at Boca West in Boca Raton, where they had lived for many years. Irv is a serious three-times-a week golfer, even at 93, and she kept busy with diverse Jewish activities, but they loved dinners at their club and never missed them. We knew all was not well when she told us they were skipping the catered club Thanksgiving this year.
A few days later, she was hospitalized and eventually put on a ventilator. The family was told that her vital signs were good but she was unable to be weaned from the mechanical breathing tube. Her vital signs were still good until the middle of the night this week when she died. Everyone was shocked. Her vital signs were good. How could she have died?
You know, life is funny that way. We have expectations of everlasting life and good health. Why do we see these expectations? One might think that mankind would have learned from experience. After all, no one, not one single human being, has ever survived life. No one is around to teach us what happens after death. We, not a one of us, really don’t know what happens. Sure there are theories: Heaven. Hell. Olam ha ba. But these are really unproven, and probably more wishful thinking than fact. No rational person can actually explain death.
So Florence died and is no more. Is that a tragedy? It’s sad, certainly, but not tragic. We have young soldiers dying every day in Gaza. Clearly, those are tragedies. We all know the difference between tragic deaths and — how shall I say it? — more expected deaths.
My husband and I say to each other often that if either one of us died today, it would not constitute a tragedy. At our ages, 85 and 84, we already have long passed the cutoff point for tragic deaths. We’ve lived our lives and we are old, and yes, a bit feeble too. We’re the ones who need wheelchairs at the airport. We’ve both had cataract surgery, and I don’t go very far without my hearing aids. Watching us walk, it appears that we need sobriety tests, faltering and, worse, falling. He’ll soon go for a replacement defibrillator, and I’ve had cancer. We get new parts but we’re still the old engine and chassis. No one is about to use our hearts for transplants, and no doctor would ever consider us for receiving them. We’re old but not looking forward to greeting that Death angel. We’ve got lots of goals ahead and lots of events we want to participate in, but we do not control our destiny. None of us do, as much as we like to think that we are in charge.
And do you know what, even the richest and most powerful, the kings and queens, the business titans, the most talented and famous, endure the same. They too will meet Death. That angel knows no exceptions. And cannot be bought off. It’s all the same to him if you’re a tycoon or a homeless person sleeping in the streets of, say, Mumbai.
Confronting death head on is probably one of life’s major challenges. Confronting the unknown is frightening, especially when we don’t have a glimmer of understanding of what that unknown really is. Walk around a cemetery and read some of the passages engraved on the stones, strange sayings like “in our hearts forever,” which suggests that the person in the grave is gone, but the writer, using the word forever, expects that the same thing just is not going to happen to him.
Or think of the expert on aging, advising us how to deal with terminal patients or those with senility. He is always speaking to the younger generation, never admitting that one day he too will be part of the dying generation.
Perplexing, isn’t it, how man cannot face his mortality. And yes, that goes for women as well. Death-defying is definitely not a phrase to bank on!
So, today we plan the shiva for Florence. And although I don’t exactly know what this phrase really means, may she rest in peace!
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Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of four. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was! She welcomes email at firstname.lastname@example.org