Elster's World

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Day the Music Died

Right after I graduated college, I had the pleasure of being a Madrich (counselor) on a six-week summer tour of Israel with teenage boys and girls. In many ways, it was my last hurrah before law school and the “real world” that lay beyond Education’s End.

Long story short (as it’s not the point of the story anyway and maybe the subject of an entirely different post altogether), I had a total blast. The kids were really good kids, I had a few really good friends with me serving as Madrichim as well, I was popular (for the first time in my life) with the campers and heck, it was Israel and it was summer and what could be bad? Well, some things could be bad.

Back home, my grandfather (my mother’s father), who had been suffering from lung cancer for many, many years, was not doing very well. When I had left, he was in a state barely better than a coma. He couldn’t eat. He was, quite literally, wasting away in front of the family that had loved and cared for him all the time that he was sick. I visited him almost every day while I was still home.

My grandfather was neither a great man nor a wealthy man. He had served as a cook in the United States Army during the Second World War and worked as a chef/owned a kosher deli in his working years. Despite never really being successful, he loved to dress well (all of his suits were from Brooks Brothers) and he was always quick with a joke. Unfortunately, he also loved to smoke.

As with all great smokers of the 20th Century, he developed lung cancer. Doctors were forced to cut something like 70% of his lungs out. He was given six months to live. He took another ten years.

He died when I was 6,000 miles away, having the absolute time of my life. I will never forget how I found out. We had just finished a tour of an outdoor museum of some kind in the middle of absolute nowhere, when the Israeli director came over to me, his pager in his hand. Showed me the message. I was to call my grandparents house. It was urgent, the message read. In the daze that was already descending on me, I noticed that the message was over two days old.

I walked into the lounge and asked for a pay phone. As I dialed calling card codes and numbers, I already knew. My grandfather was gone. He had no more fight left, no more jokes to make. My father picked up. We spoke, I held it together. He put my mother on. I lost it. We cried and cried. We talked it through with my dad and decided it no longer made sense to come home. The funeral was over and by the time I would be able to get anything done, shiva would be over too. I remember bawling and the man waiting on line for the pay phone behind me asking “Ma kara, ma kara? (what happened, what happened?)”, probably assuming there had been a terrorist attack or something. I shook him off and hung up, made it back to the bus before starting to cry again. I cried all day. I grieved for my grandfather.

The last time I saw him at the hospital before I left, when I had said goodbye, I knew it might be the last time I saw him.. My recent prayers for him had changed from “he should get better” to “Hashem (g-d) should do what was best”, even if that meant taking him from us. I felt guilty that when I was having the time of my life, my mother and grandmother were going through pain.

I’ve never been much of a crier. I have lost three grandparents (my mother’s mother is still alive and doing very well, thank you very much and Baruch Hashem) but only completely lost it that one time. I recognize that some of the emotion came from the fact that I had been so “high” all summer. The news was like someone literally kicking the legs out from under me.

Well, being the person I am, I moved on. We spent that very afternoon working with Ethiopian immigrant children. They were dirt poor, living in cruddy conditions. But still, the looks on their faces. It was one of hope. Uniformly and collectively of hope. It inspired me. I jumped right in. What better way to honor a man that I loved? As is it's way (most of the time, at least), eventually, the pain went away.


  • Amazing post. Amazing to take pain and turn it into hope. It gives me hope. Thanks.

    By Blogger Sara, at 10:10 AM  

  • Grandparents are very special people. You expressed yourself well.

    By Blogger Jack's Shack, at 11:47 AM  

  • Thanks for both of your sentiments. That whole episode stands out as one of my most lucid memories.

    By Blogger Elster, at 2:10 PM  

  • To whatever other gifts your grandfather gave you in life, you can add this incredibly vivid and poignant memory. We have relatively few experiences in life which remain with us as such clear, distinct events. Those recollections are so important later. Not only will you remember the power of your feelings at that moment, but it will preserve for you the other aspects of your life at the time … Israel, your friends, summer, and the joy – so well expressed in your post - which you felt.

    By Blogger dbs, at 8:27 PM  

  • Maybe not so much comparable, but about being on that high all summer. It's kind of like, after shabbos. I sometimes get a very down feeling after shabbos. Actually, now that I typed it, maybe it makes no sense at all...

    By Blogger Eshet Chayil, at 11:22 AM  

  • dbs - Yes - such lucid recollections are indeed rare. And I have a good memory too. But this moment in time obviously resonates and stands out.

    EC- Makes sense to me though on a smaller scale. I wish i felt shabbos that strongly but alas i guess i do not...

    By Blogger Elster, at 12:01 PM  

  • whoa that was shockingly sad.
    you brought tears to my eyes.
    i still remember fingding out my "uncle" (as i called him) had died... days after i had put off visiting him because it made me too sad.... it upsets me to this day. may we merit the moshiach and an end to the pain of loss along with tchiat hamatim

    By Blogger dietgarage, at 3:19 AM  

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