Monday, February 17, 2020

Part I

This morning was the first time I had access to my Tehillim list since the petirah of my twin sister Adele last Erev Shabbos. It was so difficult to transition from “Adul Bas Altah Chayah” to “Adul Bat Yehudah Tzvi.” When I crossed her off my list I was immediately hit with the reality that broke my heart once again: “Once we were ‘two’ and now I am ‘one,’ a diminished piece of a formidable whole, solidified by our twinship. Seventeen years ago our family learned that Adele was struck with Parkinson’s disease. As a speech pathologist, she suspected that the recent onset of fatigue, coupled with the increasing strain she experienced in projecting her voice, signaled the beginning of this disease. Yet, since she was in a relatively young age range for Parkinson’s, her doctors insisted otherwise. Unfortunately, as the symptoms increased, further testing confirmed her self-diagnosis. Still, for a period of time, the news remained with Adele and her husband, Dov. Yet, when we learned that her visible symptoms were more than a severe case of arthritis, we were not surprised that this selfless couple put off revealing the diagnosis. This was because they did not want to disturb the joy and excitement of several upcoming family events. This show of resilience and selflessness was long-standing and inherited from our parents; and for Adele, it began at the time of our birth in a DP camp in Planegg, a suburb of Munich, Germany.

My parents, Ann and Leo Reich, were Holocaust survivors and, like so many of their fellow residents, met and married within their first year in the DP camp, the temporary home they made while waiting for their immigration papers to come through. My mom was a survivor of six camps including Auschwitz, and my father, by comparison, was the lucky one who miraculously found his way from Auschwitz to a labor camp in Siberia. Within a year of their marriage the miracle of their survival was extended to include the premature birth and survival of twin daughters. Each time my mom repeated this story over the years her gratitude to Hakadosh Baruch Hu was visible as she recounted the details of our birth. My sister and I loved to hear the part recalling the response of the German doctor, when she insisted that she was not finished: “It’s just the “after-birth,” he exclaimed, and then invited the cleaning girl to finish the job of delivering me one long half hour later. Yet, things got worse before they got better.

As is often the case with identical twins, one twin takes a disproportionate amount of the available nourishment in the womb, thereby compromising the intake of the other. When “Doc Nazi” returned on the second day, he was faced with the surprise of my birth. It was then that he weighed us on one scale, at five pounds combined. When he examined Adele, he callously declared that he did not expect her to survive. As the story goes, when my mom cried over the anticipated death of my sister. “Doc Nazi” once again responded with scorn: “Why the tears, Mrs. Reich? You have another one.” The last laugh was on him. It happened to be that Adele was a “survivor” born to a “survivor,” and b’ezrat Hashem she beat the odds. I am certain that Adele’s show of strength at birth was exactly when the seeds of resilience were sown, a precursor for the “noble warrior” we all knew and loved. Adele’s strength and integrity were certainly visible at the very early age when she assumed her role as my “big sister.” As first-grade students in Yeshiva D’Brooklyn, Adele already understood that our parents had enough to handle as survivors. It was Adele who became the “strong minded,” “practical” twin while I assumed the posture of the more “emotionally sensitive” one, leaning on the shoulders of my sister. This was evidenced in the nicknames we earned as “Sunshine” and “Tear Drops.” Still, we learned from one another and grew to be a formidable and unbeatable team, a combination that resulted in a strong front for anyone who would get in our way.

As the family grew with the addition of our two sisters, Shaindy and Chavi, at the very young age of 10, we became the primary caretakers of these cuties while our parents worked in their bakery. This parentified status, which meant that our sisters tagged along on all of our after-school events, led to a temporary love-hate relationship between the two camps. Yet, we also understood that this was financially necessary and therefore we never burdened our parents with these issues or any of the other challenges associated with our pre-adolescent and adolescent stages of development. Instead, we devised strategies in figuring out how to deal with the concerns that occupied our minds. One example of this was the “Nightly Worry List,” through which we shared the troubles of our day. This allowed us to process and solve the daily anxieties and problems, and at the same time avoiding further burdening to our parents. This self-soothing technique was probably conceived by Adele given her strength in the ability to step out of herself and seek the best outcome for those in her surround—a trait that defined her as the big sister, wife, mother, grandmother, friend, speech pathologist and mentor. In all of these roles she fine-tuned the traits of consistency and constancy that informed the manner in which she was able to step out of her own challenges in order to advocate for others. It was that same resilience and fighting spirit she demonstrated at birth, coupled with the outstanding support of my amazing brother-in-law Dov, the “lamed vavnick” in our family, and the Hand of God that allowed her to fight the battle of Parkinson’s for 17 years.

Yet, throughout our lives, it wasn’t just difficult times that defined our twinship, and that molded Adele into the outstanding, unique, accomplished and compassionate woman we knew and loved. All during our school years Adele and I had a great deal of fun, being the center of attention as the “blonde, blue-eyed” twins. During the period of Shiva I received a beautiful text from a friend who made aliyah that beautifully describes the aura surrounding the status of “twinship.” She wrote:

“I still remember how our teachers could never tell you apart. Yet, your friends never had trouble. This was because we knew the essence of your spirit that was visible in your appearance. I also remember how you both loved to ask questions. When a teacher responded with: “Which twin are you?” the one called upon would respond: “The prettier one.” While the teachers still had no answer to their question, this surely elicited a laugh from everyone.

Things changed for us when we left the closed environment of the yeshiva world where we were known as “Twinnie,” or the Reich Twins.” At Hunter College we also enjoyed our encounters with those who didn’t realize that there were two of us. I still remember the day my history teacher approached me and said: “Miss Reich, I know you’re an excellent student and love world history, but I’m perplexed by the fact that you attend my class first period and sixth period three times a week.” In a similar fashion, Adele was once approached by her colleagues in the Hunter audio visual department. They were perplexed by her friendliness during work hours, which she seemed to “turn off” when they saw her in the corridors during passing time or the lunch room. I’m sure that the compassion and empathy with which she responded automatically saved the day. There were many such moments, and we took full advantage of them.

Fun and humor aside, the best part of being twins is that we always had each other’s back. A major example of that was when we started dating. When one of us met a young man and was asked out on a date, we formulated a pat response: “Our parents only allow us to double date, so if you want to go out with me, you have to find a date for my sister.” We were proud of how this method took “double dating” to another level. Not only did we double date, we also “doubled the amount of dates” that came our way. Aside from the fun we experienced with these “shtick,” we appreciated the special gift of an authentic “best friend forever,” and the safety in knowing “I’ll never walk alone.”

As the years went on, Hashem gifted our entire family, especially our father, a”h, when we brought boys into our family—Jack, Dov, Harold, and Moshe, our husbands—who became sons to our parents and brothers to our sisters. This further solidified our bonds as the “Reich Family Circle of Trust,” a close-knit group that avoided family feuds like the plague. I am sure this sense of achdut began as we witnessed my father shed tears each time his “beautiful girls” fought; and both of our parents made it crystal-clear that the gift of siblings was meant to be as treasured as diamonds. There was no room for a long-standing family feud. It was Bubby and Zaidie who set up the standard of love and loyalty toward God and family first and foremost, followed by achdut rooted in ahavat Yisrael.

As adults we became a formidable quad to be reckoned with, advocating and learning from one another, and growing in our roles as “sisters helping sisters,” a credo that was immediately visible in the difficult times we experienced. I will never forget the day when Jack, my superhero husband, came down the stairs with tears in his eyes as a blizzard raged outdoors. Of course, since crying was not his “go-to” response, I immediately knew that something was terribly wrong. It was then that he informed us that Adele suffered a cerebral bleed, and things didn’t look good. Despite the weather, with the Yad Hashem and Jack’s efficient booking of flights, all of us made it to the hospital in Boca from the Northeast in record time. Even though the family was advised to just “let her go,” it was so wonderful that we were all on the same page, along with the rabbinic and medical council Dov received, who rooted for saving her life.

With the family at her side, and our tefilot to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, “neis gadol haya sham—a great miracle happened there” in the operating room. Hashem understood that we all needed time with Adele and with each other, and it was Adele’s will that made sure no one was to take that away from us. Once again, the Yad Hashem was clearly visible the morning Adele woke up from her nightmare several days after surgery, with a question mark on her face, and asked: “Where am I?” In response to all the fuss she created, she asked: “Why is Hashem punishing me, first Parkinson’s and now a stroke?”—a response that defied the ER doctor who predicted a dire outcome if she survived. Adele continued to live a meaningful life for the next 10 years, knowing that Dov was always at her side, taking on the mantle of advocacy and caretaker with genuine joy and love for Adele and gratitude to God and all those who helped him in sustaining the precious gift of holding on to his bride.

Still, Hashem has a plan, and it is our charge to buy into it by tapping into our emunah. It was in November that she suddenly took a turn for the worse, and our deepest fears were actualized. Her body was no longer able to tolerate solid foods, and based on the wise counsel of our rabbis and doctors, a feeding tube was inserted in order to prolong her life. At the same time, this caused frequent visits to the ER, waiting in the cold hallway for hours, a victim of triage. Yet, my amazing brother-in-law took the initiative to learn how to deal with this challenge on his own in order to spare Adele additional pain. Throughout these months of traveling back and forth to Boca I sat at the bedside of my sister, hardly surprised that the long-standing perseverance, visible in her first fight to survive, showed up once again. In my heart and soul I deeply believe that it was Adele’s will to live and God’s consent to her wish that led to the miracle of the eight extra precious months He endowed her with on this last leg of her journey.

The Wednesday morning before her petira, I received a phone call from my niece, alerting me to the reality that Adele had taken a turn for the worse and the probability that she would not last long enough for me reach Boca before her petira. I was informed that the feeding tube had to be removed due to the impact it had on her breathing. The nurse advised that it seemed more practical to book a flight directly to Eretz Yisrael, where the burial was to take place. Yet, in my heart I knew that after almost eight months of shuttling back and forth from Jersey to Boca in order to be with Adele and Dov, Hashem would not deny me the gift of sitting at her side while she parted from this world. Once again, the signpost: “neis gadol haya sham” was clearly visible. By Friday morning the labored breathing I witnessed when I arrived Wednesday night was improving and continued to do so when I went back to prepare for Shabbos in the unit Jack and I occupied. Under the blanket she appeared like a small child peacefully sleeping for the night. Before I left the room I shared my feelings of the zechut to be by her side, and my gratitude to Hakadosh Baruch Hu for giving us the gift of these two days together. I assured her that she no longer had to stay for us, and we were ready to let her go. I also shared my belief that because she was such a selfless and noble warrior, Hashem would reward her with the gift of being the Shabbos Queen, ushering in this holy day, a zechut she deserved because of the life she lived.

When we returned to her bedside after our meal, the entire family stood around my dear sister while her neshama departed gently and peacefully. It was only when the nurse announced that she was gone that we were able to visualize the neshikah, the kiss of God, she received and her soul soaring up to be embraced by Hakadosh Baruch Hu. I am so thankful for the gift of escorting my sister during her final hour and witnessing her peaceful parting. I also know that despite how hard it will be to experience this loss, with the support of my dear husband, Jack, my entire family and friends, I will be OK.

Sometimes in our lives we are lucky enough to see the hand of God with such clarity, and this was one of those fortuitous moments. I knew it would be hard without physical access to Adele the warrior, yet I also knew that in the past seven months, taking up the mantle of advocacy in the ER waiting room, and calling medical personnel to task when the need arose, I realized how much I absorbed from Adele. In addition, as a couple, Jack and I also learned so much from Adele and Dov regarding the extent to which couples are able to transcend even the greatest challenges and come out stronger and better on the other side. Below Adele’s picture in our high school yearbook I noticed the words: “EnTWINed in our hearts forever.” For me, this play on words is real, speaking to the connection of our souls that always existed and will continue to be so, no matter the spaces we occupy. While we are physically separated, she will continue to be my greatest advocate, watching over me and making sure that I won’t “go it alone.” I will miss her so much, but I receive comfort in the knowledge that she will also be the most amazing “malitzah tovah” up in the shamayim, advocating for her remarkable husband, Dov, all of our families, and klal Yisrael, bargaining with Hashem for our health, peace of mind, and the actuation of our geulah now!

By Renee Nussbaum, PhD, PsyA