by Rebecca Crichton
After thriving for many months beyond medical prognoses and on the cusp of receiving some palliative radiation, my dear friend Leah Vetter, author of last month’s essay, began feeling weak and confused on April 15, the first night of the Jewish holiday of Passover. She died the evening of April 23, the last night of Passover.
Mitzrayim the Hebrew word for Egypt, means “straits,” “narrow place,” or “blockages.” Rabbi Ruth Zlotnik from Temple Beth Am pointed out at her funeral that Leah had passed through her own ‘Narrow Place’ to liberation in conjunction with the multiple meanings of the Exodus story.
I visited Leah on Easter Sunday, bringing her food from the Seder she had been too sick to attend. Weak as she was, she was still enticed by the Matzoh with Sephardi Charoset – the sweet and spicy ‘mortar’ from the Passover story. She savored the Mediterranean meatballs and potato kugel. She groaned with pleasure at each bite of the sinfully sweet coconut macaroon drizzled with chocolate.
When her daughter Rachel called to chat with her, we put her on speaker phone in the center of the table for a three-way conversation. While we were all on the phone together, I said I felt compelled to talk about some of the ideas I sometimes shared with people whose deaths were near.
“You’re nowhere near death,” I said confidently, “but I find these ideas interesting to think about even before we get close. Would you like to hear them?” They said they would.
I started with the most basic thing we all want and need to hear: “You are loved.” Knowing that we are loved makes a difference in how we die.
“We need to know we are forgiven,” I went on. “Most of us have done or said things that we wish we hadn’t. We also might need to forgive those who have done things that hurt us and that we’ve carried as wounds for a long time.”
I went on to say that many people needed to be reassured that the people they were leaving behind would be all right. They would miss them, but they would be okay.
The next idea was about how we sometimes need permission to move to whatever is next. We need to know that we are free to leave when it is time.
Finally, I said “You are more than your body. Your spirit will continue.” Leah said, “I believe that!”
As we talked, Rachel told her mother how much she was loved, forgiven and permitted to go, whenever it was time. She thanked her for being the mother she had been and for all she had learned from her.
I left Leah, comfortable on her bed, her cat Bijou on his favorite plaid mohair blanket on her chest. I kissed her and said I’d be in touch.
Later that evening, Miriam, Leah’s good friend and favorite aide from Zimbabwe, checked in on her and discovered that she had rolled out of bed. She called 911 and the EMTs came and took her to Virginia Mason Hospital. Her son Yves Vetter, her daughter Rachel Huang, her close friend Nancy Nordquist, and I kept a vigil of sorts until she died.
Leah was an academic as well as a deeply sensual person. She could talk about Literature, Music, Religion, Art, Food, Politics and other many other areas of interest. She loved lively discussions and wasn’t afraid of debate, often pulling out facts that could both fuel and inform the discourse.
She was a serious and committed activist. For Immigrants. For the Climate. For Peace. Among the organizations she supported was the Heifer Foundation where she volunteered for many years.
Leah loved beautiful things, especially clothes and shoes. She was always up for shopping, especially at thrift stores. She and Rachel would score finds at Good Will and Value Village that she wore with delight. She loved bargains, her most recent one a stylish blue jacket that she got with a combination of coupons and discounts for 49 cents!
Her favorite word after attending a concert, opera, ballet or play, or after reading a book that touched her, was “Ravishing.” She would utter this word with emphasis, her eyes wide with remembered pleasure.
Of course, there is much more. All of us who knew and loved her have our stories and memories. In Judaism we say, “May her Memory be a Blessing.”
My blessing for all of us who knew and loved Leah, and for all who are reading these words, is: May we all be Ravished by the beauty and many gifts of our amazing world and with as much life in our lives as Leah had in hers.