Lost and found opportunities
First Person

Lost and found opportunities

Ida Rosen holds her daughter Tzivia, around 1948-1949.
Ida Rosen holds her daughter Tzivia, around 1948-1949.

I am standing in line at a hospital parking garage after a doctor’s appointment, hoping I will reach the payment window before the cost of parking my car moves beyond the one-hour slot to the next higher charge. Thinking about all the chores of the day. Stressing about cooking for Shabbat. Trying to shield myself from the cold morning wind blowing up from the nearby Hudson River.

And then I notice: the line is simply not moving. And it’s getting longer. And people are beginning to grumble.  And they grumble louder.

I step out of my reverie in my personal world and  focus my attention on the woman at the parking lot window. She is desperately searching her large purse for the wallet that has disappeared. No credit card or cash equals no car. She tries calling her husband over and over again, but he is not picking up his phone. She continues searching the purse as her frustration level reaches a frantic boiling point, all the while listening to the louder and louder complaints  from the people on the line.

Finally, she moves out of the way to allow everyone to move forward while she tries to search for some resolution. At least the grumbling has stopped.

Ms. Bieler’s father, Harry Rosen, in 1967

I reach the window, and as I expected, I pay the extra cost.  I give the attendant a tip and drive away. And suddenly I realize: What was I thinking? Who am I? I had lost a golden moment to do the right thing, to do a good deed, to be a kind person, to do for someone what I hope someone would do for me. And it would have been so easy. I just had to walk over to the woman and tell her it will be fine; I would be happy to pay the parking garage fee for her. Whatever the cost, it would not have broken the bank.

An opportunity gone forever. Not the first time.

I thought back to an earlier  moment in my life when I foolishly lost a seriously precious opportunity. It was the beginning of September 1979, and Rosh Hashanah was about three weeks away. I was a busy 32-year-old mother with four children ranging from 6 months to 9 years old. My 70-year-old father in Chicago had just been hospitalized after a serious attack of congestive heart failure. My oldest brother, who lived there, tried to encourage me to take two days and fly home to visit my father. “Get yourself ready,” my brother would gently tell me during our phone conversations since our father’s hospitalization.

But heart problems had plagued my father since I was a little girl. This was nothing new, I rationalized. Unlike my brother, I refused to see what he saw as inevitable. And my father seemed to be improving.

Tzivia Bieler with her parents, Ida and Harry Rosen, in October 1971, as they celebrate her daughter Lara’s first birthday.

I was deep inside my own little world of babies, beginning the school year, and the approaching Jewish holidays. And I wanted to stop feeling guilty. “Dad’s getting better,” I told my brother. “I will come after all the holidays.”

My beloved father passed away on Tuesday evening, September 11, 1979, the 20th day of Elul. I flew to Chicago, leaving three of my four young children behind, as well as all thoughts of elementary school, shopping, cooking, mothering, busyness. And when I finished sitting shiva in Chicago, I had a mere three days to prepare for the holidays. A meaningful, but painful lesson.

I lost my golden opportunity to see my father one more time, to be that good person, to be the kind of daughter who put everything aside to visit her ailing father. I prayed that he had not had those same thoughts. Most of all, I mourned not just losing him, but also losing the treasured moment to say goodbye.

Many years later, when my 98-year-old mother in Chicago on hospice care was literally fading away from us in November 2011, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I had made with my father. Thirty-two years had passed, but my regret remained palpable. I had traveled to Israel in October in order to spend Sukkot with my children and grandchildren living there. My brother and I stayed in touch during my trip. But when we spoke the day I returned from Israel, he shared his worries that she was sleeping all the time and barely eating. Without a moment’s hesitation, I knew what I had to do.

Tzivia Bieler and Ida Rosen in 2010

No; I knew what I wanted to do.

I walked into my boss’s office my first day back at work. “I know I just returned from two weeks’ vacation in Israel, but I have to leave again.” I told him the scenario, said I had to see her, and that I would return in two days.  “Go,” he responded. “Do what you have to do.”

I arrived in Chicago late in the evening and drove straight to the nursing home where my mother had lived for the past seven years, after she fell in my brother’s apartment and broke her hip. I did not want to wait to see her first thing in the morning, as I imagined the dark, painful irony of her dying that night and once again, even though we were in the same city, I would have lost my opportunity to say goodbye to a beloved parent.

Not this time, I thought. Not this time.

She was in a deep sleep when I walked into the room. I tried unsuccessfully to rouse her just long enough to show her I was there. I simply could not wake her up. But I was there. I straightened her blanket; I kissed her cheek and whispered that I loved her. At that moment, it was all I had.

I returned to my mother’s bedside early the next morning. Her sleep pattern was lighter, and if I prodded her a bit, she would open her eyes for a minute or two. I was occasionally successful in getting her to eat a spoonful of food. I sat there the entire day, often talking to her but never knowing if she actually heard me. When it was time to leave for the airport to catch my flight home, I tried to rouse her one more time, and I lifted her upper body up a bit to hug and kiss her. As I did so, I told her I had to leave and that I loved her. “I love you too,” she whispered. And as I gently placed her head back on her pillow, she added, “very much.”

My beloved mother died five days later. The words I heard were the last words she ever spoke. I flew to Chicago once again for a parent’s funeral, but this time with a peaceful and grateful heart. No regrets. I owned my treasured golden opportunity to do the right thing. To say goodbye. To show my love and respect.  To know I was loved. It was the best gift my mom ever gave me.

Tzivia Bieler and her late husband, Bruno, moved to Teaneck in January 1974. She retired as the executive office director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Retirement brings her pleasure, and more time to spend with children and grandchildren in United States and Israel.

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