We just returned from the last of a summer of endless road-trips. This one was definitely the saddest: my husband and his sister buried their mother’s ashes this weekend in her family plot in Pittsburgh. That’s Judy, above. Her obituary gives you the basics of her impressive career: after she and my father-in-law divorced in the early 70s, she earned a PhD in Epidemiology and Biostatistics and her work was funded for years by the NIH. The research she talked about most when I knew her concerned alcoholic beverages as a source of estrogen. What her official bio does NOT tell you is that some of this work got picked up by the National Enquirer with the headline “Bourbon Turns Men Into Women.” (Apparently long-time male bourbon drinkers accumulate breast tissue. Beware, or drink up, as you please.)
The obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also tells how Judy helped found the People’s Coalition Against Discrimination in the late 60s. She, Chris’ father, and a few other people got together to make noise about, and eventually sue, the Penn Hills police department for its failure to integrate the force after a brilliantly-qualified African American candidate was shut out (and then accepted to the state troopers). Judy and her fellow activists won, but it was a costly battle, with angry locals spray-painting slurs on their house. (Not expert spellers, the white supremacist vandals accused the Gavaler family of being especially fond of Niger.) One of Judy’s great friends from that struggle came to the funeral and the brunch afterwards; he eventually had to move out of the neighborhood. It’s a more involved saga with some astonishing details but I don’t want to get them wrong. It’s just worth saying that she was a smart, brave woman with a fierce sense of justice, and I give her a lot of credit for who my husband became and, less directly, who my children are becoming.
By “less directly” I’m referring to literal and metaphorical distance between Judy and my children. Judy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years ago, and she was in undiagnosed and partially-hidden decline for years before that, so while my eldest child got to know her, my youngest really didn’t. Even before that complication, Judy suffered many bouts of severe depression which medications could never quite keep up with. She was utterly loving and extremely generous but she basically had few boundaries. While Chris was in frequent touch with her all his adult life, and visited her monthly for the last five years in a facility three hours away, he had to draw some lines between her life and his, from childhood on, just to keep his own life together.
I’m at an age when a lot of friends are losing their parents, and it’s always an intensely emotional experience. Whether love or struggle is in the ascendancy, there’s just so much to grieve. My job this time, though, has been to keep to the passenger seat and help Chris and my daughter get through it. My own relationship to Judy wasn’t all that complicated. She was kind to me and adoring of my husband and kids; I loved her for that and admired her immensely, even though I kept a distance from some of her intensities, too. The dementia was awful and seemed to cause her suffering, so I imagined she was relieved to be released from her broken body. At least, I had a sense of her around the house for a day or two after she died in January, emanating joy. Maybe that’s just what I want to believe, but Judy, if you’re out there, I’m wishing you peace and wholeness and all the empowered freedom you craved and deserve.
Judy gave me a collection of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems in 1991, so I read “Travel,” the poem below, at the brief service. Below the poem are pictures of my spouse and kids at the Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. We often went there with Judy and the kids when we visited town, so we spent a couple of hours with the dinosaurs after the funeral lunch. They’re such grand creatures who have traveled so long to meet us; it was good to remember their company.
The railroad track is miles away, And the day is loud with voices speaking, Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day But I hear its whistle shrieking. All night there isn’t a train goes by, Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming, But I see its cinders red on the sky, And hear its engine steaming. My heart is warm with the friends I make, And better friends I’ll not be knowing; Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, No matter where it’s going.