This is a terrible list. A horrible list. A list that is good only when someone makes it in a timely fashion. Not all of us are lucky to make this list in a timely fashion, but even those who do, it isn’t pretty. The idea of dying in one’s sleep with all affairs put together and everyone having said goodbye after a long and good life doesn’t really happen. So while most of us have a similar coming into the world story, most of us will have varied coming out of the world stories.
A reason for this list. I fear death. I have a huge fear of death partially because I’m Jewish and partially because my grandfather whose name-sake I happen to be, died tragically young. So I fear death, I fear disfigurement and this is one way to face it.
The other reason, I love every person on this list. I have a list too long at the age of 35 and I want to honor those whom I love with a few words about them.
I hope no one will be on this list while recognizing that everyone will be on this list. Even me, except I won’t be able to write myself into it..
Lastly, this list is only the people I met, with whom I had contact and who died during my life. Here it goes.
My Father’s Father.
My grandfather Yakov-Isacovich died in 1988, two years after the Chernobyl disaster. The day after Chernobyl, he unknowingly was caught in a radioactive rain. Unknowingly because for several days after the accident, Russian government refused to release information to the public. The public went to May day parades and May 9th Victory day, bathing in radiation. My grandmother caught his cancer early, saving him a year, a year that I had no access to him as he was in a hospital for the duration of that year.
I found out in a strange way. I was six telling a neighbor that I have a grandfather, my mother non-chalantly said I don’t, that he died and that there was no reason for them to tell me because I was too young. As if I did not love him, as if I would not feel anything for the only grandfather I had. I rarely saw my grandfather who lived on the other side of the city as we lived with my mother’s mom. Soon after, my parents moved in with my other grandmother to keep her company and I continued to live with my mother’s mom, Grandmother Toma. My grandfather was an interesting man. He was born in the Czarist Russia, in Odessa. His father had been taken out of his Jewish home and sent to a school to de-Judify him. His brother later became an admiral in the Russian Navy. My grandfather fought in the civil war as a teenager and went to Railroad college. Halfway through, he was taken into the Great Patriotic War or WWII where he had to become an airplane mechanic. He oversaw a field repair shop on the frontline. A frontline that continuously moved towards him as Soviet forces continuously retreated for the first two years. At one point, he escaped by getting into the bomb bay of a fighter plane which took off as Germans drove into the air strip. His team became so adept that they would repair dozens of planes and continuously send them back into battles patched up and ready to fight.
I remember I would often take out his medals and read the inscriptions of the orders and medals from the various theaters of war from Hungary to Chzechoslovakia and Berlin. They were more precious to me than anything else I could think of. He came back from the war with a few souvenirs including guns. By the time we left Soviet Union, all we had of him were his pictures, his medals and a plate with a nazi insignia on the back, a plate that belonged to German soldiers that was often the serving plate in our Jewish home.
Upon completion of the war, he became a factory foreman in the town factory. He married a doctor who studied with my grandmother. The doctor died in a car accident a few years after they married, leaving him a widower with a child. He married my grandmother and had my father after a failed pregnancy and another child tragically killed in a car accident.
Most of what I know about him was through those stories, what I remember was him arriving with gifts, sitting on his lap, the happiness he exuded, at odds with the strict disciplinarian that my parents told me.
My grandmother Mira
I saw Mike around school a few times. 5’5″ but with arms and back of a line-backer. He could bench 240lb but he was as calm and as collected as one with that kind of power would be. We were lucky when in his senior year he decided to join the wrestling team. At 130lb he was my partner and my co-captain. We pushed each other in sit-ups and push-ups and because he had the blue eyes and white blonde hair, the team called him Papa Hitler and me Papa Stalin because of our ability to push the team. The coach stopped those nick names very quickly but the team never forgot them.
Mike was a natural. It was his first year of wrestling but he was able to wear out his opponents with stamina, out-power them with his physique and his wrestling was not great but it had to be amazing for someone wrestling for the first time.
His trademark was the whitebeader he wore everyday to practice. He rarely sweat and I had difficulty controlling him as I couldn’t grab around his by-ceps.
His calm demeanor always kept the team in check. He rarely said something, but when he did, everyone noticed and sometimes laughed.
Once, our heavyweight Joel “Andre the Giant” was wrestling our 103 EJ “peanut”. A 295 6’7″ curly redheaded beast of a wrestler against a tiny mexican with a shaved head that looked like a nut he was nicknamed for. Peanut had Joel pinned and Mike gets close to Joel and says “Think pop-tarts”. I think Joel must have gotten up from the pin just on the basis of EJ laughing.
We often had conversations with our coach at the end of practice. He was an interesting guy that everyone liked and revered. He would say things like “If you join the Marines Sam, I’ll personally come find you and pull you out by your legs.” Once he said something that was funny but later proved to be a premonition.
During my first year in college, Dozer and Jackson came by my house. They had sad looks and told me Mike killed himself. I punched a wall and couldn’t believe it. Not Mike, I just saw him last week at a party! We were at Jordan’s huge rager and we talked about his life. We talked about how we should hang out soon.
His funeral was in Solana Beach, the church was packed standing room only. His brother Greg cried, his mom who was one of the kindest parents cried as well. The after funeral get-together was at his home. A beautiful Mexican-Spanish style villa in Olivenhein. We were in Greg’s room talking about Mike, trying to make a sad day happy, speaking of his life and the things he did. In the room next door Mike was found face down with a shotgun wound to his face.
Great Uncle Aaron.
Sometimes a person passes away suddenly. Too suddenly. A person that is too intelligent and with too much to accomplish. A person who was kind and bright and made people happy.
I still don’t know why Allison died. From what I know, she passed away in Washington DC at a bus stop. She worked there as a lobbyist. She loved politics and I was more than saddened to hear she passed.
I’ve known Allison since 7th grade when she was in my French class. She was friends with Sarah and Cara. Cara I had a crush on and Sarah and Cara were on the Cross Country team with me. Alison was their odd but funny friend who was short and a little overweight but had character and personality. She joined the Sarah and Cara and began running on the team in 8th grade. By end of the season she wasn’t a bad runner but in 9th grade, Sarah and Cara went off to another school and Allison and I went to the Academy. Allison chose not to continue with sports, going for Speech and Debate and Theater instead. We would be in the same classes for the next four years and hanging out in the same circles but rarely talking to each other. Towards end of high school I would go to parties at her parents house. She had a unique relationship with them and they would often be around with us in a way that never felt intrusive. There was trust and understanding in them that we are intellectually equal, just lacking experience. After finishing college, the parties continued at her parents’ house whenever she came back home to visit from Washington DC, bringing the gang back together once a year. This would happen until her parents moved to the East Coast and the get togethers stopped. For a few years I took over in a way by having get togethers at my parents house, until I started to feel too old to have parties at my parent’s home. Shame really…
I remember one time we were playing pool at my buddy Sparsh’s home and Allison was naming off people and what sex position they would be. She said Eric is a bottom, Seth a top and looked at me as I was about to take a shot and said “he could be both”. I’ve never thought of her as a sexual person, when in reality, all people are sexual. It was the moment I realized that someone might know and understand me better than I understand them.
By the time she died in her mid twenties, she had a successful career in Washington. I hadn’t seen her in a few years and knew that her idea of surrounding herself with people smarter than herself was a reason why I was rarely in her circle. I was ok with it although it is a bit strange to realize that one is not as smart as they think…
I felt a strong sense of loss when she died and continue to remember and feel that loss as the world really needs more people less concerned with form and more concerned with substance. I think it has to do with promise. With a book cut short. A movie incomplete.
I remember the first time we met. She’s Vonnie’s twin and Vonnie and I were tight. But Vanessa was so fun loving and she danced with me. I knew they were both gay but she made me feel special. We would hang out a lot over the years. She always had her dreadlocks. We went to Coachella a couple times and we had a great time. Then she dissapeared for a while. I found out she had an accident. She moved in with me and Vonnie warned me. She changed, she was seeing things, her life was in dissaray. People who thought of moving in didn’t want to because of her eratic behavior. She isolated friends and I couldn’t invite her to my Photography exhibit because she couldn’t be together with my friend Anglea. She moved out when I left for my big trip. I came back and soon after we hung out. But only a few days later it happened. She crashed into a tree. I feel responsible, but I know there was nothing I could do. All I can do now, is Remember Happy Nessa
On April 29th, a woman died in San Diego. She passed away quietly, in her sleep. Many knew this was coming. After all, she was 101. But her passing hit me hard, for she had been like a grandmother to me, for she had given me warmth and joy for over 25 years. For I was across the world from her and never got to say goodbye.
Only two years earlier, she was dancing at her 99th birthday. She was the life of the party and had danced with nearly every person there. The following day she broke her hip. She crawled to the phone and made a call to her son in law, my uncle. This wasn’t the first time she struggled in the face of difficulty, but sadly, this was going to lead her to a slow path to April 29th.
Fanya Bliachman was born to a poor Jewish family in a small village at the edge of the Russian Empire in 1917, the year of the Socialist Revolution. 1917 would change the trajectory for her for prior to the revolution, education was closed off to those who were poor and especially to those who were Jewish. The end of the Csar’s regime meant that she could go to school. Her family sent her to Leningrad, the previous capital of the Russian Empire. There she would begin her studies which she completed with excellent marks. She was hired as a machinist in a large factory which was producing weapons for the war effort. War had not yet begun, but Stalin was making plans of attacking Hitler and he was building up his offensive strength. Hitler predicted Stalin’s trick and invaded on June 1st, 1941. Fanya’s entire family, including her brother who took his family to Belarus for a summer vacation to see the parents were wiped out. Fanya survived because she had to stay a few days to finish work. Her ability to work hard spared her life. Her ability to work hard would spare her life again soon after.
As Hitler sped his way across the Soviet Union, Stalin knew that evacuation of all who were connected to the war effort was of utmost importance. Entire factories along with all machinery and workers were placed onto trains and moved almost overnight to the far east of steppes and dry mountains and deserts of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Fanya was on one of the last trains out, put there at the insistence of her manager inspire of being Jewish, a birthright that often meant staying behind in Leningrad, where for 180 days Germans sieged the town through the dead of winter, dooming hundreds of thousands to death beneath German bombs, starvation, and disease.
Fanya lived in Kazakhstan through the war, excelling in spite of the brutal food shortages in spite of the war. She excelled becoming indispensable. At only 5’0”, she was the boss of an entire manufacturing floor. One of the only female managers, earning a medal for her work from the country.
The war came to an end, but the factories stayed behind, and so did the people, especially those who performed work well. Fanya stayed there until well past 1947. Her time to settle and have a family was running out. After putting in request after request, she finally got a pass to leave, to go back to Leningrad. Alas, it was too late. She would not find a husband in time to have a family. But she did find a widower. Aaron Frankel. An older gentleman with a young daughter. Also, a skilled engineer noticed Fanya, and would not leave her side. They moved in together and lived unwed for many years. She raised his daughter, who would one day become my aunt, as her own daughter. She took care of him and moved with him across the entire world to the United States at the young age of 75 to join his daughter and her husband in San Diego. They lived in San Diego until he passed away of cancer in 1999.
For decades she was the matriarch at all events. Her presence was felt through her kind smile, her cooking, her dancing. She loved being at her step-daughter’s piano students’ recitals. She’d greet guests by taking their hands into her strong large working woman’s hands, look in the eyes and just share her love, pure love.
Some people give money, inventions or time. We miss their passing, we know they left something behind. Fanya left behind her a trail of people who knew what it is to meet someone who has nothing to give but love. A person like that, who lost her ability to hear and speak, but still beat me in Connect Four and dominoes, a person who can crawl with a broken hip at 99, a person like that inspires you not just for the day, but for the rest of your life.
Fanya was one of my brightest lighthouses, and her light, will guide me, long after she is gone.