On a hot Sunday afternoon in 2004, Dee Zemel’s family gathered at Beth-El Cemetery in Portage to dedicate their daughter’s newly engraved headstone.
Surrounded by her three other children, Zemel clutches a wad of tissues that she will need in a few seconds. The men present wore yarmulkes. One woman wore a handmade chain around her neck, made by Zemel’s late daughter, Marcy.
Rabbi Raphael Ostrovsky, of Temple Beth-El in Munster, presided over the solemn ceremony, speaking in Hebrew and English to the family.
“Marcy’s love doesn’t end with death…her family was her life…may she rest in shalom (peace),” he said looking at Marcy’s mother , who raised her glasses to wipe away her tears.
The family took turns sharing their thoughts and love for Marcy, who they said was the soul of their family. She died on January 27, 2003, after a special life and a life of special needs. Marcy Ellen Zemel was 56 years old.
Marcy’s sister, Sharon “Cookie” Center, a longtime teacher, read aloud a crumpled note: Marcy was her first student in life, “but she taught me so much more than I taught her. never learned,” she said.
He missed organizing Sunday brunches with Marcy. And their Saturday night phone calls. And sing their favorite songs together.
“Heaven must love its singing angel,” Center said.
One of Marcy’s brothers told those close to him that he found himself rubbing his hands together when aroused, just like Marcy did. The other brother said he still had Marcy’s phone number on his cell phone’s speed dial as a daily reminder of her.
After everyone shared their feelings, they looked for stones to leave at Marcy’s grave, a Jewish tradition.
“It shows that I haven’t forgotten about you,” Marcy’s mother said. “That I was here.”
Then, just as the family began to leave the cemetery, a butterfly danced through the air above Marcy’s grave and landed on a swinging flower. The family looked at each other and smiled. Not a word was spoken. No words were needed.
When she was a baby, Marcy’s grandmother, Rose Matlin, rocked her to sleep while singing “Poor Butterfly.” This endearing image crossed Marcy’s life, often bringing her mother to tears.
Zemel knew early on that her firstborn was not normal. After three days of labor, Marcy was born with dislocated hips, cleft palate and other serious conditions. A family doctor suggested letting her die, saving the family years of grief. Her mother refused. Marcy lived for a year in a cast, leaving Dee’s left arm chronically weak from rocking her daughter around. Dee’s suspicions of Marcy’s developmental disabilities were confirmed when she continued to grip her rattle the wrong way.
“A mother knows,” Dee told me in 2004.
That year, I wrote a column featuring Marcy, as well as caregivers of people with special needs who are overworked, undertrained and often unskilled. It depicted a broken care system through the working conditions of a group home where Marcy resided before her death. My title was “Caring for Our Invisible Citizens”.
For most of society, people like Marcy are indeed invisible. But not to their families, especially their mothers, who show unconditional love that transcends typical parenthood or motherhood.
On this Mother’s Day weekend, I think of mothers like Zemel, even though I hadn’t heard from her in almost 20 years. I often wonder about all the mothers I’ve written about over the years. Where are they now? How are they? Are they still with us?
Last week, like a butterfly in the blue sky, I received an email from Zemel’s daughter, Cookie, originally from Gary.
“Just wanted to let you know that Dee will be celebrating her 101st birthday this week. She is still strong and fiery,” Cookie wrote.
Dee, a former Munster resident, now lives in an assisted living facility in Vernon Hills, Illinois.
“Every week she laments that she should have taken Marcy to live with her,” her daughter wrote. “We, her family, know that this would not have been possible. We remind her that you brought attention to Marcy’s situation and as a result the system has improved in Indiana. brings comfort.
When Marcy died, in the middle of the night, her mother held one of her hands. His sister held his other hand.
“We all kissed her goodbye,” Zemel told me.
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Marcy was buried next to her father, Jack, whom she often visited when she was younger. Marcy would be taken to Jack’s grave, where she would bend over and whisper, “Dad, can you hear me?” Then she would sing Passover songs that Jack had taught her.
On the way home, Marcy said to her mother, “I never want to die, Mom.
Zemel reassured her constantly, as mothers do. “I will protect you, Marcy, I will protect you,” she said.
Marcy is still alive in her mother’s heart. And, in a way, through anyone who reads this column.
Happy Mother’s Day, Dee. And to all those moms whose kids may be gone but never, never forgotten.