February 3, 2007
Death, the Privilege of Doctrine, and a Eulogy for a Forgotten Sister
My sister, Pamela Lipshaw, died last week. She was forty-seven years old, the same age as my wife. I just googled her name and got zero responses. That's not surprising. If I thought she would appear anywhere, it would be in some bureaucratic social welfare file. For over twenty-five years, she had been a client of the California mental health system, in and out of hospitals, halfway houses, and subsidized housing in the Berkeley-Oakland area. She moved into a place on International Avenue in Oakland a couple years ago, and within a few days, I was reading about riots along that street, I think just after the Raiders were in the Super Bowl. She knew the street people on Telegraph Avenue well. We still don't have a coroner's report back, but we think she had a heart attack in the midst of a manic episode.
I was thinking this morning about trusts and estates. The rule against perpetuities. The rule in Shelley's case. Per stirpes. The reason for a last will and testament. Several months ago, I found out my cousin (he, his sister, my two surviving siblings and I are the only survivors of my Nazi-fleeing, Holocaust-surviving, German-Jewish immigrant family on my mother's side) had somehow tapped into a fund for unpaid life insurance claims on a policy for a distant cousin for whom we were the only survivors. I opened an envelope and found checks for about $1,000 for each of us. I didn't know what to do with Pam's. The manic episode that preceded her death had begun and she was hospitalized. So I put it in the bank to give to her when she was stable. It turned out to be about a third of her estate, which will go primarily to paying her funeral expenses.
This is not the first time I have dealt with the death of a close relative. But, at least on my side of the family, I've yet to run into all that doctrine we learned in trusts and estates. When my mother died, her only asset was a house in tenancy by the entirety with my step-father. For what percentage of the people of the Anglo-American legal world is all that doctrine relevant? For whom was it relevant when it was developed? Shelley had to be able to afford a barrister. I was the only lawyer involved here, and not in an official capacity.
And there but for the grace of God go I. We want to make sense of a random world. The wrong place at the wrong time, or a miscoded gene that controls the difference between bi-polar and merely exuberant, and it's the difference between a good life and a terribly hard one.
Yet, I learned, it's hard ever to say it's a wasted one. I do not understand the mystery by which brain biochemistry and will interact, but I do know that nobody would choose a life as hard as the one Pamela lived. But it was good to learn, even if it does not make sense of the randomness, as I did at the small funeral in the beautiful cemetery on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, standing in the rain with just a few people (her case manager of some seventeen years, my father, several friends, the rabbi who was the chaplain at the hospital, and Monique, the social worker), or looking at the cards from her fellow Napa Hospital clients that Monique delivered to us, that her life was about something more than her illness, and her needs, that in her communities she reached out to others, and in return was cared for and loved.
I hate the idea that we justify suffering for the supposed good that comes from it. Like the existentialists, I won't try to impose order on an absurd world (at least for now), but only appreciate for a moment the lights that shine from time to time even in the darkest parts of the world, and even if that appreciation itself is only a rationalization.
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What a beautiful tribute to Pamela. I am so sorry for your loss.
Posted by: Nancy Levit | Feb 4, 2007 7:03:14 AM
Jeff, this is a touching story. Thanks for sharing. bh.
Posted by: William Henderson | Feb 4, 2007 6:05:06 PM
Jeff, I am so sorry to hear about your sister's passing. Thank you for letting us share the shining light that comes and goes every so often.
Posted by: Christine Hurt | Feb 4, 2007 6:34:28 PM
Jeff,The death of a loved one is at once remarkably unique and yet also universal. Your very thoughtful tribute to Pamela was a wonderful read; thanks for sharing it. With my sympathy, Thom.
Posted by: Thom Main | Feb 5, 2007 11:39:01 AM
I am very sorry to hear the sad news about Pamela. You delivered a beautiful tribute to a sister whom I will always remember as your beautiful, skinny sister, and my neighbor of over a decade. My sympathies to you and your family. Michael
Posted by: Michael Ward | Sep 5, 2007 8:12:50 PM
I am sorry about the loss of Pam. I remember her very well. I spent much time at your house growing up.
Posted by: Barbie( Bittner) Lapinski | Nov 24, 2008 6:49:34 AM