Stanley was a double cousin. His grandfather and my grandfather were brothers, and his grandmother and my grandmother were sisters. We shared a lot of DNA. Growing up we didn’t see him as much as I would have liked, because he lived in Maryland and we were in Massachusetts, but our families were in close touch. I always liked him. As a teenager I had a crush on Stanley, who was 12 years older than me. As an adult I visited him several times with my husband, whose brother lives in Maryland. Stanley last visited Massachusetts for a family Bat Mitzvah, about 12 years ago
Stanley died a couple of weeks ago. Even though he’d been sick for decades, it still came as a shock. When I saw the e-mail from my brother with Stanley’s name in the subject line, I heard myself say, “Oh, no.” After I’d absorbed the news I thought, who will say Kaddish?
In the late 1960s there was no name for Hepatitis C. It was referred to as Non A/Non B. The then-mystery disease was a devastating diagnosis for Stanley, who contracted the illness while working as an intern. We didn’t know it at the time, but in many ways his life was over. There were crises, times when we didn’t think he’d survive. Although he finished his residency he was never able to practice medicine. He tried fields that were less physically demanding, such as radiology He was not physically up to it. He never recovered; although he lived till just shy of 74. In effect, he spent much of his life as an invalid. His multiple medical issues included spinal problems that made it hard for him to walk. There was talk of a liver transplant, but somehow that did not pan out. I never heard a complaint from him about the fate that life had handed him.
My last contact with Stanley was an exchange of emails when he declined the invitation to my daughter’s wedding in October. I understood, but I didn’t know how little time he had left. In mid-February we planned a visit to Baltimore to see our daughter and son-in-law. We should try to visit Stanley, I thought. He died a week before our trip.
For my brothers and cousins and I, there was no time to get to the funeral, no shiva to attend. I wanted to talk about him, to share memories, but there was no gathering where we could talk about what a nice guy he was (and he was), to commiserate about the early, pre-illness days, the fun times, about his being the only doctor in our Jewish family, about his mother and father, about the tragedy that was his life.
Stanley was an only child. He never married. By the time he died his parents were long gone. My parents, who kept in touch with him and with whom I would have shared my grief, are more recently gone. There were no siblings, no children. In fact, we found out about his passing only because a neighbor had heard a message from my brother on Stanley’s answering machine and called to inform him of Stanley’s death.
As I thought about him, a cherished memory popped into my mind. A while back my husband and I stayed with Stanley at his Bethesda condo when one of our nieces in Silver Spring was having her Bat Mitzvah. One night, for our amusement, he played tapes of comedians Sam Kinison and Robert Klein. I laughed till my stomach hurt. I could barely stand up. Long after we’d finished the tapes, I kept laughing. I would calm down, take a breath, and crack up again. This process repeated itself until I managed to fall asleep. Klein’s line about attending Ayatollah Khomeini’s shiva and bringing a pound cake still reverberates in my memory, along with the screaming Kinison’s tastelessly hilarious suggestion that people starving in desert regions should “Move where the food is! Nothing grows in the desert!” Humor is a big deal in my family; I’m glad to have a memory of Stanley that is drenched in laughter.
Stanley M. Levenson, MD, dreamed of a life of service to others. Despite his illness he took in his mother when she could no longer live on her own. He was smart and he was funny. He was fun to be with. He was family.
“I envy my Jewish friends the ritual of saying kaddish,” wrote poet Meghan O'Rourke, “a ritual that seems perfectly conceived, with its built-in support group and its ceremonious designation of time each day devoted to remembering the lost person.”
The Jewish rituals of mourning keep alive the memory of those we love. Even those, maybe especially those, who leave behind no immediate family. I am saying Kaddish for Stanley. A death should be mourned. And a life celebrated.
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