In Memoriam: For Ellen, My Precious Wife of Twenty Years, the Love of My Life — Part 1 of 2

In my nearly three years of writing for The American Spectator, I have been blessed personally to have won a deeply devoted readership of many, many thousands. For me that relationship imposes on me a responsibility as well — always to be thoughtful, to be honest and ethical; to do my best to report properly, recite facts accurately, and to analyze them meaningfully; never to split infinitives nor to use the objective case when the nominative is called for, never to end sentences nor even phrases with a preposition (except in the prior phrase), and somehow, even in the most aggravating of times, to be entertaining and interesting, even throw in some puns for those of my readers who scour the articles in search of the more esoteric ones. (None so far.)

In the course of my writing, a real personal relationship has evolved between my readers and me. I read every comment ever posted — Hi, Beverly Gunn, George P Burdell III, Luca Brasi, iWildwood, Moshe Ben Avram, SUBVET, Dustoff, jdondet, Jim Mullin, PolishKnightUSA, Al Adab, and trolling Karma Boy — and I truly learn from readers, even as I endeavor to share some thinking. That kind of mutuality creates a sense of bonding, almost like family of sorts, except I don’t have to put any of you through private college as I did my four darlings — which is why, actually, I have come to love my TAS family far more than I do my own kids. As that sense of family has grown, I have received emails from many of you during time periods when I seemingly have disappeared. People actually write me with worry and concern: “Rabbi, are you OK?” “Dov, I’m worried; you haven’t been infected by COVID, have you?” “Rav, are you still there?”

In almost all cases when I disappear for a few weeks, the reason tends to be simple: Jewish holy seasons. I am a congregational Rav (Orthodox rabbi), and I cannot begin to describe how Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah consume my September and October, and even some of my late August, as I must prepare for those special times amid the resumption of the new law school Fall term. Yikes! In similar fashion, the advent of the eight days of Pesach (Passover) takes over two to three weeks of my April. However, lately, I have had to scale back my writing a bit these past four months because of the hardest, most challenging experience of my life. You are my family, so I share: The love of my life, my wife Ellen, was fading.

Ellen had been complaining about splitting headaches and was acting a bit uncharacteristically as the Summer of 2017 approached. In July 2017 she was diagnosed with the most horrible and essentially incurable of diseases, Glioblastoma Multiforme IV (GBM), the disease that took John McCain, Ted Kennedy, Beau Biden, Ethel Merman, Bert Convy, Tug McGraw, and that strikes three people out of every 100,000. As with McCain, Kennedy, and most others, 85 percent of all those stricken die within 12-15 months of diagnosis. Only ten percent last three full years. Ellen at least was blessed to be among the ten percent. That meant it was I, too, who was blessed — even more.

The thing about GBM is that they can cut only so much, only so far. With breast cancer, for example, they may cut well beyond the lump, even doing a mastectomy. But they can’t do a decapitation. They cannot eradicate all the cancer cells in the brain, even with radiation and chemotherapy, so the cells reproduce. Ellen had her first tumor resected (removed as much as possible) in September 2017. She underwent a “gamma knife” and then a standard radiation protocol. She then went on the standard first course of treatment, a pill called Temodar, that controlled the cancer cells from reproducing for a year. Eventually those cells figure out how to bypass the Temodar obstruction. Her regular MRI tests confirmed that her GBM tumor returned in late October 2018, and it was resected early that December. In both cases, she bounced back remarkably. Within a day after surgery, each time I got my Ellen back as though nothing ever had been awry. With Temodar now useless, she next went onto a new chemotherapy protocol, a cocktail of two infusions, carboplatin and avastin. A year later, in the Fall of 2019, she began having a noticeably halting gait. It turned out that her brain was not sufficiently draining out the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that we all create daily and that lubricates, cleans out, and refreshes our brains. Therefore, the CSF was building up in her head, a condition called “hydrocephalus.” To treat it before it became perilous, a shunt was installed inside to act as an auxiliary drainpipe. However, she had to go off her chemo meds for several weeks before and after the shunt procedure because the chemo severely comprises the immune system and also obstructs wounds and incisions from healing. While off the chemo for just shy of two months, her tumor returned, this time spreading to the frontal lobe.

She underwent a third resection in February of this year. However, this time, for the first time, she ran into serious post-operative complications. Her brain suddenly encountered a bit of trouble regulating her sodium, and she developed hyponatremia — low blood salt. (“Hypo” means “low”; “-emia” refers to blood; and natrium is the Latin term for sodium, which is why sodium is “Na” on the periodic chart of elements.) The proper sodium range is 135-145, and she sank perilously low to 125. Nephrologists explain that sodium levels cannot be raised rapidly, so she needed time to recover from that complication. And just as she did, her temperature one night suddenly shot up, reflecting that she had contracted bacterial meningitis. A new antibiotic regimen now was needed, and this lady whose temple had been opened four times before (three resections and one shunt) now needed to be opened so that her bacterially infected shunt could be removed, and again a week later so that a new sterile one could be installed once the bacteria were gone from her CSF. That made six incisions. Alas, having once again been compelled to go months without chemo as she encountered her post-op complications, her tumor returned, and she soon thereafter had to undergo yet a fourth resection, her seventh opening, in May. Again, she worked her way back with incredible determination under the guidance of the home Physical Therapist, Occupational Therapist, and Speech Language Pathologist. But the skin “graft” where the surgeons tried to close her incision after the seventh time gave way, with the skin dehiscence opening the area to bacteria and requiring an eighth surgery at that site to try closing the incision with a skin “flap.” That surgery seemed successful, but 36 hours later it was detected that all the stress on her brain — the tumors, the surgeries, the radiations, the drugs — finally was too much. We waited several days for a miracle and then accepted G-d’s answer that there would be no more miracles but one: unable to recover from the eighth surgery, she would pass gently and calmly one month before the newly returning fifth GBM tumor would have killed her anyway, but horribly and terribly.

And so my darling wife, Ellen, the love of my life, passed away from glioblastoma on the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz, shortly before sunset. She was one week shy of 64. And I promised her that I would tell the world that she did not “spend years battling” the disease and did not “lose a long fight with” the disease, but that she lived life with zest alongside the disease. She lived all those remaining three years with gusto and pizzazz, and she even checked out calmly and peaceably only a month before the illness would have caused uncontrollable gagging and truly head-splitting pains, convulsions, and seizures.

At the time of her diagnosis in July 2017, she retired from her career of 31 years at a major university’s department of Audit and Advisory Services as their Manager of Investigations into allegations of high-stakes white-collar fraud. She was both a Certified Fraud Examiner and a Certified Internal Auditor — a real CIA! One of her investigations uncovered such wild stuff that she got written up in the Los Angeles Times and became a star in her field. She was a member of the Editorial Board of the main publication in her field, and she wrote a 30-page account of the investigation that made her famous, which became Chapter One of the leading text in her field of fraud investigations. Every Dean of every department in the university knew her and valued her; every crook feared her. It wasn’t safe to embezzle millions or even thousands or even hundreds when Ellen was within several miles. If the feds had hired someone like her to go after fraud in Washington, America today would have a booming budget surplus that it could use for researching and curing more cancers or, uh, for building more monuments and starting more Mideast wars.

During the three years/36 months from the time she was diagnosed with glioblastoma, she did not “survive” or “battle the disease” but rather lived a completely full life of zest. We ran Torah programs at our home — my weekly Tuesday night Chumash (Bible) class and Sunday morning Women’s Advanced Torah Text Class. On Thursday nights, while I taught my weekly Talmud class, she would be in the kitchen cooking for Shabbat. Every Friday night, we hosted a group of typically between fifteen and twenty Young Adults ages 28-45 — our “Friday Night Shabbat Dinner Group” — for whom she cooked a weekly four-course Shabbat meal. During the meal, participants would catch up with each other on how their respective weeks had gone, and I would teach a bit of Torah or Jewish history, and then we all would sing zmirot (Sabbath dinner songs) and then bentsching (grace after meals). Ellen was central to all of it. With Ellen, we often hosted Shabbat guests traveling through Orange County, housing them and feeding them warmly. Even as she was infected with glioblastoma, we never let others know, and we often instead found ourselves housing and counseling people stricken with their own severe diseases or dealing with other life challenges. Ellen would teach “Kallah Class” to prospective brides whose marriages I would be conducting. Before every major shul program and event, she would make dozens upon dozens of personal phone calls to assure great attendance. Because Orthodox Jews do not travel vehicularly on the Sabbath, we walked together to and from shul every Shabbat morning, 35 minutes each way, for twenty years. On Wednesdays, she would accompany me in the car for the two hours’ rush-hour drive from Irvine to downtown Los Angeles, where I would teach two law classes over the next four hours, and then she would accompany me back home for the 75-minute return drive after rush hour. What a mutual benefit — she became expert in Advanced Torts and in California Civil Procedure, and I got to use the carpool lane!

During that same three-year period, we spent heightened time together. We watched favorite TV shows and streamed favorite movies, and we often went to plays — 10-15 theatrical events annually — and two or three concerts each year (typically a Beethoven or Mozart concert, plus one or two “tribute” concerts of the John Denver/Neil Diamond/Simon & Garfunkel genre). She loved Shark Tank and the Food Network show called Chopped, so I got into both of them, too. Our favorite movie was “Fargo,” and we saw it several times together and could quote and replay whole scenes with each other. She also could quote whole sections from The Producers, like the scene with the lady landlord who had become the “concierge.” Yet this high-stakes fraud investigator never outgrew Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and she loved when those came to town as live musicals. She also loved Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Upstairs/Downstairs, Fawlty Towers, Better Call Saul, and Seinfeld. Her favorite was Srugim, a wonderful three-year episodic series out of Israel, sometimes very funny, sometimes poignant, that follows five young Modern Orthodox Jewish professional singles, with others coming and going, as they navigate life. These, too, became rituals for us to share. On Friday nights, after dinner, as I would retire to our living room to study and prepare for publicly reading the next day’s Torah portion in shul, Ellen would read alongside me. After reading Barbara Tuchman’s Team of Rivals, this deep American patriot she got absorbed in the whole genre and era of the Civil War and then of the American Presidents, so she became a major expert in both areas. She read the Shaara Gettysburg trilogy beginning with Killer Angels, moved on to reading the great biographies about Washington (Ron Chernow), John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (Gordon Wood, Friends Divided), Alexander Hamilton (also Chernow), Ulysses Grant (more Chernow), and I introduced her to the life of James Polk. As she finished each volume, I would do research as her curator to recommend her next book, and it would be waiting for her as a present. With Ellen I could always find something in life to celebrate. She had just finished the Edmund Morris trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt, and I accordingly took her to a performance of Arsenic and Old Lace that both she and I laughed our way through for two hours, even though we each had seen it decades before, but never before with each other. With no kosher eateries in Orange County, we often would drive fifteen minutes to the nearest Krispy Kremes for a donut and coffee, or to the Coffee Bean (which always was kosher until last month) for our regular “dates.” On more special occasions, we would drive up to L.A. once every two or three months to our favorite restaurant, “Shiloh.”

The Talmud says that any Jew who walks four cubits’ distance (approximately six to eight feet) in the Land of Israel has a place in the World to Come. Last July, one year ago, we took the trip of a lifetime to Israel, seeing and visiting every site we ever had wanted to see. I had lived in Israel for two years in the mid-1980s, during my prior marriage, but I had not visited most of those sites, and Ellen had been slated on several prior occasions in her life to visit Israel, but last-minute circumstances had obstructed each prior planned trip. We got a specific room in the King David Hotel that overlooks the Har HaBayit (Temple Mount), davened (prayed) at times in our room facing that site, and we visited Rachel’s Tomb (Kever Rachel), the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (M’arat Hamachpelah), Gush Etzion, Jews living in the heart of Hevron in liberated Judea, the places in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood where our favorite TV program, Srugim, had been filmed, other sites in Jerusalem, the grave sites in Tiberias (T’veryah) of the Rambam (Maimonides), Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Akiva, his wife Rachel, and Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess. We visited Masada, where Jewish patriots fought Roman legions, the Mount of Olives (Har HaZeitim), and of course the Kotel (Western Wall), including the Kotel Tunnel, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and the Muslim Quarter. We came back home so psyched that Ellen began teaching herself conversational Hebrew very intensely, and we began watching the nightly TV News on Israel’s Kan Channel 11, available through YouTube.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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Author: Dov Fischer

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