Phyllis Stern Berner is about to turn 97, and I have known her for 38 years. Phyllis is my mother-in-law, and she has been part of my life since long before Andrew and I were married, almost from day one when we met, when I was introduced to her and her husband Bernard (Bernie) Berner and her mother Sadie (Syd) Stern.
Bernie and Syd and Harold Stern (Phyllis’s father) are all gone now, and while we’ve missed them greatly with the passing years, we feel very blessed that Phyllis is still with us. I – the lucky one in the family – was able to get to know them soon after Andrew and I met in March 1982. It was great fun, later that year during the summer when Andrew’s popular garden parties at his grandparents’ house were going full swing (I remember several that summer).
The last few years have not been easy. We began to notice some difficulties about fifteen years ago, and about 2010 or so, we realized that Phyllis required care. We were fortunate to be able to engage 24/7 caregivers, who took good care of her in her own home until about three years ago. In October 2017, she moved into a very fine facility, The Hebrew Home at Riverdale, where she has lived since. We’ve tried to see her as often as possible over this time, but now we cannot visit because of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. No visitors are permitted (which is how it should be) but for families like ours, it is particularly difficult for she is a resident (the home doesn’t use the term “patients”) in the dementia section. Her condition is dementia/Alzheimer’s, the famous combination now so associated with our older loved ones. So even though she has excellent care, and we have reports from the staff, always good (no temperature, eating well, sleeping well, etc.), our great pain is that she does not know us.
We have not seen Phyllis since late February and we’re missing her greatly. When we were able to visit, we learned that there are small signs (not many) and we’ve been able to pick up a little bit on her moods, to note when she was enjoying the music at the Sunday-afternoon programs for residents, and generally speaking, just being happy to be with her for a couple of hours. She does talk to us, quite a lot as a matter of fact, but it’s just a vocal stream of what appear to be random words and phrases. Once in a while, a real phrase will come out, which tells us something but we don’t know what.
The Hebrew Home is a beautiful place, and I learned to like going there quite a few years ago, as Phyllis’s mother had spent her final eight years or so as a resident. I used to love to go to Riverdale to visit Syd, even by myself. I could do that because I have usually had a more flexible schedule than Andrew, so I would often go to the home by myself, And while I suppose it gave her pleasure (of course it did – she made that clear), I got a lot out of it, too. I would take Syd out on the beautiful lawn overlooking the Hudson, and we would have wonderful conversations. Because of her age (she died a month short of her 98th birthday), all I had to do was make an opening suggestion and Syd – a storyteller like me – would treat me to tales about her youth. I loved going to visit her, and I missed her greatly when she was gone.
It’s much the same with Phyllis but, at the same time, very different. Andrew and I go together when we can, and – if his schedule doesn’t permit – I go alone (one of our friends says that I’m the only person she knows who enjoys going to visit people in old age homes). Of course I do, but the visits with Phyllis are not necessarily much for conversation. In fact, they’re not at all for conversation. But I think she likes it when we visit and anyway, it’s not for me. It’s for her. As I’m always saying, “Thankfully, she’s still with us” and with things as they are today, that’s good.
Memories abound, of course (which, as with all birthdays, is why I want to pay tribute to her). Three are typical.
In 2002, I had an assignment that would require me to go to Australia, to be there for six weeks. I knew Phyllis and Bernie had wanted for a long time to go to Australia and Andrew had mentioned coming to be with me while I was to be there, so I suggested that they all come out to have a little vacation with me during my stay. Phyllis and Bernie loved the idea, and Andrew, too, but he made it clear that they would all come out with me and return with me. To wit: “If you think I’m going to travel 21 hours on an airplane with my parents by myself, you’ve got another thought coming.”
So off we went, the four of us, and we never regretted it. While I was working, the three of them had the best vacation of their lives (or so they told me). And when I wasn’t working, I joined them, either alone or with my Australian friends, so I had a bit of holiday as well. And it was while we were in Australia that I began to realize (although I had probably known it for years) that Phyllis was what someone I know used to refer to as an “experience-addict.” No matter what was going on, she wanted to be part of it, to add to her collection of experiences and then be able later to look back at it.
An example? One night in Melbourne, we were coming out of the city’s beautiful train station – returned from somewhere we had visited and apparently returning on the last train of the night. I have no idea what time it was, but it was definitely very late, and as we left the station, across the street Phyllis spotted a beautiful shopping arcade (all the shops closed, of course). Although all the rest of us were about to drop from exhaustion, oh, no! We had to go and wander through just so she could look at all the lovely things displayed in the windows.
In 2010, Phyllis made it clear that she wanted to travel with me to Virginia, where I spent most of my life before coming to New York 52 years ago. Phyllis and Bernie were always, very kindly, anxious to hear my stories about my youth, growing up in Virginia, attending Mr. Jefferson’s University (yes, we referred to it that way when I was a student there), and seeing all the places that had been talked about as I shared memories of my childhood. So a few years after Bernie’s death, she asked if we could drive to Virginia. I was on assignment in Kenya at the time, but happened to be back Stateside for a few weeks to do some work for the client in New York, and we worked it out.
Off we went, Phyllis and Andrew and I, driving down the famous Skyline Drive, going out to Southwestern Virginia, wandering around all over Roanoke and Salem and Montgomery County, just to see all the sights connected to my growing up because she wanted to see them. We were even able to meet up with a couple of long-lost but not forgotten connections, one being the woman (at the time 104 years old) who had been my mother’s best friend as they grew up together a long time ago. Another lady had been a close family connection from my own youth, a friend of both my parents. So it was a lovely trip, and while I had long ago put my Virginia life behind me, it meant a lot to Phyllis to do this trip. We even arranged the drive back to take us through Charlottesville, to Mr. Jefferson’s Monticello, to The University, and indeed, even an afternoon at Alderman Library, where I had cut my teeth – professionally speaking – between 1958 and 1963 (and, yes, much to Phyllis’s great joy, some of my books were listed in the library’s catalog). Phyllis loved it all, soaking up everything we experienced, asking questions, and making clear that she was enjoying being with us that summer.
The last of my favorite Phyllis memories? By 2011, when the New York State Legislature passed the law making marriage equality legal, it occurred to Andrew and me that we should marry. But I felt – without saying anything to Andrew – that despite the fact that we were mature adults and despite the fact that Andrew’s father was long gone (the tradition would have been to ask him first) – it would be “fitting” to obtain some reaction from Phyllis about our desire to wed. So one Saturday while we were out driving with Phyllis and her caregiver, we stopped at a shopping center up around Yonkers, so Andrew could quickly run in and do an errand. Without making a big deal of it (no introductory “we have something to talk to you about” or anything like that), I just asked: “Phyllis, it’s legal now for two men to get married, and Andrew and I have been thinking about it. What do you think?”
Her response was direct and straight-forward, and she immediately said the words I was waiting to hear: “Why not?”
Thank you, Phyllis, and thank you for so much else as well. I am deeply pleased to be able to honor you on your birthday.