Pattis-Norm
Norm Pattis ()

I am morose and mopey today. The death of a loved one does that. You see, my mother in-law died just the other night. We knew she was failing. Indeed, I’d gone to see her a couple of weeks ago to say my farewell. But still the call, which arrived at 2:13 a.m., was like a kick to the gut: “Barbara is dead.”

She struggled for the past seven years with a cascading dementia. At first, she was merely confused, then dependent, then incapable of caring for herself. In the end, there were days in which she seemed so terrified that it was easy to hate the gods. Why this torment, this torture?

There aren’t answers to life’s larger questions. We are left to wonder and to approach the unknowable with such faith as we can muster. Most often we avoid too close a look at the abyss at the edge of our days. Today I stare straight into it.

Barabara Gutman Rosenkrantz was the mother of three children, one of whom, obviously, is my wife. She died at 91. She wrote a path-breaking book called “Public Health and the State” in 1972, and was much loved at Harvard, where she taught the history of medicine in the university’s history of science department.

Her graduate students revered her, regarding her as a shepherdess through the sometimes terrifying groves of academia.

I never saw her in a classroom, though. To me, she was the kind dinner companion at holidays, a fierce competitor at cards, a forever inquisitive mind always reading, probing, asking questions. She once gave me as a holiday gift a copy of a book about the insanity defense written by a friend of hers.

Barb and I had a secret connection. Her father had taught philosophy at Columbia University. One of his last advisees was a man named Herbert Deane – Barb recalled dinners at home with Deane. I spent six years under Deane’s tutelage at Columbia years later, when I was a graduate student and a young instructor. Barb and I giggled about that, about how small the world really is. I’ve sometimes wondered whether these deeper currents made my marriage to Barb’s daughter inevitable.

Barb never judged me too harshly, so far as I know, for walking away from a career as an academic. I think she was amused to have a lawyer in the family, someone who earned his keep among the harsher realities of life. She’d roll her eyes in disbelief when I’d tell her tales of woe I had seen.

When she died, I rose from bed and stood at the window looking into the night sky. I wanted to know where she had gone. Some part of me wanted to go with her. I could always count on a quiet moment with her. Even when she was failing, at the end, when reason was a fickle companion, her wit did not fail.

“I am confused,” she told me at our last visit, looking up from her bed with a child’s wide eyes, a blister on her upper lip.

“Barb, most of us are confused almost all the time,” I said.

She looked at me.

“But some people aren’t,” she responded.

“Yes, but those people teach at Harvard,” I told her.

Something clicked in her when I said that, and a smile almost dawned on a face now drawn. Even in the end, wit was a constant companion to this once lively mind.

I will miss Barb for a long time, perhaps forever. I am not ashamed to say I loved her. Indeed, I love her still, wherever she might be.

Norm Pattis is a criminal defense attorney and a civil rights lawyer in Bethany. Most days he blogs at www.pattisblog.com.