Clara’s Final Months and Her Death
In September of 1997, my wife became pregnant with our first child, and the first grandchild or new generation child of the Sherman family. As we had promised long before, Clara was the first person we told. A welcome respite from the summer concerns, this child-to-be became Clara’s passion for the remainder of her days.
Her condition steadily worsened as 1998 unfurled, and on May 6, 1998, Clara suffered a massive stroke. On May 8, 1998, our daughter Fiona Nadia was born, and Clara was the first person we called. On May 10, at 9:34 AM, Clara died peacefully in her bed, in her home. On May 13, she was buried next to her husband Robert, her sister Nadia, and brother-in-law Sasha, and in the same cemetery as Leopold Auer and Paul Robeson.
If you will indulge me, I will conclude this narrative with the story of my daughter’s birth and Clara’s death – two events that were inextricably connected in Clara’s mind, her presence on earth and her future on earth. Rather than retell this story from memory, I will simply offer the notes I scribbled when I was asked to speak at Clara’s funeral. In preparation for my spoken eulogy, I wrote:
“Clara loved telling and retelling stories, creating an oral history of sorts. One particular story Clara loved to tell was when I was all of about 6 or 7 years old, and reportedly had the audacity to ask her why, if she loved children so much, did she never have any children of her own. Clara’s response was surprisingly candid and honest – she explained that the doctor had told her and Bobby that she was just too petite, or as she put it, “not built for child birthing”, and that she might be at considerable risk. While she was willing to chance it, Bob could not bear the thought of losing her. After pondering this response, I announced that all of her nephews and nieces were in fact her children.
This story made quite an impression on me, and as I was growing up, I made it a habit to call her each year on Mother’s Day to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. She was always touched by these calls, and they became vehicles to get into discussions about love and relationships. For the rest of my life, she would keep careful tabs on my love life, and no one was more genuinely happy when I finally got it right and married Dorothy.
And no one was more thrilled when we told her Dorothy was pregnant. Clara became totally enthralled with the baby to be, discussing what they would do together and making plans… Although she envisioned herself walking into the hospital with a big bunch of red roses to greet the newborn child, she gradually accepted that she would not be well enough and therefore would have to meet the child in her bed. She happily described placing the newborn baby right in the middle of her king size bed — but then became consumed with fear that the baby might roll off the bed and land on the floor. Explaining that newborns don’t roll much and assuring her that we would be right there at all times (I even told her that to the baby, her bed would be just like a football field), she would then laugh, feigning embarrassment at having been so needlessly worried, and then delightedly add this story to her repertoire.
But she really was worried – she would often call us to inquire how Dorothy was and to ask how much more time till the due date. She became very involved, and very excited. She told us that she wanted this child to have her 1/4 size violin, still in it’s original red case (and this would always lead to a tangential story about how she used to drag this violin behind her on the floor because she was too small to carry it to the St. Petersburg Conservatory to study with Professor Auer after auditioning for him at the age of 4 standing on a table so he could see her…).
Her reasons for giving this violin to our child were made very clear. She loved to tell us that “If it is a boy, perhaps it will be another Jascha Heifetz, and if it is a girl, perhaps it will be another Clara Rockmore, and that’s not so bad either.” How she delighted in telling us this story each time. When we told her that it was in fact going to be a girl, she became even more fascinated about the prospect of “another Clara Rockmore” on the way. And when we told her that the child’s middle name would be Nadia, she cried.
Once, she confided to me that she felt like this was the child she never had. Another time, she said that this child would take her place on this earth.
During Clara’s last weeks, as her health was failing, this yet to be born child became Clara’s raison d’etre to stay alive, and it gave her great joy when the world seemed to turn dark — any talk of the imminent birth would bring a big smile to her face.
During her last days, Clara succumbed to a stroke that all but froze her face and body, On Friday, May 8, our beautiful daughter Fiona Nadia was born, and the first person I called was Clara. When I called from the hospital, Betty relayed the message into Clara’s ear, and then cried out as she told me that Clara was smiling right through her frozen face. Two days later, appropriately on Mother’s Day, with the new generation begun and her “little Clara Rockmore” alive and well, Clara finally let go and died.”
Copyright © 2007 Steve J. Sherman (www.stevejsherman.com) – All rights reserved