The White Dove


My mother’s family believes very strongly that departed spirits return to the physical world in winged form. This belief was handed down to me, and is so deeply ingrained that I am always keenly aware of the presence of birds and insects I encounter when a loved one has recently passed away.

When my favorite aunt passed away last December, I didn’t feel her energy around me at all. This was in stark contrast to when my dear friend Rob Willhite passed away in April of 2014. Right after Rob died, he hovered around my meditation table and my bed, and left coins on my bed, bathroom counter, desk chair, and car seat. His energy was heavy, palpable.

I began to accept the possibility that I wasn’t as spiritually connected with my aunt as I had always thought. I traveled to Oahu the third week of January and spent the days leading up to my aunty’s funeral getting reacquainted with the island. I still felt no connection with my aunt’s spirit.

The day of the funeral arrived with a vengeance, spewing rain and strong winds which were the exact opposite of the balmy, sunny days which led up to it. The funeral service was odd, and seeing my aunt’s embalmed corpse was alarming to me. It was definitely an empty vessel.

For the first time ever, I served as a pallbearer. As we carried the casket out to the hearse, the rain began to fall again. By the time the funeral procession had arrived at the cemetery, the rain was steady, and the winds were so fierce that it threw a few of the folding chairs at the site into the air.

During the burial ceremony, the priest stood in front of the casket, with his back to the interment site which awaited my aunt’s body. While he spoke, the winds whipped furiously, pushing the rain into us and rendering the protection of the tent we were sitting under completely useless. One particularly assertive gust of wind hit, and I looked up despite risking getting a face full of rain. As soon as I glanced up, a single white dove flew up from the exact position where my aunt’s final resting place would be, made a sweeping arc behind the priest, and flew up into the sky. That was the sign I was looking for. Aunty was there.

The next evening I returned to Los Angeles, and because I was battling a wicked case of bronchitis, I chose to sleep on the sofa downstairs so that I wouldn’t wake anyone upstairs. By some miracle I actually got a decent night’s sleep that night. When I woke up the next morning, I put my left foot down onto the floor, and noticed a single white feather right next to my foot. Another sign.

That feather is now in a pouch with a mala my friend Rob gave me.

The Last Essay By Dr. Oliver Sacks

Dr. Sacks on porch

Filter Fish
At life’s end, rediscovering the joys of a childhood favorite

Gefilte fish is not an everyday dish; it is to be eaten mainly on the Jewish Sabbath in Orthodox households, when cooking is not allowed. When I was growing up, my mother would take off from her surgical duties early on Friday afternoon and devote her time, before the coming of Shabbat, to preparing gefilte fish and other Sabbath dishes.

Our gefilte fish was basically carp, to which pike, whitefish, and sometimes perch or mullet would be added. (The fishmonger delivered the fish alive, swimming in a pail of water.) The fish had to be skinned, boned, and fed into a grinder—we had a massive metal grinder attached to the kitchen table, and my mother would sometimes let me turn the handle. She would then mix the ground fish with raw eggs, matzo meal, and pepper and sugar. (Litvak gefilte fish, I was told, used more pepper, which is how she made it—my father was a Litvak, born in Lithuania.)

My mother would fashion the mixture into balls about two inches in diameter—two to three pounds of fish would allow a dozen or more substantial fish balls—and then poach these gently with a few slices of carrot. As the gefilte fish cooled, a jelly of an extraordinarily delicate sort coalesced, and, as a child, I had a passion for the fish balls and their rich jelly, along with the obligatory khreyn (Yiddish for horseradish).

I thought I would never taste anything like my mother’s gefilte fish again, but in my forties I found a housekeeper, Helen Jones, with a veritable genius for cooking. Helen improvised everything, nothing was by the book, and, learning my tastes, she decided to try her hand at gefilte fish.

When she arrived each Thursday morning, we would set out for the Bronx to do some shopping together, our first stop being a fish shop on Lydig Avenue run by two Sicilian brothers who were as like as twins. The fishmongers were happy to give us carp, whitefish, and pike, but I had no idea how Helen, African-American, a good, churchgoing Christian, would manage with making such a Jewish delicacy. But her powers of improvisation were formidable, and she made magnificent gefilte fish (she called it “filter fish”), which, I had to acknowledge, was as good as my mother’s. Helen refined her filter fish each time she made it, and my friends and neighbors got a taste for it, too. So did Helen’s church friends; I loved to think of her fellow-Baptists gorging on gefilte fish at their church socials.

For my fiftieth birthday, in 1983, she made a gigantic bowl of it—enough for the fifty birthday guests. Among them was Bob Silvers, the editor of The New York Review of Books, who was so enamored of Helen’s gefilte fish that he wondered if she could make it for his entire staff.

When Helen died, after seventeen years of working for me, I mourned her deeply—and I lost my taste for gefilte fish. Commercially made, bottled gefilte fish, sold in supermarkets, I found detestable compared to Helen’s ambrosia.

But now, in what are (barring a miracle) my last weeks of life—so queasy that I am averse to almost every food, with difficulty swallowing anything except liquids or jellylike solids—I have rediscovered the joys of gefilte fish. I cannot eat more than two or three ounces at a time, but an aliquot of gefilte fish every waking hour nourishes me with much needed protein. (Gefilte-fish jelly, like calf’s-foot jelly, was always valued as an invalid’s food.)

Deliveries now arrive daily from one shop or another: Murray’s on Broadway, Russ & Daughters, Sable’s, Zabar’s, Barney Greengrass, the 2nd Ave Deli—they all make their own gefilte fish, and I like it all (though none compares to my mother’s or Helen’s).

While I have conscious memories of gefilte fish from about the age of four, I suspect that I acquired my taste for it even earlier, for, with its abundant, nutritious jelly, it was often given to infants in Orthodox households as they moved from baby foods to solid food. Gefilte fish will usher me out of this life, as it ushered me into it, eighty-two years ago. ♦

Comedy And Tragedy

robin-williams_1Robin Williams’ suicide brought attention to the depression that often strikes entertainers, but sadly, he wasn’t the first comedic genius to take his own life. Freddie Prinz died at the age of 22, and Richard Jeni died right before his 50th birthday, both from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Evidently, comedy can serve as an outlet for severe depression and psychosis, but the danger lies in the fact that making others people laugh can hide a dangerous secret.

I worked for Richard Jeni for over four years as his personal assistant, and as always blown away by his wit and his brilliance. Being a personal assistant required me to wear many hats, and it was not an easy job, especially when Rich was in one of his moods. He lived in a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills which I had to maintain, and which, despite all of its creature comforts, always felt very empty. I helped Rich with everything from household related issues, to assistance with booking gigs and organizing travel, serving as his personal stylist, organizing recordings of sitcoms he studied, and traveling with him for Caroline’s Comedy Hour and one of his cable specials.

Rich never married and had no children, and I honestly couldn’t imagine him with a wife and kids because, he was frequently out of town on gigs, and HAD to have everything his own way. There were numerous times that I would find myself greeting a new girlfriend who suddenly was one of the fixtures in the house, only to see Rich’s outlook on life darken when the girlfriend eventually became the ex. I knew that though Rich was incredibly funny, and kept me in stitches when he would dictate his bits for me to transcribe, he was never happy. I knew so much about him, where he was born and raised, how he left law school to become a comic, what foods he wanted in his fridge at all times, what interior design aesthetic he preferred, where and how he wanted his clean laundry distributed, what wardrobe items he wanted me to scout out, etc., but I never knew the depths of his loneliness.

Though I quit working for Rich to embark on my medical education, we stayed in touch from time to time and in this way continued our friendship. The last time I had seen him was in 2005 when his cable special, “A Big Steaming Pile Of Me” premiered. He was paranoid and disjointed during the premiere, and exhibited bizarre behavior which turned out to be the early stages of paranoid schizophrenia.

I still remember seeing the headline on AOL News on March 11, 2007, which announced that Richard Jeni had shot himself in the face and was dead. It stunned me. It was also extremely strange to find out via the Internet, but with Rich’s modest celebrity status, it was appropriate. I still can’t fathom how he had come to the point where he took the gun and pointed the barrel at himself, but I also cannot understand how a family man like Robin Williams chose to wrap a belt around his neck and cut off his own life breath. Both deaths were tragic, unnecessary, and highlighted an insidious mental disease which lurks among people from all walks of life. No amount of money, success, or fame can ever guarantee the happiness of a human being.

In honor of Richard Jeni and Robin Williams, both of whom were brilliant comics, I am posting these videos for you to enjoy:

Loose Change


A few days after my dear friend and meditation teacher Rob died, several people told me that those who have recently departed will often leave loose change as a way of communicating. I thought it was interesting but didn’t give it much attention, partly because I was too busy grieving and reflecting, and partly because I had never experienced such a thing. My heart was heavy over Rob’s passing, and I was trying to adjust to the emptiness I felt, knowing I would never see Rob as a living being again.

About two weeks after that, I came downstairs to the garage, and when I grabbed my handbag from the office, I noticed 3 quarters sitting near the edge of my desk. I am not the type of person who ever leaves change lying around, so when I saw the quarters, I chuckled and said Rob’s name. A couple of days later, I came home from the gym, went upstairs to my bedroom, and saw 3 quarters at the foot of my neatly made bed, in a deliberate triangular configuration. Again, I chuckled and said Rob’s name.

Another week or so passed with no change lying around. Then one day when I had been in the house most of the morning, I walked into the garage, got into my car, and noticed two quarters and a dime on the passenger’s seat. No one had sat in the passenger’s seat for over a week, and my food bag was the only “occupant” of that seat since then. Yet the coins sat on the seat in plain sight, not wedged in the crevice but squarely on the seat. If you ask me now whether I believe in the idea that those who have died visit us and leave signs such as loose change, I will emphatically say that I do.

While writing this blog I did a search to see what other people had written on this subject, and came across this incredible post. Please read it if you want to read a remarkable story of one woman’s experience with finding dimes.

Eulogy For Rob Willhite

– Buddha

One day eight years ago I met Rob and was immediately struck by his elegant stature and his calm and kind demeanor. What was most striking, though, was a spirit presence, something ethereal that I couldn’t define, and it was that presence that put me in awe of him. He kindly invited me to join his meditation group, and I gladly obliged. And so began my journey into more structured meditation, a connection to the cosmos, and a deep friendship.

I remember being somewhat intimidated by Rob, and I realize that this was my own little grasshopper mind coupled with egoic limitations that were causing me to experience that feeling of intimidation. Rob’s “Robisms” reminded me to ponder in more enlightened ways, and I took great comfort in hearing him utter one of his typical sage sayings and following it with either a grin or a chuckle, and a twinkle in the eye that revealed the little boy that still wanted to laugh and play.

Then when Rob was diagnosed last Fall and I heard of all the trials and tribulations he was enduring, I realized that everything this remarkable man had experienced in his life was coming to a head and that the ultimate test was yet to come. I drove to Rancho Los Amigos a couple of days after his surgery to see him, not sure what I would encounter. Yet as I laid my eyes upon Rob, a great surge of joy washed through me, and this joy continued as we talked and joked around, laughed and smiled. He was in such great spirits that even though I was devastated to hear of his diagnosis, it didn’t seem to matter, because we were truly in the moment, friends enjoying each other’s company. Rob’s wonderful dry wit was still very much intact and he used it to say things that had me chuckling at his bedside.

1016444_696074497089656_1678297_nShortly after Rob was discharged to Bess’s home this past December, I made regular scheduled visits to help out, and continued to do so through most of March. Every single one of those days I spent with Rob was an absolute treasure. Our conversations ran the gamut of profound, funny, tragic, and philosophical. Most days we would go for a walk or visit the neighbor dogs for a bit, and on some days he and I would meditate. Our jaunts to the L.A. Zoo were also very special and I feel so fortunate to have gone with Rob there. He missed his animal friends so very much and was able to have two wonderful reunions with them. The first time we visited, Leadbottom, the Andean Condor, was being a butthead and refused to come to the fence to greet Rob, but during our second visit, Leadbottom finally relented, and I witnessed the friendship and bond which they shared. It was truly a magical moment.

Though I had known Rob for several years, it was only this year that I learned that Rob was a man who had never felt, as he stated, like he belonged on this earth. I knew what he meant. He was so evolved spiritually that being locked in the physical realm was challenging at best with him. We spoke at length about countless other subjects during my regular visits, and he revealed more of his life experiences and upbringing to me, making him more endearing and real, and dissolving the silly intimidation I had once felt so long ago. He expressed gratitude towards me many times for helping out during the course of his illness, but the countless spiritual gifts he had bestowed upon me during that time were staggering in comparison.

There was one thing Rob said to me when he was still at Rancho which struck me. He had said, “I’ll meet you on the other side for sake.” To which I replied, “Not just yet, Rob, not for either of us. But I absolutely will meet you for that sake at some point.” Eventually, we will share that bottle of sake on the other side. I look forward to it.

The Swan – Poem By Rainer Maria Rilke

In honor of my dear friend Rob Willhite…thanks to Jennifer for posting this on Facebook a few weeks ago.

This laboring of ours with all that remains undone,
as if still bound to it,
is like the lumbering gait of the swan.

And then our dying—releasing ourselves
from the very ground on which we stood—
is like the way he hesitantly lowers himself

into the water. It gently receives him,
and, gladly yielding, flows back beneath him,
as wave follows wave,
while he, now wholly serene and sure,
with regal composure,
allows himself to glide.