Phyllis Smith

Penina bat Yitzhak Mayer ve-Shaindel

So I get off the plane from Israel and come to see Phyllis. And she says, “What are you going to say about me?” I’m not sure anyone ever asked me that before. But I’ve known Phyllis for thirty years and I look her in the eye and say, “Phyllis, you’re going to go out like a queen.” And she gave a big smile, and I knew that was the word she wanted to hear.

So ladies and gentlemen, you think you’ve come here for a funeral, but instead you have come to the coronation of Queen Phyllis I, the first and only one of her kind.

Ask yourself one simple question: Have you ever known anyone like her? Her life has been cut short, but what a life she had. She was a queen in her marriage, as a daughter and mother and grandmother, in her fantastic career as a giving and effective social worker, as a distinguished member of this community, as a treasured friend, as a straight-shooter, and as a person who exemplified courage against all the odds.

I was in Israel last week for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut. On Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, Israel shuts down to mourn, to grieve over its lost sons and fathers and brothers. But then that night starts Yom Haatzmaut, Independence Day, and they’re out in the streets, dancing, shooting shaving cream, lighting fireworks. Israelis understand: Mourn, all the way down, but then shoot firecrackers. If I could do this today, if I could help you to mourn for Phyllis but also to happily, laughingly enjoy who Phyllis was, that would be a funeral fit for a queen.

A few biographical facts. Born in Manhattan, lived in Brooklyn, raised by her beloved parents to whom she was loyal and caring, raised with her brother Stewart with whom she’d always be close. Stewart and his wife Colleen were with her the whole day the other day and it was after that/ that Phyllis let herself go. She wasn’t going to die without seeing them first. She went to Hunter and then Columbia Social Work. She worked as a social worker in gynecological/oncology at Yale-New Haven from 1975 to 1977 and then 1982 to 2006. She created and innovated programs with Bonnie Indeck and helped people at crucial times in their lives.

Phyllis met Easton when he was at an event with someone else. He offered to walk her home and she said, “Aren't you here with someone else?” And he said, “So what?” Did he get that one right. They were married in 1967; they were married 44 years when he died last August. I mean, to be open, you might not have wanted to be in a car with Phyllis and Easton when they got lost. Not your happiest or calmest situation. But if you have any sense of how much she mourned for Easton, how much she missed him, you will know what they had together. I don’t believe in coincidences, and no one will convince me that it is a coincidence that Phyllis has died so soon after Easton. I felt her grief getting worse over these months, not better. As she got weaker, she needed him more, and she was quite open and quite explicit about how difficult it was to go on without him. She loved him very much.  I think she fought the disease for all these years and when he went, so did some of her strength; some of that resolve just went out of her. But she had the amazing strength to decide to stop treatments and go home to die a peaceful and dignified death. Just like a queen.

But the way she had battled cancer for twenty-six years, that courage, is absolutely an inspiration to all of us. Do you remember all the treatments and times of pain and exhaustion and visits to NIH and protocols and studies?

Who better to counsel people with cancer than someone who was battling it herself?

And the way she encouraged people to fight is breathtaking. How many people’s lives, how many people going through chemotherapy, how many people at the end of their lives, were better off because Phyllis Smith was by their side, often single-handedly propping them up and getting them through it. Towards the end, what she needed was Phyllis Smith, and none of us were as good as she would have been when we tried to help.

People always talk about dreams and their symbolism. But for me, it’s memories that are important. Why do you remember certain things and forget everything else? If you are sitting here remembering certain things about your relationship with Phyllis, why these particular memories and not others? And there is a little memory that keeps going through my head and I figured out why I keep thinking about it.

I’m in Bethesda, Maryland several years ago, visiting my parents, and it’s a hot summer Shabbos morning. And Phyllis is at NIH, just a few blocks from my parents’ house. So I come up with a plan to walk to NIH, surprise Phyllis, and then walk on to my father’s shul. I am very pleased with myself and I walk to NIH, but I can’t get by security. I walk here and there around the huge campus and the sun is beating down and I’m in a wool suit and it’s like a bad dream and I try to reach her and I can’t get to an entrance where they’ll let me in. And finally I give up and just go on to shul, disappointed with myself.

For all of the things I could think about, why does this memory keep going through me? I think because it symbolizes my frustration with myself; I wanted to help and I couldn’t figure out a way to do something for Phyllis. And I’m horribly frustrated with this whole thing that has happened, that for all of the great and dedicated doctors and all the experimental cutting-edge treatments and incredible children and family and friends, we weren’t able to save her and now we just have to go on without her.

But of course this is not the way to think. The truth is that all of the people who helped did help keep her alive for all these years. And the truth is that she knew we were all walking around, trying to get through, trying to do what we could.

But it was her family that really came through for her. Every family has its dynamics and this is certainly a dynamic family. Phyllis had classic mother-daughter, fascinating relationships with Marni and Allison. There was always something going on. Love is expressed in very different ways by different people, and this is an intense, caring, close-knit family.

Marni and Allison have been with their mother at every stage and every turn; frankly, if anything, I would try to encourage them to remember to think about themselves and their lives, but they wouldn’t listen to me, because the pull inside them to be there for their mother was so incredibly strong. They understand everything that has happened, they can smile and laugh, but Marni and Allison, let’s be honest: you have not even begun to feel the grief yet, because her needs were so deep in this last stage and you were so focused on doing for her, that you have not even begun to deal with your own feelings. This is all very difficult and the loss is a grievous one. And to lose both of your beloved parents within months is too much to get your minds around. So just take it slowly, and don’t even try; just be gentle to yourselves and give yourselves time to just “be”.

I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a Jewish saint until I talked to Phyllis about Stuart. Can you imagine: Phyllis Smith, who had her opinions about e-ver-y-body, sincerely thought that Stuart was a saint. What higher compliment could there be? If she needed anything, even, say, breaking a window, he was there. She relied on Stuart and loved him and appreciated his many talents and gifts.

How she talked about Zachary and Benjamin. All the time. By the time she would tell me things, I’d already heard, but I would let her brag: Did you hear what Zach said at school? Can you believe how smart he is? Did you hear what that little Ben did this time? That little bandeet!

And just one word about her friends: She had friends who, without exaggeration, were family. I’ve calculated that she and one particular friend who I won’t mention by name named Diane spoke on the phone around 30,200 times over the years. To her very wonderful and supportive and loving friends, we offer our deepest condolences.

There’s an old, learned Jewish joke about the three sedrahs read from the Torah in these two weeks:

Aharey Mot Kedoshim Emor

After the death, the person is spoken of as holy way beyond their merits.

But I don’t need to exaggerate.

And I can be straight: Phyllis was a real life human being, not a stick figure. I never ever heard her say a curse word, but I hear rumors that her language could have a little salt and pepper. All I know is that with me, she never used such language, Even on her deathbed, when she described someone to me as “a son of a … (she looked at me and smiled and said) gun!”

And I want to say something about being part of a real community. What happens over the years is that there are some people who really become part of your life. It’s not about who you love or who you like or who criticizes you or supports you; it transcends all of that. And yes, there are people who like to know everyone’s business. But in the end, there is a closeness that comes even from that, from the fact that she was interested in you, that she really wanted you to do better and to be perfect just like her. She really was quite a person, a person who did have something to say and to add to your life, who did understand what community is, and davening is, and kashrut is, and a shul should be. She was very active in this shul and held offices and chairmanships but most of all she was a force for Judaism and caring and real education. You might not have always liked what she said, but the fact is she did have something to say that was always worth hearing. And in the end, the ups and downs and stories and crises make you family, it all just makes it feel even more like family, because in case you haven’t noticed, families have a way of getting on each other every once in a while.

I could easily talk for an hour, and there are aspects of her life I haven’t even touched on, but I do want to tell you about one more scene in my head. It came to me like a vision when I sat with her yesterday after she had died. It was very clear. It’s in Heaven, and all of the new people are sitting there listening to G-d, Who is explaining how eternity and salvation work. And G-d finishes the speech, and everyone is applauding, but a hand goes up, and I look, and Phyllis is raising her hand. And Easton is sitting next to Phyllis, but he’s nodding off. And Phyllis says: “Excuse me, but I have a few questions.” And G-d is not really used to this (He thinks He’s G-d), but He listens, because Phyllis Smith is someone who has something to say.

We will remember everything she said and did that added to our lives.

Mourn for her, but thank G-d you knew her, because you are more because of her.

She was a righteous woman. May she rest in peace. Let us say Amen.

Rabbi Benjamin E. Scolnic
President Brian Lakin 2017
-18

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