The year 2013 was a seminal one for my family. Our only child had her bat mitzvah in the spring. My husband, Joel, turned 50 years old in the summer. And I became a widow at the start of winter.
Joel had been given a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis four years earlier, when our daughter was in third grade. He did what he could to manage the disease, fighting it at first, then accepting it. M.S. is considered a quality-of-life disease — it has no cure but people rarely die from it. Still, it was listed as one of four causes of death on his death certificate.
My husband died four days after I turned 46. Other than our daughter, my husband’s last birthday gift to me is the only thing I would grab if the house was burning down.
For better or worse, I am a fan of Bravo TV’s “Real Housewives” franchise. Not every city can claim me, but I’m devoted to the shows set in Beverly Hills, New Jersey and New York City, and have been for years. The mindlessness of it all provides a reprieve from the complications of daily life. At least that’s my excuse, one that my husband understood.
It’s because of my loyalty to the franchise and Bravo TV itself that I wanted a “Mazel” sweatshirt for my birthday. “Mazel” is a Yiddish word meaning “luck” or “congratulations” — it’s a very positive word. Andy Cohen, who hosts the late night talk show “Watch What Happens Live,” uses the word often — and Bravo sells clothes and other products printed with the word “Mazel.” They were kind of a big deal for those of us “in-the-know” watchers of Bravo TV.
Joel preferred to watch his beloved Dodgers or listen to his vast and eclectic music collection than watch reality TV, but he tolerated my love of these shows because he knew they made me happy.
With my birthday nearly a month away, I slipped a note under his home-office door with a coupon for the Bravo website. I drew a heart around the picture of what I wanted. It was a week before he went into the hospital, something neither of us saw coming.
At the time, a nurse was coming over every day to administer IV steroids that were meant to stave off the symptoms of M.S. that had plagued Joel for months. His walking was labored. He suffered from brain fog. We both feared that difficulties with everyday tasks would soon compromise his dignity.
The heavy-duty steroids were supposed to make him better, but they also lowered his already fragile immune system. As a result, he could not leave the house for two weeks. He worked when he could, rested a lot, sometimes in our backyard, and was happy to be at home every day when our daughter returned from school. But even on home lockdown, he somehow got sick with a high fever that lasted for days.
I took him to the emergency room on a Saturday morning. I thought he would be home and back at work by Wednesday. I thought the fever was a mild flu or a reaction to the steroids or his new M.S. meds. But the fever wouldn’t come down. Joel slipped into a coma. It would be three weeks before we discovered that a mosquito had bitten him and that it was carrying the West Nile virus, which turned out to be another one of his causes of death.
Before this diagnosis, however, he was simply in a coma. The doctors — geniuses and specialists, all of them — were stumped. I was already fluent in M.S., but quickly learned a new language: lumbar puncture, plasma exchange, virus panels … I had him moved from what I never before considered a “community” hospital (a go-to medical center for everything from childbirth to cancer treatment and everything in between), to a teaching hospital closer to his M.S. doctors.
One afternoon, I came home from my vigil by the side of my nonresponsive, noncommunicative husband — more of my unwanted education in that new language. I was spent, scared and anxious.
But there on the front steps was a package. It had the Bravo TV logo on it. A part of me considered waiting to open it so that Joel could give it to me himself. My birthday was only a few days away. He obviously had ordered my gift before he fell ill. My heart pounded as I unwrapped the package. I unfolded the sweatshirt and sobbed into the soft navy blue cotton with the cheery turquoise writing.
I wanted the “Mazel” to be a sign of good luck, but I suspected that the timing of it all was a sign of something different to come. It turns out that the word “mazel” also has another meaning: according to Jewish mystics, only a ray of the soul is in the body. The rest, the mazel, remains above, shining down on us. I learned this only later, but it seems that Joel may be my mazel.
I wore the sweatshirt to the hospital to show Joel the next day. He lay there, handsome, even in a coma, and still. His beard was fuller than it had been weeks earlier when he was admitted. His dark hair was slightly longer. Picturing him now, I can almost forget the tubes coming out of his nose and taped down around his mouth. The ones in his arms and hands, the soft whirring sound of machines that were keeping him stable and alive.
I maneuvered around the plastic to get closer to my husband. I thanked him and kissed him. I told him his gift had arrived and how perfect it was. I wanted him to know how much I loved it, and how I appreciated that even when he was not feeling well, he put me first. My husband loved me, I knew it then, and I know it still.
I love this sweatshirt and the story of how I got it. I love that our daughter knows, too. It’s been over four years since Joel died and his gift arrived. But when I wear it, it still feels like love.
Melissa Gould, a screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles with her teenage daughter, is working on a memoir.