Harriet, left, with Marjorie

Harriet Slivka, one of Seivah’s dedicated volunteers, and at 91 years of age, certainly our oldest, died this past week. Harriet had served since the very beginning of our Care Buddy program, which matched people to be friends to people with dementia. 

I had come to know Harriet through the death of her husband Abe, at whose funeral I officiated six years ago. In the course of interviewing Harriet and her children about him, I learned that Harriet had served as a social worker in clinical settings for nearly 40 years, specializing for much of that time on people at the end of life. Two years, later, when I created Seivah and began to gather my first volunteers, Harriet was the first person I called. 

It wasn’t just the fact that she had logged many hours working one-on-one with people in liminal conditions. It had to do as much with the way Harriet carried herself. She measured her words and tolerated silence. She had a sense of equanimity, the ability to be both compassionate and able without sentimentality, to accept loss.

The first person with whom I paired her could not have been more unlike her. In her younger days, “Marjorie” had loved parties, hubbub and fashion. She liked being the center of attention as much as Harriet loved a quiet hour to read a book or practice a sonata on her piano. But Harriet nevertheless listened hard enough to Marjorie’s silences (she was almost completely post verbal at that point) to establish a rapport with her. Here is an excerpt from one of the many process notes Harriet wrote about her visits with Marjorie: 

We were looking at some photos together. Marjorie seemed to stop at figures dancing, so I asked if she likes to dance. She looked up and said, “Yes” very clearly. I asked if she would like to dance. Her clear response was, “I would like to dance.” When saying goodbye, I wished Marjorie a Happy Passover and said I’d be back next week. She blew me a kiss.

There’s so much I love about this little dialogue. To name just one thing, Harriet summons great force of imagination to suggest that Marjorie can still dance, if only in her mind. Ans Marjorie accepts her invitation with an eagerness that almost says: “I’ve been waiting for so long for someone to ask.”

When Marjorie died, Harriet waited a month or two before she called to ask me when I might find a new person for her to visit.

Everyone in our Care Buddies cohort benefitted from the wisdom and the modest, but confident way she offered it. She could have granstanded, but never did. 

Harriet liked to sing, and loved liturgical music. Her and my last interactions always involved music. It was a piece of dumb luck for me that I called her about an hour before the beginning of Shabbat. I didn’t know it at the time, but she would die an hour later. I sang Shalom aleikhem, (“Peace be upon you!”)  in which we greet the Sabbath’s ministering angels, welcome them in (Boakhem leshalom-Come in Peace!), ask them for a blessing (Barchuni beshalom—Bless me in peace!) and bid them farewell (Tzeitkhem leshalom—Go in peace!). 

My teacher Rabbi Shimon Hirschhorn interprets this song as a kind of Everyperson’s biography: we welcome them into the world (Peace be upon you!), we help them find their place in the world (Come in Peace!), we enjoy the blessings which they bring to the world through their good works (Bless me in peace!), and then we say goodbye (Go in peace!). 

Go in peace, Harriet Slivka. you blessed many, with much.