I am afraid I have to share some very sad news with you. Some of you have already heard about this, but I kept you on my list to share more details about my mother, and about what happened to her.
On Sunday morning, December 5, at about 1 in the morning, my mother, Jessie Cagan, died in her sleep in her apartment in New York City. My sister Leslie was present in the apartment.
You may know that for several years Jessie had suffered the consequences of, among other things, her many years of being a heavy smoker. Incipient emphysema and a tumor in her lung had powerful effects on her, and over the last few years she became increasingly weak. She also suffered from arthritis, so her mobility was also restricted because of this. But probably the worst thing for us to see was that in the last year or more she began to lose her appetite and to eat less and less, recently struggling to maintain her weight above 90 pounds.
In the last six or eight weeks her decline was more pronounced, and it really became very rapid in the last two weeks. She was very weak, had a great deal of trouble breathing, despite having oxygen through a nasal canulla (her pulmonologist said last Monday that because of her lack of eating even the muscles in her chest were not strong enough for her to breathe well. Then last Thursday her primary physician, whom she loved and trusted, told her that it was time to recognize that she was nearing the end of her life, and recommended hospice care. There was probably no one else who could have said this so clearly and so effectively to her.
She was already being seen regularly by Visiting Nurse Assoc., so the transition to hospice was smooth—but it only lasted two days. Saturday night she was very sick, had a great deal of trouble breathing or relaxing. My sister Leslie stayed with her that night, and in the middle of the night called the nurses three times for advice—they prescribed meds from the “comfort pack” they had left in the refrigerator. Jessie was able to relax and went to sleep, and died peacefully soon after.
In truth, I think this was the best outcome we could have hoped for under the conditions—had she lived longer, she simply would have suffered (there was no chance she was going to improve in any substantial way), and might have had to face what was for her the ultimate horror for her of a nursing home or being on a respirator in a hospital—even as Leslie was calling the nurses for help Saturday night, Jessie said, “I’m not going to the hospital!”. And for us, her decline was long enough that I think we had come to accept that Jessie was going to die soon—though of course “soon” covers a lot of territory, and we were still hoping to celebrate her birthday with her. All this doesn’t make it less sad, but I think it does make it less terrible.
And of course, we know that Jessie had a long, rich and full life—she died exactly one week before her 90th birthday.
I’m sorry to have to share such sad news, but I think it’s also important to reflect for a moment on Jessie’s long life of social activism and of sharing and love for her family and friends. Over the years, from her youth until the very end, Jessie was actively engaged in the struggles for social justice, for peace, for racial, gender and class equality. She marched, wrote letters, organized and participated in groups, volunteered for organizations against nuclear weapons, for labor rights, women’s rights, the rights of GLBT people, in international solidarity. She opposed war, repression, homophobia, sexism, racism, imperialism, and she put her beliefs into practice in her life. In her last days, as she clearly knew she was dying, she was upset about not being able to go on telling young people about the importance of continuing organizing efforts.
Jessie was devoted to her family and friends—her apartment was filled to overflowing with the products of our work, and with dozens of photographs of all of us. More than a few of the people who are receiving this message have slept on the couch or on a mattress on the floor of her small apartment—small as it may be, it received so many visitors who always felt welcome, and felt in their own experience the reality of the Cuban expression—“where four people fit, five people fit!” It sounds like a terrible cliché, but it is certainly true that she leaves an extraordinarily large circle of friends and admirers on three continents.
We are starting to plan a memorial event for Jessie—we expect the event to be on Saturday, January 29, in New York. We will get the details and any changes out to you as soon as we have them. We are collecting memories, pictures and so on for a memorial book about Jessie for that event. Contributions can be sent to Shauna: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you all for the friendship, love and support you have extended to Jessie during her life, and for your expressions of support to us in these days. It has been very important to all of us—her three children (my sisters Leslie and Karen and me), her grandchildren Joanna and Shauna and Ray, and her and our dear friend Kathy Goldman. Thank you so much!