In Memoriam: Dorothy Brilliant, 1932-2018

Courtesy Photo

My wife, Dorothy, is gone. But she had been going for a long time. She died peacefully, in her sleep, on May 24. Her condition had been diagnosed as an advanced case of Parkinson’s, and in the last months she was unable to do anything for herself. Although not demented, and not appearing to be suffering, she couldn’t speak or write or stand, and could barely move her hands. She had chosen to remain at home, but fortunately, there were some wonderful caregivers, who were with her for 12 hours every day. The other 12 she was in bed, and I was there in the house — but she never once needed me. I read to her twice a day, and prepared her pills and some of her food, but otherwise had little responsibility.

Dorothy was 86, and many of the people who knew her well, before these last sad years, are now themselves gone. But we were together for 51 years, and of course I can tell you what a vibrant, spirited personality she was. I have often written about her, but since there won’t be any funeral or other formal memorial, there is just one piece I would like to share with you as my own tribute to her memory. It is a letter I originally sent to my email friends in 2003. It’s not very long, and I hope you can read the whole thing. Here it is:

Monday, October 27, 2003

Dorothy and I recently returned from a British Museum tour of eastern Turkey. If you like long bus rides, punctuated by opportunities to clamber about the ruins of old churches, castles, and other edifices, this would definitely have been for you. I myself was there mainly to accompany my remarkable wife, who had actually done the same tour less than two years previously and liked it so much that she wanted to share it with me. To her, however, one of the high points of the whole trip had nothing to do with old ruins. It was an unscheduled visit to a research institute in the city of Van, which is on a large lake of the same name.

The institute (part of the local university), which Dorothy had discovered almost by accident on her previous visit, is devoted to the study of a certain kind of cat, called the Van Cat, which apparently originated in that region and is still celebrated as a local symbol, but has now become popular among cat fanciers all over the world. Two odd features of Van Cats are that they tend to have one eye blue and one amber, and that they are supposed to enjoy swimming and playing with water.

The institute building was closed, so we didn’t meet any of the staff — but we did meet about a hundred of the cats, who were in attached chain-link enclosures. They were all white. Dorothy wasn’t able to pet any of them, as she would have loved to do — but at least she could stroke them a little with her fingers through the fencing and coo to them in the special language she reserves for cats. And she seemed to feel that this alone had been worth hiring the car and driver and guide to bring us here — even worth taking the whole two-week tour a second time.

I have been observing this woman for some 37 years, in my own personal research institute. To me, she is a true wonder, a phenomenon of nature, especially in her boundless capacity to be enthusiastic. This applies not only to her love of travel and of cats, but to all her other numerous passions. These include her absorption in big national or international events (she made a special trip to Hong Kong just to be there when it was handed over to China); her devotion to figure skating; her interests in geology, archaeology, space exploration, plants and gardening, plumbing; her love of shopping, banking (even doing income taxes!); her interest in celebrities; her joy in any kind of social activity; and her almost mystical adoration of breakfast. But I’m not even scraping the surface. She always needs to have some older person to be taking care of, some good cause to help, some civic activity to be busily involved in. With all this, you might think she is in a constant flurry — but no, she is equally passionate about relaxing.

It is truly a privilege (though sometimes bewildering, and often exhausting) to be able to share any part of my life with such a creature. She will be 72 on December 8. (And I will turn 70 the following day). The thing she most hates to hear me say is, “What does it matter?” — because, to her, everything matters!


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