Waldlaw Blog

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Remembering Alex Hoffmann (7/31/28-10/29/09)

My uncle, Alexander P. Hoffmann -- aka Sascha -- died last Thursday, October 29 at 6:45 pm. I was at his side when he took his final breaths, murmuring words of comfort and encouragement. Death is a strange thing, if for nothing else than for its utter permanence. It is hard to get used to the idea that you will never again see someone who has always been there. The last few months were hard. Sascha (the name he was known by in the family) had long lived alone. He was quite independent of us, his family, and I often went weeks -- or even occasionally months -- without talking to him. Even though he lived in Oakland and I am right across the Bay in San Francisco, we rarely saw each other except for holidays and special occasions. And yet he was a constant, loving presence in the background of my life. Someone who could always be counted on to show up for my sons' birthdays, gift in hand. Someone who was always interested in what I was doing, when I took the time out of my busy life to sit and visit with him. Sascha was profoundly shaped by his experiences as a child growing up in Austria, watching first hand as his country descended into fascism. His father was a socialist -- I remember my mother telling me that when Hitler invaded Austria, her family had to burn their Socialist library in the furnace. Although he and his family escaped Austria when he was only ten years old, the intensely politicized experiences of his childhood left him with a strong sense of justice and a passion for progressive politics that lasted his lifetime. Sascha and I had the law in common, and our shared commitment to using the law to promote social change. Although he stopped practicing law when I was just a child, he was proud of his legal career and kept his Bar membership active for many, many years after he stopped appearing in court. And it is clear, from the people who remained his friends and admirers, that he made a difference with his legal endeavors. Example: when I was a child, growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cesar Chavez came to speak. My parents and I went to hear him, and after his speech my mother and I went up to meet him. My mother approached Cesar Chavez and said: "I am Alex Hoffmann's sister." Cesar's response was to throw his arms around my mother, and to effusively express his appreciation and affection for my uncle -- something that made a lasting impression on me, and has since made an impression on my children who only knew Sascha as a sweet and loving great-uncle. Example: when I was in high school, my best friend and I decided to spend a summer in the Bay Area. We stayed with friends in Berkeley, and spent many a happy day hanging out with Sascha and his longtime companion, Elsa Knight Thompson, at the home they shared. Sascha's birthday being in late July, we were around for Sascha's birthday party. This was many years after Sascha had stopped practicing law, during a period when he was wrestling with depression, and this was just a regular birthday party -- not a 50th or 60th or other noteworthy occasion -- and yet the guests included such notables as Huey P. Newton of Black Panther Party fame. Again, to see the continued love and loyalty of important clients-turned-friends made a lasting impression on me. In his final few months of life, Sascha became increasingly debilitated and disoriented. We -- my brother and my partner and I -- moved him into a retirement community in the Grand Lake neighborhood of Oakland in May, hoping that he could continue to live independently for several more years in that environment, with healthy daily meals available in the community dining room and help available for medication management and other necessary supports. Unfortunately, his decline continued at a rapid pace, with frequent hospitalizations to address chronic crippling pain in his back and legs, dangerously low blood pressure, and increasing confusion. What had been a loving but casual relationship morphed into a daily involvement in each other's lives, with me trying to provide both stability and comfort with the little time and energy I could muster from an already-busy life. Finally, on Friday, October 9, he was transported to Alta Bates emergency for the last time, seriously dehydrated, extremely disoriented, with frighteningly low blood pressure and blood oxygen levels. Although initial tests failed to show anything seriously wrong with him, he continued to decline both mentally and physically, and began to believe he was being held against his will by people posing as doctors and nurses. Each blood test, each check of his vitals, was viewed by him as an attack, and the hospital was left with no choice but to put him in physical restraints to protect their nurses from his violent efforts to protect himself from their ministrations. As it became clear that something was, in fact, seriously wrong with him -- and as it became equally clear that he was experiencing the hospital's efforts to care for him as torture -- my family and I made the decision to offer him comfort and safety rather than attempting to reach a diagnosis and decide on a treatment plan. We had the restraints removed and, after he had pulled out his IV several times (which, by then, was only being used to keep him hydrated and administer pain medications), had the IV removed as well. I moved him to Piedmont Gardens, where they could administer "comfort care" in a kinder and more familiar setting. I sat with him for hours every day, simply talking quietly to him and offering whatever comfort I could, assisted greatly by my brother and my mother for the days they were able to join us in the Bay Area. I watched him die slowly, day by day, inch by inch, for two long weeks, until he finally was ready to leave this world. The thing that amazed me in my uncle's final days was the continued devotion of a small group of friends who were present every day -- whether in person, or by phone, or by emails to me to get daily updates. It became so clear to me as I sat bedside with Sascha that he was extraordinarily well loved. I am deeply grateful to the beloved friends who formed a circle around Sascha in his final days, when his deep disorientation and frequent paranoia made the companionship of trusted friends and family so essential. Sascha was a complex man, but at core he was profoundly kind and loving, with a keen mind and a terrific sense of humor. Through his friends, I have come to know him much better than I ever did as his niece. As I move back into the rhythms of my own life -- work, family, friends of my own -- I am increasingly grateful for having had the opportunity to share Sascha's final moments with him and his inspiring community of friends. He will be deeply missed.


  • Wonderful tribute. My heart hurts for your loss... Hugs.


    By Blogger Richmond, at 11:46 AM  

  • Very beautiful Debbie. I happened across it—what a lovely tribute-I love the examples, and all the rest. Lincoln

    By Blogger Langston Blues, at 9:13 PM  

  • Thank for you sharing for your sentimentsand thoughts. Much appreciated.

    By Blogger Bill Singer, at 6:27 AM  

  • Thank you so much, Deborah, not only for this beautiful tribute but for your loving care. I knew SAscha for as long as I can remember - he gave me a bottle of champagne for my 13th birthday and my first blues record (Big Bill Broonzy) the year after that. He appeared with champagne narly every Christmas eve at my house for many years. He showed up for me many times, I loved him very much, and while I'm glad he's free from the terrible phsical and mental pain he was in at the end, I miss him very much. Please let me know of plans for a memorial. With love, Ruhama Veltfort

    By Blogger Ruhama, at 11:10 PM  

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