When Judith Kay Westerman was born, on March 24th, 1957, our family was complete.
My mother and father were hoping for a girl. My older sister, Sandra, came into the world prematurely in 1952. In those days, there wasn’t the knowledge we have now about how to nurture those born too soon. Our folks never talked about Sandra much, but I always felt that Judy was the gift that God gave them for enduring both Sandra’s loss and having to contend with me.
My mom would probably admit that, “Judy was the easy one.” She was always smiling and demonstrated early that she had a caring heart and an immense love for others. There’s a photo from the Ann Arbor News with a poster that Judy and mom designed for our local United Way campaign when she was 5 or 6 years old. It shows the two of them, with me photo bombing, holding a sign that said “The United Fund Serves All”. Smiling coffee cups danced below the text. A couple of years later, she would again appear in the news, hosting a valentines day party. Judy learned early to make you feel welcome.
We attended University Elementary School, Eberwhite, Slauson and Ann Arbor Pioneer High School during the height of the 1960s, witnessing the manned space program, the Kennedy/King/Kennedy Assassinations and the seismic cultural changes that were amplified by living in a college town.
Judy was a stellar musician, beginning with piano and following in my dad’s footsteps, playing the flute. She studied at Interlochen and was a member of the Pioneer Symphony Band during the Victor Bordo years.
She was also an excellent student. Where my own interest in learning was uneven, she was focused and got near perfect grades, good enough to be accepted at the University of Michigan and earning a spot on the Dean’s List during her first term there.
It was then that she had her first encounter with depression. The self imposed pressure to perform became too much and she retreated to recover and regroup. It was a frightening time for us. For awhile she seemed to lose the desire to live. We didn’t know nearly as much about clinical depression then and my parents felt that they had failed her.
Relentless resilience has always been a Westerman trait and Judy was able to conquer her depression for over 40 years, earning a her undergraduate degree at Cornell in 1989 and a masters of library science at Michigan in 1982.
Many who knew her were never even aware that it had been a factor in her early life. Her outlook in the interval was always positive. She approached the daily challenges we all face with an assumption that problems could be solved with mutually beneficial results. And she had a zest for life that was infectious.
She started her real world life, living alone in Greenwich Village. She was a fearless New Yorker and world traveler, carving out a rewarding and productive career in publishing. Among her clients was a much younger Stephen King, who rewarded her by naming a character in one of his novels after her. She knew many famous and near famous personalities of the day and my wife, Colleen always loved visiting her in the City for “star gazing”.
As my Nephew noted in her obituary, Judy’s resume in publishing was vast. She was a Publicist for Simon and Schuster, then as a Senior Publicist for Viking Penguin, and finally as the Associate Director of Publicity at Dell Publishing. She left publishing in 1993 to raise her family. In 2006, she returned to her roots as a part-time reference librarian for her beloved Paramus Public Library, where she remained for 14 years.
Her tenacity when on the trail of a goal made her an instant favorite for library patrons who were in search of answers in the days before the Internet and Google.
She taught religious education classes for 17 years at the Ridgewood Unitarian Universalist Society serving on numerous committees and as a member of the Board of Trustees.
Judy had a number of suitors, but found her soulmate in Ed Silver, a young lawyer who shared her fascination with the arts and a desire to change the world for the better. They married in 1991 and settled in Glen Rock New Jersey, where She lived for 25 years.
Ed and Judy welcomed a son, Thomas Scott Silver into the world and traveled to Korea to find their beautiful daughter, Jennie.
Growing up in the Silver household was much like Judy and my own experience as kids. There were dinner table conversations about the issues of the day, an intense interest in what went on in school and an atmosphere where contemplation of politics and life juxtaposed with laughter and silliness.
Judy was on the vanguard of healthful living, a vegetarian before it was commonly cool, a competitive runner for a time and always mindful of doing the things to enjoy a life of both quality and quantity. She attracted a wonderfully diverse group of friends and professional colleagues, the kind that stayed in touch, even when the miles separated you.
She inherited our parents’ social awareness and creativity, always in search of fresh, fun experiences for her kids and open to new ideas and points of view. In conversation, she was a great listener, always distilling the incisive questions that got to the heart of the matter. She was the ideal friend, someone who was always more interested in what was happening with you than in talking about herself.
Her struggle with depression returned in earnest last year, when a serious blood clot required multiple surgeries and a long hospital stay. The damage diminished her quality of life substantially and she began to assess the extent of the value she could add going forward.
She was fully aware of the challenges her brain chemistry posed and fought her health battles valiantly but honestly. At the time, I was beginning a career as a writer. Judy had a lifelong passion for the written word and was instrumental in editing my first book of fiction. Her attention to detail and her ability to see and gently communicate opportunities to flesh out characters and improve plot lines was such that my story consultant offered to share an overload of clients with Judy.
By then, the inconveniences of a body that was beginning to fail her were at the front of Judy’s mind. She worried that her perceived weakening condition might impact Ed’s new job. Having witnessed both of our parents’ final months, she felt strongly that when her quality of life fell below a certain point, she did not want to continue.
It’s hard for those of us who loved her to process this rational point of view. We are programmed to preserve life, sometimes beyond what is reasonable. And in Judy’s case, we held out hope that a follow up procedure might restore some of the freedom and energy that was how she defined the essence of existence.
That operation was scheduled for January 29th. Ed and I were concerned about her mental state. But having been a caregiver for both parents and a beloved sister-in-law during their final months, I also knew the calculus that was going on in Judy’s mind. Like her immediate family, I hoped that she would go through with the operation and assess things afterwards.
But Judy always did things her own way. I don’t know what tipped the scales toward action, but guess it might have been the news that her liver had sustained potentially serious damage. The thought of enduring a transplant may have been what finally motivated her to discard her body.
That was what she did on January 22, 2020 when she sent her caregiver on an errand. She knew the New Jersey Transit schedules well and drove to a local rail crossing, stepping from this life into eternity at 10:30 that morning.
Her loss is devastating to all who knew and loved her. Beyond that, the feeling that Ed and I shared when he called me with the news was frustration. If we were her, we would have rolled the dice on that one last operation.
And yet, I deeply admired her desire to live a life of quality and service to others, to be a contributor and not a burden. While I mourn her loss, I respect her decision.
While depression was a factor in Judy’s life. She never let it define who she was.
My brother-in-law describes it best.
“I met Judy in 1987 and although she shared with me that she had a serious bout of depression in college (about 1979 or 1980), it was a non-issue completely (no meds, no treatment, no depression) for well over 25 years. A few years ago, Judy suffered headaches and one doctor prescribed cortisone, which apparently induced depression. That depression was very, very bad – but she did recover, and we regained our lives. Then, the recent horror with the blood clots and the complications that followed – induced a new round of depression. At this time, the depression was extremely severe at times, life ruining – in many ways, even more serious and awful than her physical condition. On top of this, we recently learned that Judy’s liver had been damaged, probably by the TPN nutrition, which does carry that risk.
“I don’t care for the characterization of a spouse as ‘my better half.’ But for me, there’s a lot of truth in that, in that my existence has over the years become so intertwined with Judy – to my benefit – with nearly every aspect of my day being enriched and reliant on Judy. She and our children were the best part of my life. Saying that I miss her is not enough – I lack the art and the means to convey this loss.”
I’m sure many of us who knew and loved her are feeling exactly the same way.
Judy Westerman Silver gave the world 62 years. She was a reassuring, positive force of nature. She touched many people who are better for having crossed her path. She was a wonderful mother who navigated the complexities of parenthood with compassion and tenacity. She bore her burdens with stoicism and authenticity. And she completed her journey on her own terms.
That to me is the definition of superlative success. We weep because we won’t get to hear her voice, see her smile or benefit from her wisdom. But we feel gratitude because we had the singular blessing of knowing her. We carry what she taught us as part of the best persons we endeavor to be.
Her impact will ripple through the generations, ultimately as ethics and personality traits that will live on, even as all of our names and faces fade from memory.
And that’s the definition of immortality.
Godspeed, Judy. If there is a Heaven, put in a good word for those of us who continue to try to emulate the amazing life you lead.
Memorial contributions can be made to the Glen Rock Public Library (Judy Westerman Memorial Fund)