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My Turn: My mother shared her last chapter with Michelle Obama

Bunny North in January 2019, about two weeks

Bunny North in January 2019, about two weeks before she died. Credit: Steve North

During the final weeks of my mother’s life, as she declined from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and cancer, Michelle Obama kept her company.

Obama wasn’t physically in my mother’s apartment, but her voice filled the living room or bedroom whenever my mom asked her Alexa to play another audio chapter of “Becoming,” which publisher, Penguin Random House, says is on its way to becoming the best-selling memoir of all time.

Obama’s tome was the last book ever read by my mother, Bunny North, after a lifetime of page-turning. Born Brunhilde Bachenheimer in Germany in 1929, she and her family escaped the Nazis in the 1930s, packing dozens and dozens of books into the one trunk they were allowed to take with them.  

As a child, she enjoyed (and related to) “The Katzenjammer Kids,” a popular comic strip of the time, but her tastes in literature matured over the years. There was never a moment the nightstand beside her bed was not occupied by everything from serious historical works of nonfiction to romantic novels to gossipy celebrity biographies, with various colorful old-fashioned bookmarks indicating her progress. She simultaneously belonged to book clubs in Great Neck, where she lived for more than three decades, and in Flushing, Queens, where she maintained friends from her previous home.

Some months ago, Bunny’s ALS worsened, and she could no longer hold a book in her weakening hands.  With her mind still clear as a bell and her frustration palpable, her grandson installed two Alexa devices and asked which audiobook she would like to hear. As someone who had long-admired the Obamas, my mother had one request: “Becoming.”

The first days were rocky; my mom insisted on treating her new virtual assistant with respect, saying, “Alexa, please continue reading the Michelle Obama book for me,” and “Alexa, I think that’s enough for today, thank you very much.”  We explained that Alexa had no expectations of politeness, that “Alexa, read my book” and “Alexa, stop” would be more than sufficient. Bunny quickly caught on.

During the few hours that none of us were in her apartment, and after her health care aide’s shift ended, Bunny would sit alone on the couch or in her wheelchair and listen to Michelle’s warm voice and wise words relating her remarkable life’s journey. She would listen to a chapter or two each day, then discuss what she’d heard with my sister and brother-in-law, my niece and nephew, and me.  

Bunny got through 18 or 19 of the autobiography’s 24 chapters before her own voice became too soft to command Alexa. She died peacefully in January surrounded by her family and her books.

Several weeks later, I was watching the Grammy Awards on TV, and the second I saw Michelle Obama’s surprise appearance, I felt a need to thank the former first lady for the joy she had provided my mom during the final chapter of her nine-decade life.

I dashed off an email, telling her of Bunny’s love of literature, describing how my nephew set up the Alexa devices and expressing my gratitude for the captivating, touching and uplifting nature of the last book my mother ever read. I also included a link to Newsday’s obituary about Bunny that spoke of her status as a beloved and inspirational figure in her family, her community and among her colleagues.  

The next month, having forgotten that I’d sent the note, I was astonished to receive an email from Obama’s assistant, asking for my home address. Soon, an envelope from “The Office of Barack and Michelle Obama” arrived, complete with a gold-embossed U.S. seal.

Dear Steve:
I wanted to thank you for sharing a little bit about your sweet mother with me. She sounded like a wonderful woman with an incredible spirit, and she must have been so very proud of you, your sister, and your nephew. While the grieving process is a long and winding road, I hope you are already finding some peace in knowing that her legacy, her resilience, and her love live on in all you do.
Barack and I will keep you and your family in our thoughts and prayers.
Michelle Obama

The letter serves as a perfect addendum to my mom’s Book of Life. I only wish she could have read it as well.

Steve North,
Roslyn Heights

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