Simon was 19 when he met 15-year-old Maxine. This was the proverbial love at first sight. They married 3 years later. They recently contracted COVID and died hours apart. From the time they got married until the time they were buried, they lived their lives as one. “They lived lives of respect: respect for each other and of others and through that, others respected them”.
By MIRAH LANGER
“This isn’t a COVID-19 story; it’s a love story.” So says Cindy Silberg, the oldest daughter of Simon and Maxine Schneider, reflecting on the profound legacy her parents – who died within hours of each other – have left behind.
“It just shows that they were true soulmates,” says Hayley Kissos, their middle daughter. “They got married under the chuppah as one neshoma (soul); they passed away together as one neshoma. From the time they got married until the time they were buried, they lived their lives as one. “They lived lives of respect: respect for each other, and of others, and through that, others respected them,” says Stacey Barnett, their youngest daughter. “Our parents would just do whatever they could to help others.”
Two weeks ago, Maxine, aged 66, tested positive for COVID-19. A day later, Simon, 71, received the same test result. Maxine was carefully monitored by Hatzolah and as a precaution, since she had an underlying condition, was hospitalised.
A few days later, Simon’s temperature started going up, and again as a precautionary measure, he was admitted. “The doctors weren’t even sure that he really needed to be admitted,” says Kissos. “This was part of Hashem’s greater plan that my father would be with my mother.” When Silberg asked her father if he wanted her to try to make sure that he was placed in the same ward as her mother, their bond was so deep, “he said to me, ‘No, then we are going to worry too much about each other; we both have to get better.”
Both parents remained in a stable condition, without needing to be moved to intensive care (ICU). They were making plans for them to be released last Friday. Instead, last Tuesday night, Maxine phoned Simon in his ward to remind him to watch MasterChef – they shared a love of reality cooking and dance shows. Maxine then climbed into bed and within half an hour, slipped away quietly in her sleep.
Simon was told the news and sat with her body as they waited for the Chevrah Kadisha to arrive. “He spoke to her and said his goodbyes,” says Silberg. “He told us she was so beautiful; she looked like she was dreaming,” says Kissos. Rabbi Mordechai Rodal phoned Simon after hearing the news of Maxine’s death. He recalls that “Simon told me, ‘Rabbi, this is just a temporary separation. We are going to be reunited before you know it … We are both the same soul.”
Seven hours later, Simon, too, slipped away in his sleep. Having first met through a mutual friend when Maxine was 15 and Simon 19, three years later, Simon asked permission to propose to Maxine on her 18th birthday. They wed soon after, and set up home first in Orange Grove and then Sydenham in Johannesburg.
On 10th June, they would have celebrated their 48th wedding anniversary. “They were the salt of the earth,” says Avril Epstein, Maxine’s younger sister. “It was a privilege to have chosen to be her sister. She was the nucleus of our family.”
Justin Farkas, a family friend especially close to Simon, recalls how on the day Simon died, he was still trying to uplift people. “That day, from hospital, he created a WhatsApp group to help a gardener in a complex where he was involved. This is how he was to everyone. Everyone looked up to him as a father figure.”
Maxine worked as a legal cost consultant, mostly half days to be able to be with her daughters in the afternoon. Simon was a part of The Star newspaper team for more than three decades, working until retirement as credit manager. Their house was “a simcha home” (happiness and pleasantry characterize the spirit of a simcha home), reminisces Kissos, describing how it became a venue for endless parties to celebrate various people’s birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and other happy events.
Sometimes, even just on ordinary weekends, “people would arrive at 08:00 on a Sunday for breakfast,” Barnett remembers. They had seven grandchildren ranging in age from three to 20, and “each one believed they were the favourite” the family jokes. Their father made few but strong stipulations for his family. “Growing up, we had to have dinner at the dinner table every night, and then when we left home, my father had two rules,” recalls Kissos. “The first was we weren’t allowed to emigrate. We were to stay here as a family. The second was that we didn’t go to sleep not talking. We always followed through.”
The Schneiders’ deaths are sadly part of the recent rapid increase in cases of the virus. Specialist physician pulmonologist Dr Carron Zinman of Netcare Linksfeld Hospital says that “by every single definition in the book, we are definitely in the third wave”. However, compared to previous waves, “it has a slightly different trajectory, and we don’t really know if it’s going to suddenly shoot up or keep going up more slowly for longer than before”.
Three main trends have emerged in the current wave. First, although previously a person who got the virus might land up infecting maybe one or two others in their family, now entire households are contracting it. What remains unclear is whether this is because the virus itself is more transmissible or people are living in closer proximity to each other than before.
Most cases are being traced back to social gatherings, work functions, or dinner parties. Second, people who are vaccinated, or even both vaccinated and who had the virus before, are assuming that they are immune and then contracting COVID-19. Zinman said people have to remember that even with the vaccine, “there’s a chance that you’ll get COVID-19 very mildly or not even know you have it, and yet still be able to transmit it”.
Lastly, ICU beds are still in desperate demand, with ambulances driving around to eight or nine hospitals to try and find space for their patients. People are also staying in ICU longer during the current wave, making the situation more dire. “Maintaining the proper behaviour to try and prevent transmission of the virus” is the only tool people have to keep safe, say frontline medical expert.
As the Schneider family grapple with the rawness of their loss, they cherish the small details of lives lived so closely together. Whether it was the pair of winter and summer pyjamas the couple brought every grandchild for each season; the endless chocolates Simon offered even just before mealtimes; or Maxine’s need to bake 11 pesadiche ginger cakes in one morning so that nobody would be left out; even their light-hearted bickering about whether the TV was too loud or too soft – all are reflections of the “warmth they radiated”, says Silberg.
She considers how at their funeral “seeing their graves together, I thought at least they have taken the next step together. There is something comforting in that. I told my children they were lucky to have known their grandparents.” I said, “Take those lessons into your life – that’s how you will keep my parents alive.”
‘Couple dies hours apart from COVID-19’ published on the South African Jewish Report Newspaper