Love, Family, and Life
The remarkable story of the late Bernice Cublinsky and a reunion more than 70 years in the making.
“Love (and family) has power in it. At the end, it wins over all miseries.” — Debasish Mridha
When we first met Bernice, it was five years ago in the Spring of 2013 and she had just been enrolled into receiving home- and community-based support services with us. For the next five years, Bernice would be supported by some of the finest staff members who worked closely with her as she navigated her adult life. The relationships that developed between Bernice and her staff personnel during this time were of great significance; when it was time for some of the staff members to move on to other things in their personal lives, they did so knowing that they would always keep in touch and/or be back to visit Bernice. And that they did. Even those who worked with her more than 20 years ago have kept the line of communication open for conversation and support when necessary.
For Bernice, a high-spirited eighty-six year old woman at the time we met her, filled with vigor and a charming personality that immediately captivates a room, it has been quite the rollercoaster journey for a great portion of her life. Yet this isn’t immediately revealed upon spending time with her, perhaps because she has learned to manage the pain and trauma with her infectious humor and personality. Bernice was born to Sadie and Abraham Cublinsky on the Lower East Side of New York in 1927. She was one of five children—two boys and three girls—who lived a relatively typical childhood before experiencing a single event during her teenage years that would change her life and family as she knew it forever. In July 1945, Bernice’s mother died of cancer leaving her father to care for her and her four siblings. Unprepared to raise five children on his own and reluctant to assume the responsibility of fatherhood in the absence of his wife, Bernice’s father gave his children up for adoption. Since then, nothing has been the same for the Cublisnky family unit.
Bernice ended up being separated from the rest of her siblings: her older brother Victor was sent to a state school before joining the New York State Guard; her youngest sisters Millie and Betty remained together in foster homes before being adopted by the same family; and her eldest brother Ira wound up in the Willowbrook State School, one of the biggest state-run institutions for people with mental disabilities. Bernice, too, would wind up in the Willowbrook State School (no sign of how long she spent there) before its forced closure, brought on by the signing of the Willowbrook Consent Decree in 1975 which committed New York State to improve community placement and conditions for thousands of people with disabilities.
By the time we met Bernice for the first time, she was already living comfortably in her own colorful and very well decorated apartment, with personal prized items echoing back to the mid-century. Every now and then, she often recalled moments from her time at the Willowbrook State School where she mentioned she had very little control or say over common, everyday routines (i.e. taking a shower, going for a walk, etc). To her staff and those who developed a unique relationship with her over time, she often revealed more intricate details about what she had to endure, alone and away from her family.
In the Spring of 2017, Stefanie Cacciotti, one of our Community Habilitation Managers, began a spontaneous and intensive research into her own family’s history. After several hours of browsing, what she found was nothing short of groundbreaking, but the discovery was not about her family. Stefanie had discovered an article written in the Sun Sentinel in August 2000 about two siblings who managed to reunite after an astounding 45 years of separation. Those siblings were Betty and Victor Cublinski—now confirmed as Bernice’s very own brother and sister. At the time, Stefanie was working closely with a number of people receiving supports, however, she was familiar enough with Bernice’s story to want to look for further proof that the siblings in the article were, in fact, related to Bernice. She would quickly put her own personal research on hold in an attempt to find any information that would confirm legitimacy and potentially open up a dialogue. After some digging, she came across Betty’s address, and with the permission to reach out granted by Bernice, Stefanie made the first contact by mailing out an introductory letter. A few days would pass before Betty would respond to the letter and get to speak to Bernice for the first time in decades. It was clear that the separation from her loved ones had weighed heavily on Bernice for so many years. “I have always felt like I was alone in this world with no family, and now I have my sister,” she shared as tears rolled down her face moments after hearing her sister’s voice over the phone. A few months later, in June 2017, after several conversations and scheduled arrangements, Bernice would get to meet both of her long lost sisters Betty and Millie (along with their families) for the first time in over 70 years. Needless to say it was a moment ripe with an endless outpour of emotion.
“That day was, by far, one of my best days at PCCS. To be able to reunite siblings who didn’t think they would ever see each other again, and to help someone actualize a dream that they thought was impossible—that is why we do the work we do”, says Stefanie.
In the months that followed, long after Betty, Millie and their families returned to their homes in Florida, Bernice continued to keep in touch with her sisters, communicating and reawakening memories years old in an attempt to get further reacquainted, just like Betty and their brother Victor must have experienced nearly eighteen years ago when they reunited. While Bernice was without her family for most of her life, over the years she gained a support system and a family in the people who had the privilege of knowing her personally or working directly with her. Strangers quickly became friends and people who supported her became reliable companions who were as concerned about her well-being as they were with the well-being of those in their very own family.
A few months ago, in February 2018, a neighbor found Bernice laying on the floor of the hallway leading to her apartment. She had collapsed and was later admitted into a local hospital where she was diagnosed, shockingly, with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. For a few weeks, she received ongoing treatment and remained very optimistic about getting well; redecorating her home was one of he things she had been anticipating as soon as she was able to get back on her feet. Unfortunately, on March 18, 2018, less than a month later, Bernice quietly passed away.
We could not be more grateful to Bernice to have chosen us to be her support and family unit when she needed it. And we couldn’t possibly be luckier to have been able to bring such happiness and a sense of relief to her life by reuniting her (at 89 years old) with her long lost sisters. That, in itself, is a testament to the power of love and family and what is possible when a community of people are committed to supporting one another.
This Willowbrook Consent Decree Day, we are reminded of the work that began over 40 years ago to improve community placement and inclusion for people with disabilities. That work continues today and remains important now more than ever as people with disabilities face more and more barriers across the communities they live in and interact with on a daily basis.
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In memory of Bernice Cublinsky. [1927 – 2018].