“What can I do for you?” I asked my frail, wheelchair-bound 91-year-old mother-in-law. Her appetite had decreased, and she had recently become more lethargic. Perhaps I could get her to eat something? Chopped pieces of apple, her favorite snack?

She turned her wrinkled face towards me and looked me straight in the eye.

“You know what I want,” she said with a sense of finality.

I knew indeed. My mother-in-law had wanted me to find a publisher for the She had the major publishing houses in mindcontent of her five notebooks that she filled with vignettes, quotes and her philosophy on family and faith. Not only that—she had the major publishing houses in mind. The book was to draw in lots of money, and be both of her sons’ inheritances. It would also serve as her personal legacy.

There were several challenges with her idea, not the least of which was that four of her five notebooks were, sadly, lost. I looked through her one remaining notebook, which mostly contained personal quotes about courage, a few lines about memorable experiences traveling and some song lyrics that spoke directly to her. If she wanted a best-selling book, I was afraid this would not be her ticket.

I visited her, sometimes daily, at the independent living facility down the block from us. She often spoke about her bestseller-to-be during those visits. Two summers ago, I walked down the block with a pencil and notebook in hand, and sat next to my mother-in-law’s bed. I listened and then recorded a series of life events. Although she struggled with her Jewish identity, and especially her identity as a Jewish woman, many of her stories had a uniquely Jewish thread.

I recorded the story of her wise father, Ben, from whom the “High Rabbi of Lemenster, Massachusetts”—the town where my mother-in-law was raised—always sought advice. I wrote down how the shul provided her family with a home during the Depression, and how, in turn, her family helped house two other families. I wrote down the story of her becoming a bat mitzvah at age 50, titled: “Now I am a fountain pen,” a reference to the fountain pen that bar mitzvah boys were given as a gift in the early 1940s. I learned more about her love of drumming and being a member of a band of octogenarians who performed in senior centers. Finally, I recorded her experiences learning to fly, and then pilot, a plane—her tribute to her brother, Fred, whose plane was shot down over Germany during World War II. Of all our times together, I grew to know her best through these stories.

Several months after putting together her short book, it became clear that she was no longer safe in her assisted-living facility. She began to lose her balance and became too confused to function with limited help. When we reluctantly moved her into a nursing home, I made sure that I brought a copy of her book of memories, which she had entrusted with me.

When I visited her in her new residence, we often leafed through her picture albums that tracked the course of my mother-in-law’s life and ancestry in hopes of stirring her memory. But in her more lucid moments, when the veil of Alzheimers appeared to part, she returned to the topic of her book. Had I found a publisher yet? I told her that I thought our best bet was sticking with self-publishing. Still, the knowledge that the work was too short to attract one of the top dogs in publishing didn’t deter my mother-in-law from hoping and dreaming. That is, until the next visit, when she seemed to have once again forgotten all about it.

That day several years ago, I heard in her words, “You know what I want,” a great sense of immediacy. Concerned that her book of life might soon come to a close, I leafed carefully through her remaining notebook to find other tributes to those she loved. To self-publish a slightly more impressive-looking book that would make her proud. A woman ahead of her time, she had “listicles” of what made her happy, which I included, along with additional vignettes. While perusing her albums, I found the perfect picture for the front cover: my mother-in-law as a lovely young woman, a subtle smile spreading across her face. I added to her book a small picture of her father, standing proudly next to the truck he used to collect “junk” and then sell it. (Shut out from other careers, it was a business that many Jewish men of that generation began.) Of course, I included a picture of her beloved brother Fred, handsomely dressed in his air-force uniform.

Although the body of the book, like my mother-in-law, still remained almost painfully thin, I was hoping that the additional pages and presentation would please her and perhaps provide some closure.

That last weekend of her life, my mother-in-law slept most of the time, was I assured her that I loved herconfused when she awoke, and refused any drink or food. It was during this visit that I assured her that I loved her and how happy I was to have her in my life. I also whispered to her that I would have a new polished rendition of her book for her shortly. It might have been my imagination, but she did seem to perk up.

That Sunday morning, my husband visited his mom, her book in tow. He showed her the latest edition with its new margins, fancy typefaces and family pictures. He read it aloud from cover to cover. It wasn’t clear whether she heard. As my mother-in-law fell back asleep, my husband whispered “I love you” before carefully placing the new edition on her night table.

The next morning, we received a call that her blood pressure had dropped significantly. Within half an hour, on our way out the door, we received a second call from the nursing director, telling us that she had passed.

Both of us acted as shomers, sitting with the body and reciting Psalms to help with the soul’s passage. My husband stayed until a member of the funeral home arrived. When he returned home that day, her book was among the belongings he had with him. My husband shared that the nurses and aides who took care of my mother-in-law liked her varied life stories so much that they made multiple copies of the book. I took comfort in knowing that my mother-in-law already gained part of what she sought: a small, but deeply admiring, readership.

After preparing our home for visitors, I thought about a fitting tribute for my mother-in-law, who, according to Jewish tradition, would be buried the next day. What better way to talk about her life than to read sections of her book aloud? To tell the story of her soul’s unique journey when she no longer could? Besides, anything personal that touches on the universal—finding one’s identity, coping with loss, and building a life based on those who went before you—is well worth the read. And the production.

I began thinking about the epic stories of the Torah: the stories of our The Jewish people continued to embody that human struggleforefathers’ and foremothers’ victories and defeats, our escape from slavery, our struggles with darkness, and the constant movement through pain and illusion to uncover more light. Even after the nation of Israel was established through Jacob and his 12 sons, the Jewish people continued to embody that very human struggle. Through understanding those struggles—and relating them to our own, year after year—we unearth G‑d’s gifts: to create a life that elevates us (and, in turn, others) a little higher, a little closer to G‑d’s light. Like our ancestors, we continue to do this by standing on the shoulders of those who came before us through understanding their stories and our history. And passing that on to others.

While my husband sat shiva, we continued to pass around my mother-in-law’s book to share her life with others, to help tell her stories. Like those who went before her, my mother-in-law struggled to understand her own life in a larger context—a Jewish context, a humane context. Among the kindnesses we can provide to the departed is to remember those stories, learn from them and pass them along, regardless of whether or not they are best-sellers.