October 02, 2006
This morning, we read these words from the Torah: “I set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life,” says God on this holiest day of the year. Yet surely some choices are made for us. Sometimes choosing life can be one of the most difficult commandments to fulfill.
When my mother was in a nursing home not far from where we live, we had to make a decision about signing a DNR form. On the face of it, it seemed to be a relatively easy decision. My mother had gone back and forth from the nursing home to Abington Hospital on several occasions with shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and ashen features, and we never knew if she would leave the hospital alive, and every time she did. Advances in medical technology gave her more years than she would have enjoyed in preceding decades, but that did not mean that her quality of life was good. She was confined to her bed and was thoroughly dependent on nurses to respond to her most basic needs. Many of you have, or had, loved ones in similar situations, and so you know the feeling of powerlessness that engulfs people who live out their years in nursing homes, as well as those who love them. Whether my mother was fed, bathed, changed or responded to in a timely manner depended entirely on whether a nurse was available. Some nurses arrived in the rooms of their charges with an attitude that suggested they had been summoned for no reason at all, leaving those in their care feeling embarrassed, angry or at a complete loss for words. One or two were so unfailingly kind and pleasant that I kept looking for their wings, convinced they were angels in human form.
I wanted my mother to live a long life, but I did not want her to live the remaining years of her life so thoroughly dependent on others. “Choose life” indeed, but hers was a life lived on terms dictated by an astonishing level of apathy and brusqueness displayed by those ostensibly there to care for her. Of course, the choice was not mine, it was hers, and she concurred with the need for a DNR directive. When she told me her decision, I was startled by the emotions our discussion generated – now the issue was intensely personal, no longer theoretical – and I ended up feeling relieved and distressed. It stirred up profound fears and hopes: the fear that she would linger, and the hope that she would live…or was it the fear that she would live in an even more debilitated and distressed state, or the hope that when death arrived it would do so swiftly, sparing her pain, yet not so swiftly as to prevent us from saying goodbye? I swung back and forth between those two emotional extremes like a pendulum: one day here, the next day there, back and forth without cessation.
Then on November 20th, 2002, I received a call from the Administrator of the nursing home. “I have been trying to reach you,” she said. It is at such moments that time feels suspended. You prepare yourself for the worst, though in the past she had called to simply ask if I would come by and speak to the residents during Passover. This time the administrator went on to say, “Will you be coming in to fill out the death notice?” That is how I found out that my mother had died. It turned out that Susan had been at the nursing home an hour earlier to answer some questions about Mom’s social security benefits and while there learned that my mother had died. She tried to contact me but was unable to do so, and so she drove around to where she thought I might be, and finally came home hoping I might be there. I was just hanging up the phone from learning about my mother’s death when Susan walked into my Study, and she instantly knew by the stunned look on my face what I had just been told.
I had last seen my mother two days prior to her death. I am sure that we chatted about her grandsons, for they were always the sunshine of her life in a room of bland colors. Had I known the end was so near, would our conversation have been different? I think we would have spoken about my father – she frequently mentioned how much she missed him – and I certainly would have expressed my love for her, but I know that she knew it and felt it as well. I think about the times that we spent together, and I am fortified by memories of her love for life, for people, for our People. I will always remember that she carried herself with tremendous dignity. She had sparkling eyes and a warm smile, and in her last few years I recall not so much what we said to each other in her room shared with another elderly woman – actually by several women who preceded my mother in death – as much as the simple pleasure of being together, even in that place where the smell of disinfectant assaulted one’s senses, and cries for attention went largely unattended. Even there, my mother and I tried to carve out from the stone of administrative indifference and health care inattention some happiness for ourselves.
Our tradition teaches that visiting the sick removes 1/60th of his or her illness. This does not suggest that if sixty people visit a patient, he or she will be cured. It simply means that we do what we can, and what we do matters. We know that healing comes not only from the skill of the physician but also through the love of those who pray for the ill and visit them as well. The gift of healing flows from love. We know that not everyone we love will be healed, but those in need of healing must know they are loved. That alone may not lift them out of their beds, but it will lift their spirits.
Those of us who feel the awesome weight of loss also need to be healed. Yit’gadal v’yit’kah’dahsh: at this time in particular, at this time of Yizkor, the memories of our loved ones flow over us like blessings. We miss them terribly. We yearn for but one more day with them, even one more hour!
It is customary in our tradition for a father to say to his child, “You are my kaddish.” It is the acknowledgement that the child recites kaddish for his or her parent at the time of yizkor and yahrzeit. The child bears witness to the parent’s life. The names of our loved ones fill the chambers of our hearts. As the years pass, the list expands from grandparents to parents, and in time includes siblings, mates and friends. In this service, each breath we take is heavy with the burden of memory, and yet lightened through the blessing of love. We remember. When we remember our loved ones, we take into account the totality of their humanity: their strengths, their flaws, and above all else, their love, the lessons they taught, and the times that we were together. Those are indelible memories.
Since we are their kaddish, we have but to say to someone who did not have the pleasure of knowing them, “Look at me and how I live my life, and you will know something about my father, my mother…my husband, my wife…my brother, my sister…my son or my daughter…my friend.”
We honor their lives by how we live ours. We are their kaddish. They will forever be, for us, a blessing.
Rabbi Elliot J. Holin