Thursday, January 03, 2002

At Home With Hope

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

There is an old Yiddish aphorism. It goes something like this: "Man plans, and God laughs."

We had such wonderful plans, this past summer. Such a sense that we were doing the right thing, that is would be great for our kids, to leave behind the frozen chosen (the Jews of the snow belt) in Buffalo and Erie, to move to Washington, which means, for me, after 22 years away, to "come home." With excitement and enthusiasm I accepted a position as the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom, in Chevy Chase, Maryland... not fifteen minutes from the home in which I grew up, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Not fifteen minutes from where my parents still live.

How blessed we were, to be able to be with family. How wonderful it would be, how great to have our children grow up near one set of grandparents.

And I'll be honest. I was really looking forward to my mother watching our children.

I never thought it would be the other way around.

Well, let me correct that. I guess I did know that the time would come, that it comes to all children, that the task of watching their parents falls onto their adult shoulders. But not this soon.

Three days before Yom Kippur, a month and a half after we moved to be with her, two months after her only granddaughter was born, my mother suffered a serious stroke.

Ironies abound. She was in the hospital at the time, for pneumonia, but it was overnight. And she was cured. And set to go home the next morning. So no one noticed. And we missed a window, to give her a new clot-busting drug.

She is the youngest of my children's four grandparents. And she was so very, very happy at the prospect of having those grandchildren close by.

We were told that she would never speak again. By now, in a nursing home and three months after the event, she has counted to fourteen, answered "yes" and "no" from time to time, sung along with "Happy Birthday," and managed to convey "I love you" to my brother and sister-in-law. She has held her granddaughter in her left arm. And we just don't know -- no one does -- how much she will recover. Or what the future holds.

Medicine is an art. It is not a science.

I hate doctors. I love doctors. I want to shoot the messenger.

A few reflections, if you will, of lessons learned along the way.

I wrote once (in a column called "Life and Death, Near and Far") that a rabbi once wondered out loud why we don't talk more about life and death issues. After all, it comes to all of us. The fear in the eyes of our family, the loss in the lives of our loved ones is a common theme we share with all human beings, with everyone who has ever been close to another human being. It is not a sacred calm, but the silence of the scared, that we don't talk to each other more -- much more -- about the beginning of life, and its end.

For years, as a rabbi, I have stood with people at times of trial and trouble, I have sat in hospital rooms, I have held people's hands. Now with the shoe on the other foot I feel at once both different...and the same. United with all those families I have seen in understanding, perhaps for the first time, what it means -- really, what it means -- for someone to take time out of their lives, and come to visit. How important it is, how much it means, to just be there. For the reminder of friendship, the comfort of connections, the fact that my mother has been a part of so many other peoples' lives is a very powerful feeling. There is a tradition in the Talmud: to visit the sick is to take away one-sixtieth of the person's illness. (It is progressive, not cumulative; otherwise we would just organize teams of sixty people to go visit everyone in the hospital and, poof, grab a cameraman, we'd be ready for televangelism with all the magic cures we could bring!) I don't know what the visit does for the sick person. But I can tell you what it means to the family in waiting. It helps. A lot.

So I feel a connection between my experience as a visitor, and one receiving visits.

And I feel a fraud and a hypocrite, and a total disconnect, at the very same time.

Years ago I heard someone disparage the ability of Catholic priests to be marriage counselors. How can they know what it is like? How can they know what someone is going through in a marriage?

I thought the comments cruel, and unfair. For I have known priests who are astonishing pastors, and great counselors. Priests as colleagues who I might go to, not in confession, but in friendship. I have always argued that you don't need to be exactly in someone's shoes to feel their pain, to understand what they are going through, to be able to help.

I still believe that. If it were not true that you did not need to go through the exact same situation to be helpful to a person in pain, then no one could ever help anyone other than themselves. We can understand, with a feeling heart, and an open mind. We can be there for each other.

Having said that... there is still a special bond that exists between those who are in the same boat. We cling to every story of a stroke victim, we listen for the nuance of differences, for the shred of connection, with the tales of improvements beyond predictions. The commonality of experience creates camaraderie... and envy. Comparison brings comfort and angst. Support groups, I suppose now, have a great capacity to help... and to harm.

Julie and I share something with those who struggled to have children. But we do not share everything. We got lucky. Not everyone does. You would not know our tale to look at us now. But when we hear of someone having trouble conceiving, there is a knowing look, a momentary connection, a nod to a fellow traveler on a familiar road.

So I suppose I have helped other people by being there for them. And at the same time, I have stood there trying to bring comfort, having no clue what the people I was with were going through. Not in the gut. Not in the innermost fears and sadness of the soul.

And I did not know how much I did not know what a miracle is. I pray for a miracle anyway. Every day.

I know I've been inconsistent in my needs, and in what I receive from others. Sometimes a hug helps. Other times it feels forced, imposed, too intimate. (And I am a "touchy-feely" kind of person; I have never shrunk from a hug before.) Sometimes what people say is helpful. Other times the same words bring on bitterness. "Oh, isn't it good that you moved here." Of course. I can't imagine what this would be like managing it from afar. But hey. This ain't what we moved here for! Sometimes I want to talk about it. More often, too many people asking drives me bananas. How can I possibly "get anything done," when everyone wants to know how my mother is. In the context of tasks versus caring, what does "getting something done" mean, anyway? Maybe the work at hand is the connection people are trying to make, rather than the pile of paper on my desk. But maybe getting to the paper on my desk is the only thing that keeps me going.

The one really useful thing I believe I have consistently shared with families going through a trauma is to allow for the fact that different people in the family will react in different ways, at different times, that roles will shift, that the shifts can be sudden, and jarring, and that the emotional needs of different members of the family will be different at different times, and may bump up against each other.

It is not just in the face of death. Even in looking at a devastating illness.

To me, the comes in the question of optimism. How upbeat should we be? Who is "naive?" Who is "realistic?" Who is using labels, when we just don't know what will be. How much of pessimism is fear of getting hurt? Of being disappointed.

How can I bring comfort to my mother, to be helpful to her, when so much of what I see is what is not there, rather than what is? It is a whole new way to use language, yes... but a whole new way to use my eyes. And my heart.

A task calls, and it is beyond my grasp. I know what needs to be done. I am just not there yet. I know what I would want to say to others. What I would wish for them. To live with the gray. The mystery. The ambiguity. To hold on to the fact that we cannot know what will be, and to live with uncertainty. To somehow, some way, try to be at home with hope.

It's hard. It's very hard.

Eil na, r'fah na lah.

Oh, God, heal her please.

And heal all of us, of broken bodies, or broken dreams. Whose great plans shatter on the shore of a different reality. All of us. For we are all there, at the moment of truth, at the borderline of existence, the twilight of eternity, all of us, at one point, or another, on the journey of our lives.