Wednesday, December 18, 2013

SuperMichael and SuperPhyllis

Michael and Liz, visiting during her Year-in-Israel, 2005

It was the summer of 1999 at Goldman Union Camp Institute.  I was still in high school and I was spending my summer working and studying in the Avodah program at camp.  I met Phyllis Sklar, a rabbinical student who was working at GUCI for the summer, and she was very friendly to me. 
I met her fiancé, Michael Sommer , when he came to visit her, but it wasn't until the following summer, when he was working at GUCI too, that we all really became friends. 

You have to understand - I was a tall, overweight, unconfident, not-so-funny-yet teen.  People who seemed to genuinely like me felt very rare, to me. Who were these two and where did they come from??

In the summer of 2001, Michael (still a rabbinical student) returned to GUCI and I spent my 2nd year on staff (a sophomore in college) and that's when our friendship really solidified.  Even though he was much older than me, we really connected.  He could see in me all the things I couldn't really yet see in myself. He seemed to take such pride in the good work I was doing as a counselor and staff member.   He used to tell me, "We don't always get to choose our family.  But we always get to choose our friends who become our family." I learned so much from him, that summer, about life and love and hard work and fun and friendship.

As a college student at IU, I probably visited Michael and Phyllis at their home in Cincinnati once a month for the following few years. We all grew so remarkably close over those years, as we experienced so much together in each other's lives.   I even spent part of a summer in their upstairs attic room when I was studying Hebrew at HUC-JIR to get into rabbinical school.  When they left Cincinnati to head up to Chicago, I saw them slightly less frequently, but never with less intensity to our visits.  Our bonds over the years only strengthened as our family and our own friends became intertwined in one another's lives.

I was there when each of their kids were born.  I was there through their ordinations and they were there through my graduation, ordination, and even as my mother lay dying, last year. I'll never forget how grateful I was to Phyllis for driving me and my grandmother to my mother's dying bedside, or when she and Michael sang softly in her hospital room, rubbing my shoulders as I wept.

I weep now, for my dear friends and their tragic loss of Sammy. 

Michael and Phyllis are amazing.  Not just for what they've been through, but for who they are.
They were my friends when I felt as though I'd never understand what real friendship was. 
They were my first "family" members outside of my own who would take me in and go on to be lifelong friends. 
They were my mentors and now my colleagues - I always look to Phyllis when I have any "rabbinical" inspiration that I need. Every rabbi needs their own rabbi, too.
They create a life for themselves much like a kibbutz - everyone is a valued member (and everyone pitches in around their house), everyone gets to be with them and is included, everyone is a part of their family.
They taught me about warmth and friendship and creating relationships with people that are meaningful and significant and that weave throughout the fabric of our lives.

There are so many stories, memories, and inside jokes that we've shared, that it would take a lifetime to retell them all again.

Over the last few days, people have remarked to me about how lucky they are to have me in their life and to be their friend, but everyone has it all backwards.  I am the lucky one. 

I am lucky that I found friends who have, literally, changed the shape and scope and narrative of my life. In every stage and at nearly every age, they've been there.  I am lucky that I have lifelong friends who have helped support me and love me in my terrible teens, tumultuous twenties, and slightly-more-stable thirties.  But, I am not surprised.  Because that is just who they are. They are SuperMichael and SuperPhyllis.

As Sam's "Auntie Liz" I will never stop weeping for the pain and suffering he had to endure these last many months and for the unfinished symphony of his life.  As Michael and Phyllis's inner circle, I will always try to hold them up and support them and carry them, as best I can.  Because that is exactly what you do for your family.  And that is what Michael and Phyllis have always taught me - we go through this life but once, and it's about the people we meet and the relationships we sustain that count above everything, and anything, else. 






Saturday, September 14, 2013

YOM KIPPUR - 5774
Over the last several months, I cannot seem to stop thinking about “thestrals”. Before this year, I did not understand this magical and mythical creature in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Thestrals, as we understand them from the 5th book in the series, are gaunt dark horses with wings, but can only be seen by someone who has encountered death. They were there from the very beginning of the series, driving the so-called “horseless carriages” from the train station to Hogwarts, but it is not until Harry witnesses the death of his friend, Cedric Diggory, that he can finally see them. It suddenly puts Harry in a different category, with eyes opened and aware of new things around him, because he has seen and known death.
Before this last year, I didn't really understand what these thestrals represented. As a rabbi, I sit with the dying, and then the bereaved, quite often. They didn't always seem so different to me. Why, after experiencing a death, would the world suddenly seem different, with new and different things in it, to that person? It wasn't until this last year, when I experienced my own tremendous loss that I finally understood: It's not that we see things differently, it is that the world becomes different to us. As one woman in my bereavement group often suggests, “When our loved one died, the trivial things of this world died away as well. We don’t see the world in color, anymore. We are confronted with the reality of black and white and how to navigate in that kind of world.”
In truth, I'm not sure it's that easy of an explanation. Now don't get me wrong - This has been the hardest year of my life. The pain of suddenly losing the closest person in the world to me, who happened to be my mother, role model, confidant and my best friend all rolled into one, was unbearable most days. At the age of 30, I never expected to lose my 61 year old mother, and I miss her more and more every day that she is not here with me. But in those first few days, and even now as I continue to feel this reverberation of grief in my life, I never stopped seeing the world in color. In fact, I've felt a heightened sense of love, support, and gratitude. The triviality of things in this world fell away for me, for sure. And the world is a completely different place for me than before, even though I may appear the same on the outside. But the choice I made to find hopefulness in all of this, and to continue to find beauty and color in our world was the only reality I could bear as I began the monumental task of learning to live my life without my mother.
My mother was the epitome of positivity and hopefulness. She always made the choice to see the glass half full. She believed there was a solution to every problem in life, even if it just meant looking at it from every possible angle. But sitting with her after one of the many blood transfusions she received in the ten weeks between her diagnosis of leukemia and her untimely death, I will never forget when she turned to me, in a weakened moment and said, “You know, Elizabeth, control is just an illusion. We always think we're in control of things, but it turns out that we're not. In the end, we have so little say over what ultimately happens in our lives.” And like all the wise things my mother used to say, she was absolutely right. Control is just an illusion. It comforts us when we are scared and reassures us when we have doubt. But it is not real. If it were, my mother would still be here today, and perhaps a loved one of yours would still be here too. It's a hard concept to swallow that we have no real control over what might happen to us, in our lives. But, luckily, my mother also spent my entire life telling me that the one thing we could control were the choices we make in this world. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can always control how we react and the outcome of our own actions. And, of course, she was also right. You see, it's a fine line between illusion and reality and the difference is control versus choice. Control is just an illusion, but choice is our reality. However, it is not until we are faced with the fragility of life, the possibility of death, and the pain of loss that we, perhaps, can ever fully understand this tension. Control is an illusion, but how we respond, that choice is our reality.
On Yom Kippur morning, we read from the book of Deuteronomy that advises us to choose life. It says, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse - - therefore choose life1.” Now, this does not literally mean that we can stop death by choosing life. If only. It means that we have a choice about how to live our lives, in the face of despair and curse and hopelessness. It reminds us that in every situation, no matter how dire or difficult, we always have a choice on how to respond, how to react, and how to proceed. And it is those choices, in particular, that will dictate how we live our lives, how we find blessings in the curse, and how we find life even in the face of death.
In some ways, I believe that the thestrals from Harry Potter represent the choices that we can now see. The veil of illusion was lifted from Harry's eyes. He can no longer ignore the realities of life so he must make choices on how to live with this greater understanding of the world. Illusion and the illusion of control are gone and that is what makes reality so evident, what awakens us to the truth and fragility of life around us.
This last Wednesday was the twelve year anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. If ever there was a day in our recent history that was more stark and grim reality than control, it was that one, and the days that followed. But in our collective loss, there was not only pain and suffering and fear. There was also hope, and love and a desire to work through grief, together. Rick Hamlin, the executive editor of Guideposts magazine wrote a beautiful article last year about his memories on the days that followed September 11th, 2001. He wrote: Not long after that day, when the sirens of police cars and ambulances still set us on edge, when the streetlamp poles and sides of telephone booths were still plastered with black-and-white posters of the missing saying, “Have you seen?” of “If you have any information on...” I was crossing 33rd street. The woman walking in front of me was clearly grieving, paying no attention to where her feet were taking her, meandering in a fog. Without knowing it, she ran directly into a cop on the corner.
I took a deep breath. A New York cop is not someone to mess with, certainly not to run into. He held out his arms, though, holding her gently by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes as if to say, 'You going to be all right? Did you lose a loved one too? We'll get through this, OK?' Then, he did something remarkable. He gave her a gentle hug, patting her on the back, before they separated and she moved on. If ever a hug was a prayer, there it was. Barriers had dropped, compassion took over protocol, love spoke.
It's what I remember most about those sad days, the lesson I still take with me on the streets of New York. Watch out, look up, someone's sure to be aching or grieving. Be ready to care. Be ready to reach out. A hug can be a prayer.2
What I love most about this story is the choice that the police officer made. He too was confronted with the reality of loss and grief when he got run over by that woman who knocked into him. But, instead of telling her to watch where she was going, he made a choice. He recognized her pain, he realized he had no control over the whole situation, and he chose life – affirming her by embracing her and comforting her in her most painful hour.
Loss is a universal experience. Whether it is personal, communal, or national loss, there isn't one of us here who won't feel it significantly in our lifetime. We each have meaningful and deep relationships that enrich our lives. And it is because of the beauty and strength of those relationships that we end up feeling our pain and our grief so deeply, when these people cease to exist. It's the classic example of King Solomon and the baby. A real mother, one who loves and cherishes and cultivates a relationship with her child, would never let Solomon split the baby, for fear that it would harm the child. It's much easier to lose something we never loved, in the first place, than to give up something that we treasure most of all.
But we all must lose. That's the reality of being human and knowing that we are not infinite beings. I think about how blind I was at this time, last year. On Yom Kippur 5773, my mother was fine, without a diagnosis of cancer and with no knowledge of what the coming weeks and months would quickly bring. Life can change in the blink of an eye and more can happen in a year than you ever imagined or expected. Although we are never prepared for tremendous loss ahead of time, we can consciously think about the choice we have in what to do in the aftermath, in how to relate to others, in how to perceive the world, and in the way in which we care for ourselves and our loved ones.
You, our Reform Temple of Forest Hills, have helped me to find life, even in the face of death. You made the beautiful and conscious choice to support me, to reach out to me and my family through notes, donations, phone calls, meals and expressions of sympathy over the last many months and embrace us as we faced the most difficult moments of all. Each one of these acts have overwhelmed and surprised us, and we are so deeply touched by your actions of kindness and comfort. From the bottom of our hearts, my family and I cannot thank you enough for this blessing of community and support. The gratitude we feel towards you is immeasurable.
The choices that we make to choose life are reflected in the actions that we take, whether comforting someone who has had loss, responding to communal loss, or learning how to live when confronted with our own personal loss. The answer is not to respond with pure positivity and a disingenuous sense of reality. Phrases like, “everything will be okay”, “you're gonna get through this”, and “time heals all wounds” should be thrown right out the window. Instead, our actions can reflect our deep caring for other people, patience with ourselves as we learn to grieve and learn to live without, and an understanding that life is completely different now, once the loss has occurred. Grief is a tremendous teacher, and though the world can seem different, it does not have to include only anger, hurt, and sorrow. It can also include compassion, reflection, and perspective.
The story is told of an old Chinese woman who had two water cans which were attached to a pole. Each day, she put the pole over her shoulders and went down to the river, filled the cans, and walked back to her modest hut. The water can on the right side of her pole was fine and sturdy; when she arrived home it was always full. But the can on the left had a crack in it. By the time the woman arrived home, half of the water was usually gone.
The water can always felt inferior to it's partner. It was ashamed that it was cracked and broken and wasn't pulling it's weight. One day, it turned to the woman and apologized for being so defective. The woman smiled gently and said, “Did you think that I didn't notice that you had a crack, and water dripped from you? Look at the path from the river to my hut. Do you see all the beautiful flowers that are growing on the one side of the path? Those are the flowers I planted there, that you watered every day as I walked home from the river.”
Each one of us is broken in some way. Each one of us can see people around us who are broken and in need of love, care, and attention to what hurts them most. We cannot always control what makes us broken, but we can always make the choice on how we move through it, how we respond to it, and what we can take from it.
One of the greatest lessons that I have learned in this last year is that everything is finite. When our lives are done, they are done. And so, it REALLY is important to make moments count and be unafraid to say what really matters to you and whom matters most. Why are we always so afraid of telling others just how much we love them, how important they are to us, or how much they enrich our lives? Not just family, but friends, co-workers, and people we know in our community. We cannot let moments of love and appreciation and opportunity pass us by. When our lives are done, they are done. It is so important to tell others exactly how much they mean to you when you feel it most. I've also learned to be unafraid of the consequences of making decisions. Life is about experiencing the choices we make and not always being held up by fear or the illusion of control over certain situations. If we live our entire lives in a “comfort zone” than we are playing into a sense of control that we only imagine and that will eventually come crashing down around us. By taking chances and embracing a little bit of risk, you never know who or what might be waiting right around the corner for you that will open up your life in a totally new and different way. And, of course, I've learned to be kinder, more compassionate, and more generous with my time and energy when it comes to others. You never know who might be hurting, when a friendly hug or an ear to listen to them, might be just the prayer they need at that moment. I cannot control what happens in my life and you cannot control what happens in yours, but we can choose to be there for each other in our greatest hour of need. Our loss is going to hurt and we cannot run from it. We cannot stop creating and making significant relationships for fear of what happens when they end. Instead, we must choose to put as much as we can into them and then be secure in the knowledge that amidst all of our pain, the love and comfort of others will always surround us.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. It is a day of reflection, repentance, and acceptance. In essence, it is a day about choice, and about confronting the illusion of control and thinking about how we accept reality and make choices that are good for us in our life. Although we focus on atonement today, what we're really doing is examining the choices that we've made that have brought us to this place and time. These choices aren't just about ways in which we've done things poorly, they are also about learning how to choose life, how to be real and honest with ourselves, and how to make the most out of each moment that we are given. I would give all of these lessons back, in a moment, just to have ten more minutes with my mother. But I cannot control that. Instead, I am left with the reality of her loss....and I choose life. I choose sharing her positivity and her belief in the goodness of this world and the importance of building deep relationships with others. I choose love, and patience, and compassion, and vivaciousness, even in the face of despair and a life that is totally and completely different now that she is gone. But not just because that is who she was or who I am, but because that is what this day is about. It's about starting fresh and saying, what choices will I make this year, so that I can fully embrace life, even though I cannot control it?
Mahatma Ghandi once said, “ I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way, again.” Our lives are a series of ups and downs, most of which we really have no control over. Some days are harder and some days are easier. And none of us is immune to what will inevitably be great loss. At some point in our lives, our eyes will be opened to the reality of life and it's fragility. But, the choice is ours on how we respond, on how we persevere, on how we live each day. Do we choose love or do we choose fear? Do we choose comfort and compassion or do we turn the other way? Do we choose control and illusion or do we choose reality? Do we choose death or do we choose life? The choice is up to you. May each of you find a life that is worth living, even in the face of difficulty. May each of you make choices that help you support others and feel supported by them, in the ups and downs that occur on the journey of life. May each of you be brave enough to confront reality head on, rather than live under the illusion of control. May each of you be written as a blessing in the Book of Life. And if that doesn't go according to plan, we'll figure out how to move forward, one day and one choice at a time. 
 
1Deuteronomy 30:19
2Hamlin, Rick. Guideposts., Sept 2012

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Shema in the Sound Booth - Shavuot

I wrote this piece last year (2012), after attending and helping out at WAREHOUSE SHABBAT


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about standing at Sinai. As Shavuot approaches, I am reminded of the notion that we all stood at Sinai together as we received Torah from God. You were there, and you were there, and you too. You were standing right next to me as we got those sacred instructions. Don’t you remember? It was a very long time ago. Sometimes I have a hard time remembering we were all there together, too.
I also have a really hard time learning how to really bring in Shabbat. It’s not that I don’t make time for it – quite the opposite. I’m a rabbi. I celebrate Shabbat (almost) every week. But, I’m often so concerned with the details and orchestration of the service I’m leading that I don’t ever truly let myself go and relax and feel all the things that I like to help others feel. I espouse peace and rest and worship, but the truth is that I am working. And while I love the work that I do, it’s hard for me to find moments of holiness, of connection, of true release. Just because I’m a rabbi, it doesn’t mean that spiritual enlightenment comes any easier for me.
A few weeks ago, I offered to step in and help my friends run Warehouse Shabbat. I was familiar with the service after seeing it a few months ago at a convention, but I was eager to see it in its natural habitat – a hip lower east side bar on a Friday night filled with young Jews. The food was delicious. The drinks were great. The crowd was really a fun group and the band sounded awesome. But I was there to work. I tucked myself back into the sound booth with Billy (the sound guy!) and focused on the laptop in front of me, prepared not to miss a stitch with the slides, videos, and supplemental images and prayers I was about to help conjure up.
And then, something incredible happened. I let go. We began singing the Shema, slowly and quietly. No instruments, just our voices. It felt singular. I was scared of it, at first, but this feeling washed over me until I was completely consumed. We continued singing, chanting almost, a mantra of our people. And the voices around me exploded. The instruments layered their sound with ours. I was transformed. I stood there, in the sound booth, eyes closed, body swaying, and I was no longer there. I was standing at Sinai and so were the people around me. They always had been. I just couldn’t remember it until at that moment when I was lifted up and struck. Our voices were like a chord that penetrated history, penetrated time and space and place, penetrated our very being. It didn’t matter that I didn’t really know these people in the bar around me. I did know them. In that moment, we connected, we took our places once again at Sinai and together we received Torah. Our voices were one.
And then, it was over, almost as quickly as it came on. I sat down, and I played the next video.
But something about that moment changed me. It renewed me. It taught me. Community is everywhere and accessible all the time. We just need to open our eyes and our ears to the people around us. Judaism also surrounds us, in every moment. We just need the right tools to access it. Music, prayer, intention. But we also need to not get so wrapped up in always trying to make it happen. Sometimes, we just need to let go. Sometimes we cannot be afraid of letting go. Sometimes, we cannot worry about where we are, or who we are with, or what we are doing – we just have to be open to what we are given and the experience before us.
I might have been singing Shema in the sound booth that night, but I will always feel as though I was REALLY standing at Sinai, opening up my heart and my eyes and my ears to God and to the Jewish people. It might have started with my voice, but your voice was there, and yours too, and even yours. I remember now. I remember.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A question of moral responsibitlity

Often times, the greatest questions of morality and character do not reflect how to achieve happiness or whether something is definitively right or wrong. Rather, the challenge comes from our moral responsibility to care for others, to care for our cherished but broken world, and how to partner with God in continuing the daily renewed work of creation. The Jewish tradition teaches that even the poorest among us is capable of giving to others - whether through time, action, or intention.  In that way, we understand that we are  all privileged and imbued with a spirit that is capable of giving. Moreover, it is is our moral and ethical responsibility, as privileged human beings of God's world, to share in that responsibility to promote equality, to advocate for social justice, and to mend our world. As it states in Deuteronomy 15:7-8, "If among you one of your fellow humans should become poor, in any of the towns of the land which Adonai your God gave to you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against them, but you shall open your hard and give them what is needed, whatever it may be."

As religious and spiritual beings, it is not enough it simply pray for good and expect it to come. We must be continuously committed to the hard and, often, difficult work of speaking up and speaking out and taking action so that all of God's children can live in harmony in our world. Then, and only then, will it be possible to think about calling this place Eden, once again.

Friday, April 26, 2013

What drives you to do Social Justice? Reflections from the Brickner Rabbinic Program

The question was so simple.  “What drives you to do social justice?”  But the answer was so complex and varied.  The themes were similar: family role models, personal experiences of injustice, a sense of responsibility and moral obligation.  But each one of us had a story to tell, a piece to uncover, a truth to reveal.  After 15 months of knowing the people in the room with me, I realized that maybe I didn’t really know them that well at all.  And all it takes, to really get to know a person, is to ask a simple question and let their story unfold.
I just returned from the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience. As a 2012-2013 Brickner Rabbinic Fellow, this was the culminating event to months of study, prayer, and exploration on social advocacy, as it pertains to being a rabbi. But it was more than that.  It was the culmination of months of being in relationship with a great group that helped me realize what it means to be passionate about social justice, to rely on one another professionally to help better our world, and to live with holy intention in the work that we do.
And yet, there was something so powerful, so organically raw and moving in the room as we closed out our final moments together as a group.  Rabbi Steve Fox, Chief Executive of the CCAR, invited us to reflect for a moment.  In most cases, you would expect us to reflect back on the last 15 months and the experiences shared in the program.  But we didn’t do that.  We did something much more sacred, much more meaningful and much more useful.  We shared words with one another about our own personal journeys and lives in relation to changing, healing, and helping our broken world.  It had all the potential to go wrong and be self-serving and egotistical.  But it wasn’t.  It was beautiful. In that moment, our group took the trust that had been building in those 15 months and we unleashed our stories – painful, funny, heartfelt – and we crea
ted sacred space to continue connecting our lives with one another.
That moment continued to teach us about social advocacy, about the holiness that comes from hearing and sharing stories and recognizing the beauty of the human spirit and the power of community.  Social advocacy is nothing without recognizing that we are all human beings, with complex stories and histories and lives, and that we are all in this world together, trying to create a better world so that all may live with dignity and freedom.  But it begins by listening and by sharing.
The question was so very simple.  But I am grateful that it was asked.  Because with it, I was able to understand what the last 15 months truly were about – making sacred connections so that I can be empowered to continue partnering with God and with my fellow human beings in order to help create a more perfect world through social advocacy, social justice and tikkun olam.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Judaism gets it right: Reflections 30 days later

Judaism just get it's right: 3 days. 7 days. 30 days.  A year.  

It's been over thirty days now, since we buried my mother, and I really get it.  I've been saying it to others for years, but it wasn't until now that I really got it.  You need Judaism to help you mourn.  You need the community and the laws and the rules and the structure of time.  It's not that it's comforting.  No, there's nothing comforting about it.  It's that you have no other way to express what you're feeling and going through - so Judaism does it for you. It lifts the obligation of having to tell others how you are feeling when you've never felt more sad, or more alone, or more scared.  And it provides a community that knows all of this, that provides support and love and faith when you are unable to find those things.

It's been over thirty days and I'm just starting to understand what this new reality will be like for me - without my mother on the other end of the phone at the end of the day, without her telling me how to cook something I'm not sure how to cook, without her helping me work through ideas that I have.  But it's more than that.  It's realizing that she won't be there as my life continues to unfold - celebrating the victories that lie ahead, the rough times that challenge me, the joys and the surprises, the big moments and the ordinary moments.  It's been over thirty days and I'm just now starting to really realize what this all means.  Thank goodness I have a year to continue formally processing all of this, to continue honoring my mother's memory and figuring out how to live in this new reality.  Thank you Judaism. 

Everyone tells me I should be feeling a lot of emotions right now.  A lot of people tell me it's okay to be angry.  But I don't feel angry.  I feel gratitude. I feel thankfulness.  My family and I are so grateful for the outpouring of love and support we've received throughout this whole process.  My congregation in NY, our friends and family, our congregation in Indiana and everyone who has reached out to us - we are so overwhelmed by your generosity of spirit.  Thank you - each and every one of you.  We could not have done this without you. 

But my gratitude lies deeper than this.  It lies with my mother.  The greatest emotion I feel right now is gratitude for having a mother like mine.  She was a great teacher and she was patient and kind and wise and fun and smart.  She gave me so much, and for all of those lessons I will be forever grateful that she made me into the person that I am now.  As I wade in the sea of emotions that have taken over me and begin to really process all of this, I hope that I will never loose this sense of gratitude and kindness that I have been given and that I sense all around me.

Judaism marks time so brilliantly.  We mark our years (and reflect on them at various times), we mark our months, our days, our weeks, even our moments.  As I've come through these thirty days, I've realized the importance of time and of marking time.  I realized that it was 10 weeks from her diagnosis to her death.  That's not even three months.  I've realized that I think about how long it's been since I last saw her, since I last heard her voice, and since I last held her hand and kissed her cheek. I also think about how it's gotten lighter the more I come out of mourning.  The first few days were an exhausting blur.  The first seven days of mourning were painful and unbearable.  The first thirty days were a mixture of tears and sadness and catching my breath and trying to keep busy.  Now, things are a bit different.  I still have incredibly hard moments, but I feel more like me, again, than I have in a while.  I remember what it is to smile and to laugh and to enjoy time with friends and family and to be back at work and to be doing good and productive things. I remember that sparkle that I used to have - the one my mother taught me never to let dim or die.  I remember that I have the next year to deal with all of this.  And then, I remember that I will always honor the memory of my mother and her beautiful life by marking the anniversary of her death, year after year. We mark a person's life in Judaism by celebrating the date of their death (not birth) because it reminds us of all their life held and all the things they gave us. And we remember that we never forget who they were and what they mean to us.

Even in death, my mother is still teaching me.  I can still hear her voice telling me to keep smiling and laughing and enjoying life the way I do.  "You're a party in a package!" she would tell me. She was too.  But she loved seeing that in me as much as she loved that it was a part of her.  She would remind me that it's okay to be sad and to use the beautiful structure that Judaism has provided for us to work through all of my grief.  And then she would remind me that there is SO much life to be lived and that it's my job to get out there and to live it and to love it.  

Thanks for letting me grieve, dear friends and family and community and for holding me up and holding us in your thoughts and prayers.  

I'm so grateful for Judaism and the structure it has provided for us in grief, but I'm also grateful for my mother and her lessons, in life and in death. 
Thanks, mom.  You'll always be with me and I'll always keep learning from you - days, months, even years after you are gone.




Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Mi Sheberach for me? I'll take it

It 's taken me over a week to finally have the energy, courage, and strength to get this blog post written.  After all, it's been quite the week. First, there was the devastation that Hurricane Sandy caused to the entire Eastern coast. Thousands are still without power, shelter, or basic needs. Then, there was the 2012  election - an energy all of its own in this country. Finally, there was our own personal family crisis: this last week, my mother was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Because of so many other factors related to her health, we were told that we could maybe slow it down, but we couldn't stop it. My heart plummeted into my stomach. BOOM! Suddenly, everything became different.

It felt like something out of a movie. We went into the doctor's office first thing Monday morning of last week to get the devastating news - this is how long you have to live....maybe more, maybe less.  We should assess quality of life, not just quantity. How can we make you more comfortable in this whole process?
And before we knew it, my mother had to be admitted to the hospital because her blood numbers were so dangerously low.  Her cough was too suspect. She couldn't eat, she couldn't breathe. It was not good.

My father and I have been alternating days and nights staying at the hospital to help care for my mother. Shes been in for 10 days now. My grandmother, aunt, uncle, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew all came into town this last weekend. We're all hugging each other extra tightly, saying things we've never said to one another before (and we're not a shy bunch), shedding tears together, and working as hard as we can to support her and support each other.  We were never the kind of family to take much for granted, but right now, the gift of time is in our faces and we aren't going to lose a minute of it.

I've been thinking a lot about the Mi Sheberach prayer this last week. As a rabbi, I often remind my congregants that we are not only praying for those who are ill and in need of recovery, but we are also praying for the doctors and nurses that help to make our loved ones healthy, and the caregivers that support the sick day in and day out.  As I was thinking of this, suddenly it hit me.  That's me. I'm in need of a little strength, comfort, and prayer too - suddenly I have become a caregiver, helping my very sick mother to be more comfortable and help her be as healthy as possible, while trying to keep her spirits high and the hope of miracles alive. Of course my mother needs to be at the forefront of prayers - praying for comfort and strength for her. But my family and I could use a little prayer too - we too are in need of comfort, strength, support, and love.

This is not easy for me to say. Part of the reason I became a rabbi is because I enjoy caring for others and find it hard to often accept it, myself. It's more comfortable for me to focus on you than for you to focus on me. Plus, I'm pretty independent, pretty self-sufficient, and pretty accustomed to being strong - both for myself and others.

But, right now, I'm a mess.  My mother is laying in the hospital bed next to me on oxygen, dialysis, and light chemo (in order to alleviate some of the difficult symptoms she is experiencing right now - not to try and cure it) and we don't know what each day will bring.  There are good days and there are bad days. But the constants in our life haven't wavered.  Those of you who have texted, called, emailed, sent notes/cards and brought us food - we are so grateful to you and feel so supported by your love and friendship. Truthfully, that has really helped sustain us.
And our faith has  helped sustain us as well: a visit from our Rabbi here in Indiana who offered words of prayer and comfort. The Jewish songs my mother asked me to sing in her room as she received her first chemo treatment. And the prayer for healing. Mi Sheberach - may the one who blessed our ancestors, bless us and heal us now.

When everything changes in a moment, we must cling to one another,  to our Judaism and be strong enough to say , "I need a little extra strength and support right now." No matter what the future brings, we can always count on these things to sustain us.

If you are the praying type, my mother's name is Sharon Wood. She could certainly use your thoughts and prayers. Come to think of it, so could I.