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In honor of National Letter Writing Day*

As the days grow shorter and as we approach year’s end, I find that I’m drawn deeper inside myself and become more reflective. That, along with National Letter Writing Day, inspired me to begin to write a Forever Letter to my parents.

I have been thinking a lot about them lately. In part, because we’ll soon be headed back east to celebrate their 80th birthdays, and in part because I’m reflecting on their aging, on my aging (mid 50s), on our lives together thus far, and how our lives together will unfold in the up and coming years.

You see, we live on the opposite ends of the country, and I remember when my son was born how hard it was to be so far away, lamenting that he would not get to know my parents as part of the fabric of his everyday life, and wishing we lived closer, close enough to have meals together, or to pop by just because.

Now, as my parents age, I once again feel that it is hard to be so far away. I want to be there for them, to cook them meals, to accompany them to doctor appointments, to go out to dinner with them, to just lie in bed next to them shnugling and talking, to tell them I love them, to have them love me, to hear more about their lives as they reflect on them, and to hear snippets of wisdom and guidance that would seep out just because we are in each other’s company.

I know our time together is limited, and I feel it, not just because we’ll be celebrating their 80th birthdays, but because they are getting older, and they are feeling it in their bodies and in their minds and in their souls.

I remember when I turned 21, and my dad called me on my birthday and said something like, you’re almost a quarter of a century, I hope we’ll have another 25 years together. And here we are, nine years post the 25-year milestone.

I know my parents will not live forever. And I know how hard it will be for me when they are no longer here. I know I will feel unmoored and empty, with a hole in my heart, and I will have to figure out, like many before me, how to live without parents.

So, this week I will be sending this Letter to my parents to tell them this… and more.

If you have aging family, consider doing the same. Consider reaching out to them with compassion, courage and love and telling them what is on your heart.

*On Thursday, in celebration of National Letter Writing Day, Amazon and my publisher, Llewellyn Worldwide, are offering The Forever Letter at half price for the first 160 copies.

In honor of National Letter Writing Day* 2017-12-15T16:43:33+00:00

Lost

The following piece first appeared in The Sun.

“And this is the simple truth–that to live is to feel oneself lost.”

–Søren Kierkegaard

Isabel is ninety-one and stands about four and a half feet tall. She has blue-gray eyes, a gray mustache, and four gray hairs below her lower lip. I often see her wandering the corridors of the dementia unit in the nursing home where I work as a chaplain. “Where are you going?” I ask her one day. “I don’t know,” she says. “I have nowhere to go.”

I was twenty-two when Ruth Levy Zaiman died of breast cancer. She was my grandmother. Soon thereafter Solomon Zaiman died. He was my grandfather. He died because she’d died. He was lost without her.

Helen is eighty-seven. A disgusted look is etched into her long, thin face, and purple hematomas cover her thin arms and legs. Helen has dementia. She says things like “I have a penny. I want to see my mother. They won’t take me to her. They won’t give me her phone number. I have a bubble on my arm. The umbrella. Will it fit into the car? My twelve fingers attacked me last night. Do you hear my daughter? I hear her voice in my head all the time.”

I was a senior in high school when my eleven-year-old brother, Rafi, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. Paralyzed from the waist down, he spent most of his time in the hospital getting x-rays and CAT scans and transfusions and MRIs and chemotherapy and radiation. He got sick, and I got lost. I no longer knew how to be part of the healthy world. I wanted to inhabit Rafi’s world. When I was at school, I wanted to be with Rafi. When I was at home, I wanted to be with Rafi. I wanted to be with Rafi in my dreams. I still do. He died when I was seventeen.

In Open Closed Open, Yehuda Amichai writes, “Straight from the fear of loss I plunged into the fear of being lost.”

Mimi is a large, loud woman in her late eighties. She talks and talks and talks, telling me story after story about her life, her family, herself. She barely breathes between sentences. “Now where was I?” she often asks. “What was I saying? What was the point I was trying to make?”

In fragment number thirty-eight, the ancient Greek poet Sappho asks, “What was it that my distracted heart most wanted?”

Rita is a widow. On the wall beside the door to her apartment is a nameplate that reads: Rita and Marvin Epstein. Marvin died more than two years ago, but Rita refuses to remove his name from the nameplate. “It’s our home,” she says. “He’s here with me.”

Rafi died nine days after I’d graduated from high school. Our family of six became a family of five. But we’d still set the dinner table for six. And when someone asked us how many people were in our family, we’d still say six. It was hard to remember we were five. We were six. We are six, although one of us is lost. Or maybe five of us are lost. Or maybe all six of us are lost. But we’re still six.

To be lost. Lost as a child abandoned on a doorstep. Lost inside your body after a stroke. Lost as the dog or the cat. Lost without a job. Without a family. Without a home. Lost in memories. Lost in depression. Lost in darkness. Lost in drugs. Lost as the dead are lost. Lost as those left among the living.

Sabbath services have ended, and the after-service kiddush has ended, and four-year-old Shelly is nowhere to be found. His parents search the building, calling his name: “Shelly! Shelly!” There is no answer. They walk through the synagogue, the chapel, the bathrooms, the classrooms. They shout his name again and again: “Shelly!” His mother is in tears, hysterical. They are just about to call the police when another child says, “I think I know where he is.” This child brings Shelly’s parents to a classroom where they find Shelly standing behind an open door. His mother is so happy to see him she cries. She hugs him. She cries some more. But she wants to yell at him. She wants to say, Why didn’t you come when we called? Couldn’t you tell we were worried? Don’t ever do that again! But she won’t. She knows Shelly was just playing hide-and-seek. She knows Shelly does not understand that he was lost.

When my other grandmother sent me cards and letters, the return address always read, “Mrs. Hyman Shanok.” Not “Mrs. Dorothy Shanok.” Lost: my grandmother’s name. Lost: my grandmother. Hidden behind her husband.

In my late teens I told my parents I’d never marry. I did, however, add this caveat: “If I decide to marry, I’ll have my own bedroom.” Fourteen years later, when I married, I no longer wanted my own bedroom. What I wanted was a study with a door I could close: a place where I could be alone to think, to read, to write, to be. Rabbi Moseh Leib once said, “A human being who has not a single hour for his own every day is no human being.”

The writer André Gide relates this experience of a trip he took into the Belgian Congo:

My party had been pushing ahead at a fast pace for a number of days, and one morning when we were ready to set out, our native bearers, who carried the food and equipment, were found sitting about without any preparations made for starting the day. Upon being questioned, they said, quite simply, that they had been traveling so fast in these last days that they had gotten ahead of their souls and were going to stay quietly in camp for the day in order for their souls to catch up with them. So they came to a complete stop.

I knew myself in Manhattan. Then I got married and moved to Seattle, and on the West Coast the signposts are different. Far from familiar terrain, far from family and friends, far from my professional life as a congregational rabbi, I was lost. I wanted to be found. I wanted my husband to find me and return me to myself. But he didn’t know how, and I didn’t know how to guide him. I would wake in tears at 2 A.M. and tell him I wanted to run away, and if I couldn’t run away, I wanted to take a walk, right now, this moment, and no, it could not wait until morning. It was a test. Did he love me enough to say he’d walk with me? Did he love me enough to tell me not to go? He didn’t offer to walk with me, although he did hold me tight while I cried. But sometimes he was tired and he would fall back to sleep and he would leave me to cry alone.

In 2006 an amnesiac man appeared in Denver, Colorado. No one knew who he was or where he was from. He spoke to TV reporters and said he felt totally alone and depressed and anxious about everything. “I don’t fit in anywhere,” he said. “If anybody recognizes me, knows who I am, please let somebody know.” His fiancée’s brother saw him on TV and recognized him as forty-year-old Jeff Ingram from Olympia, Washington. He’d been missing for more than a month. Ingram’s problem: a rare form of amnesia called “dissociative fugue,” a temporary loss of identity often brought on by intense stress. In cases of future amnesiac episodes, Ingram had his name tattooed on his arm.

David died in the nursing home months after a debilitating stroke had left him blind. He was seventy-eight, a slight man with a gray beard and a warm smile. He had worked as a policy analyst and had authored many books and articles. After his stroke, he often made no sense when he spoke. He said things like “I want to be a tough wrapper. I’ll glick and glack. Thanks a lot for working on the comcosis. How is your confeltch going? Do the wecklecks get a good soul? I haven’t been too loud with the clippets or the cloggets. I’m bouncing around on binsaroff. I try to dutivate. I was cosmetized. That would be the afterlion for the funny act. I got into it because the moral boyad is bisceral.”

In his poem “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” Jack Gilbert writes:

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, . . . and the words
get it all wrong. . . .
. . . I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. . . .

A brain aneurysm killed my friend Lisa when she was fifty-four. Awake in her bed one minute, dead the next. It’s been eight months since Lisa died. But her husband has not yet erased her outgoing message on their home answering machine: “You’ve reached John, Lisa, and Katie. If you leave a message, we’ll call you back. Thanks!” Every now and then, I leave messages for John and Katie, wishing that Lisa could call me back.

In the Talmud, the blessing to be said upon seeing someone you haven’t seen for a year is “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has revived the dead.”

A boy named Yehiel was playing hide-and-seek with a friend. He hid and waited for his friend to find him. He waited and waited. When he finally emerged from his hiding place, his friend was nowhere in sight. At that moment Yehiel realized his friend had never searched for him. In tears, he ran to his grandfather, Rabbi Barukh, to tell him the story. Rabbi Barukh said, “God says the same thing: ‘I hide, but no one wants to seek me.'”

More than twenty years ago I met Sara, a resident in a Manhattan nursing home. Slender, with a bob of white hair parted to the left, Sara put on a housedress every day. And every day she took it off, and the aides put it on again, and she took it off again, and the aides put it on again. And everyday, naked or clothed, she wandered the hallways, wringing her hands and saying again and again: “What to do? I don’t know. What to do? I don’t know.” To this day, this is what I say when I feel lost.

Lost 2017-12-15T16:14:45+00:00

Dementia Unit

The following is an excerpt from “Dementia Unit,” which first appeared in The Gettysburg Review.

. . . “I can’t remember the recipe,” a woman in her nineties says to her neighbor in a panic. “Don’t worry dear,” the woman seated next to her responds. “We’ll call my mother.”

We laugh when we hear dementia-unit dialogue. We laugh because it is funny. We laugh because we know it is impossible for a ninety-year-old woman to have a mother who is still alive. We laugh because we are uncomfortable. We laugh because we are afraid. We laugh because we can laugh. We laugh because one day we will not be able to laugh. We laugh because we refuse to cry.

A woman is talking out loud to no one in particular. “My head hurts. My head hurts. My head hurts,” she says. “But you don’t give a damn.”

“I want to write a memory book,” another woman tells me. “But I forget what I want to write about.”

A woman screams, “It’s time to pee it’s time to pee it’s…”

Into her large bulbous nose, a woman thrusts her right index finger. She forages, extracts, rolls the booger into a ball between her thumb and forefinger and drops it onto the floor. She leans over. She rolls her left knee sock up and down and up and down and up and down.

When I was twelve and living in Providence, Rhode Island, I visited an old woman in a nursing home two miles from my house. She was a wanderer. She had Alzheimer’s. I don’t remember her name. I don’t remember why I chose to visit her. All I remember is that my school sang at the nursing home, and I began to visit some of the residents. I visited the residents because they looked lonely. I visited the residents because I felt sorry for them. I visited the residents because I wanted to help them. I visited the residents because society had cast them out. I visited the residents because no one else did. I visited the residents because if I didn’t visit them, who would?

A woman with painted blue eyebrows reports to anyone who will listen, “My eyebrows are tattooed.”

A woman screams, “The water is coming. The water is coming. The water is coming.” An aide walks her to the ladies’ room.

I spend hours on the dementia unit. Sometimes I feel sane. Sometimes I feel demented. Sometimes I feel the demented are saner than I am. Present to their emotions in ways that we, the undemented, are not. Listen to what they say: “I feel like I’m in prison.” “I feel like half a person.” “I’m useless.” “I feel unnecessary.” “I have no history.” “I go to sleep and I pray I will wake up and remember my name.” “We’re the forgotten people.” “Am I alive or dead?” “Who was I yesterday?” “The door is closed forever.”

A woman is walking down the hallway toward the nurses’ station, attempting to put on her maroon shirt. She cannot find her left sleeve. Her bare breasts hang down to her belly. A nurse guides her left arm into her shirtsleeve.

No one seems to notice this woman’s bare breasts. This woman does not notice. She is not embarrassed by her nakedness. She is like Eve in the Garden before eating from the Tree of Knowledge. She is innocent. Or, is she too far gone? I am neither innocent, nor too far-gone. I am embarrassed for her. I wonder if someday someone will be embarrassed for me.

A woman screams, “Let me die. Let me die. Let me . . .”

“I’ve got to go to the water tank,” she says. “The Pipe People live under here. Put me in a hole in the ground. My brains don’t work. You can’t say happy birthday to me. I was never born. I try to help people and I help myself. But I can’t help others. I will go downtown. And sit on a bench. And no one will bother me.”

“So how’s by you?” the man in the wheelchair asks me. “By me all is fine,” I say. Not a minute later, he asks, “So how’s by you?” Again, I say, “By me all is fine.” “You are a good person,” he says. “I can see that.” Again he asks, “So how’s by you?”

How do I respond when a ninety-five-year-old holocaust survivor cries and cries and can’t stop crying as she tells me that Nazis have come to take her parents? “They hate the Jews,” she says. “They are hurting my mother and my father. They will hurt me.” This woman speaks in both English and German and is unaware she is shifting seamlessly between the two languages. “The events you are recalling happened a long time ago,” I say. “These events are not happening now.” “No,” she insists. “My parents are alive. I said good-bye to them this morning.”

An emaciated woman speaks about a woman seated a few chairs away. “That jerk. I hope she dies. You are here for life,” she says to her. “Spare me. You always do as you damn well please. You think you look cute. You look like hell! You’re nothing! Shut your big mouth! You damn slob you!”

A woman cradles a doll in her arms. She believes she is the doll’s mother, and she will not let the nurse take her baby away.

Another woman says, “My mother, may she rest in peace. No, may she live a long life. No, we buried her. Anyway, my mother used to say . . . ”

A man walks over to a woman seated on a recliner. He reaches out and twists her right breast, as if her breast is a radio dial that needs to be tuned. A nurse shoos him away.

Nurses and aides sit at the nurses’ station, or they walk in and out of residents’ rooms, dressing them, bathing them, drying them, toileting them, changing their Depends, changing their sheets, wiping their butts, cleaning their vomit, applying salves, airing bedsores, responding to call lights, handing out medications, answering questions.

A woman screams, “Can someone tell me what is wrong . . .”

“How are you?” I ask a woman whose head rests on her chest. She does not respond. “Are you there?” I ask. “I think I’ll stop defrosting,” she says . . .

Dementia Unit 2017-12-15T16:14:46+00:00

Remembering is a Blessing

The following article first appeared in The Jewish Transcript.

An experience. It happened more than a decade ago, during my final year of rabbinical school, yet I think about it often. Scotch-taped to my dorm room door one morning was a rectangular piece of paper, a black and white photocopy of three pictures, one underneath the other. I, the eldest, was on top. My sister, Sarina, the second in birth order, was next. My brother, Ari, third in birth order, followed.

I recognized the pictures from a gold volume published by Temple Emanuel in Providence, R.I., in the early 1970’s. Included in that gold book, which recorded a popular history of the synagogue, were a few pages about my father, the then current rabbi and his family.

I smiled at my younger self, my sister and my brother as I opened my door. Internally, though, I felt sad. Where was Rafi, our youngest brother? In the gold volume, Rafi’s picture was directly underneath Ari’s. Who hung these pictures on my door? Who cut Rafi out? Why?

In search of an answer, I knocked on my friend and neighbor’s door. He smiled upon seeing me. “Aren’t those pictures great?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, pleased to discover the culprit. “Where did you find them?”

“I was doing some research in the seminary library, and I saw this gold book. I opened it up. And there you were. I thought the pictures were great. I wanted you to have them.”

“They are great. I know the book well,” I said. “But where’s Rafi?”

“I cut him out,” my friend said. “I didn’t want you to be upset.”

My friend meant well. He knew that my youngest brother, Rafi, had died of cancer at 11. He thought that by cutting Rafi out of the sibling line of pictures, he would be protecting me from re-experiencing the pain of Rafi’s death.

So that’s what happens when someone dies, I thought. People are hesitant to mention the dead person’s name aloud, fearful that in reminding the living of their loss, they will cause them undue suffering. I assured my friend that, although Rafi died, he would always be our brother. That to remember him is a positive, not a negative. Yes, we miss him. Yes, when we remember him, we remember the pain of his illness and death. But, we also remember his fun-loving approach to life, his large brown eyes, his smile, his sense of humor, his sweat after a good game of football, his kindness and love.

To this day when someone asks, “How many siblings do you have?” I say: “I have two siblings now, but I had another brother who died of cancer when he was 11.” If I sense that the questioner is uncomfortable, I might even add, “You can ask me about him if you want, it’s good to remember him.” To not speak of him, would mean that his life on this earth did not matter. It mattered. Our relationship mattered. It still matters.

Back to my rabbinical school dorm. Later that afternoon, when I returned to my room, I found a slightly longer rectangular piece of paper Scotch-taped to my door: a black and white photocopy of four pictures. From oldest to youngest. Myself. Sarina. Ari. Rafi. I peeled the pictures off my door, brought them into my room, and hung them on the wall above my desk, so I could watch over them. So they could watch over me.

Remembering is a Blessing 2017-12-15T16:14:46+00:00

For Thanksgiving Day Hosts: A Letter to Send to Your Guests

Concerned that relationship conflicts may strain your holiday celebration? I’ve developed a tool that you can use ahead of the event to generate more positive and uplifting interactions. Let me know if it helps!

 

For Thanksgiving Day Hosts: A Letter to Send to Your Guests

Dear family and friends,

We are looking forward to having you at our Thanksgiving table. Yes, we will be asking the same question we ask every year: What are you grateful for? I can already predict some of the answers. You can too. We will say things like: health, home, and family. On occasion, one of us will get more reflective, motivating the rest of us who have not yet spoken to go a little deeper. So, I send out this note in advance, to encourage us all, myself included, to go deeper, to reflect on this question before we get together, and to arrive at our home with a story or a particular moment to share. I know that if we are more in touch with what matters to us at our core, and we are able to share this with one another, our time together will be more meaningful.

One more ask. I know that we’re not all on the same page politically. I know that we sometimes avoid each other, or at least, avoid certain topics of conversation because we understand the result will not be pretty. I also know that there are hurts, ancient, and not so ancient, that have built up between us over the years and have pulled us apart. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out. We all know it. I’m just putting it out there. Don’t worry, I’m not asking us to reach out to one another and make everything all better before we get together. I understand reconciliation takes time.

My ask is simpler: in the spirit of this holiday, let’s do a little more reflective work before we arrive at the table for our shared meal; let’s each find one thing we are grateful for in one another.* While we may be on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and while we may carry deep hurts about one another, and while we may not always like one another, surely there is something good, something positive, something worthy, some bit of holiness that that we can find in one another for which we are grateful. Perhaps, a few of these additional reflections will find their way to our Thanksgiving table. It is in this spirit that I welcome you all into our home.

 

*Inspired by a teaching from the Hassidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810).

For Thanksgiving Day Hosts: A Letter to Send to Your Guests 2017-12-15T16:43:39+00:00