The following piece first appeared in The Sun.
“And this is the simple truth–that to live is to feel oneself lost.”
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.