Reading from Rabbi Dayle Friedman‘s uplifting enlightening inspiring book, Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older always leaves me with a sense of Mom close by. In a heartbeat, 16+ years drop away & I expect to see her pouring a cup of coffee in the kitchen or sitting in the big chair that Brenda always refers to as Stickley, writing a letter on its wide arm rest.
Chapter 3 went straight to my heart with its quote from Deuteronomy – Be strong & of good courage. – one of Mom’s favorites. Small wonder I found her throughout The Ultimate Shattering…embracing our mortality.
In the following, Rabbi Friedman’s comments are in italics; my commentary (or Mom’s) is not.
We’re all aware that we will not live forever. By midlife, we’ve seen people we love leave this world. … We avoid facing the reality of our mortality. … Paradoxically, confronting our own dying can be the opening to living fully for whatever days, months, or years remain. – – Death was no stranger to Mom. An older brother – William, named for her mother’s father – died as a baby, long before she was born; his death, due to being lactose-intolerant, left a mark on her heart. Her father died when she was just nineteen. She was 49 when her youngest son was killed. Dad died when she was 64. Death wasn’t an abstraction for Mom & it was never a fear. She lived what Rabbi Friedman writes & she embodied “so teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”
Mom’s closing days were lived as fully as any that came before. Her cheerful disposition & caring heart helped staff, nurses & even her physicians, both at INOVA/Alexandria & St. Mary’s. Her week of hospice at home was spent having a wonderful time with loved ones & even answering e-mails from a local Psych 101 college class, asking questions on her experiences easing out of this life to what is next. Just last year, a young man who confided in her that he’d met the woman he was sure he’d married & asked for any wise words told me that he uses what she shared every day. (I didn’t ask what it was, he did tell.)
Vast medical resources are invested in futile interventions for patients who have no reasonable hope for survival, because physicians, patients, and families cannot talk about or accept death. – – When my parents were returning home from visiting her sisters out in California, Dad had a seizure as they were boarding the plane at SF International. Rushed to Peninsula Hospital, he was blessed to have some of the best oncological care in the country. At one point, doctors advised my parents that there was a test they could run, but that the tumor was rooted so deep in his brain, the test itself could be fatal. I remember Mom saying how grateful she was they were so open about the dangers, rather than just recommending it – my first lesson that because something can be done doesn’t mean it should. Fast forward 26+ years – Mom. at 90. is discussing an upcoming surgery with a specialist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She asks, “I understand that this surgery can be done. Do you think it should be? What would you advise your grandmother?” The specialist paused, looked at Mom, and answered, “Mrs. Lockhart, I would advise her against it. While the surgery might increase your shoulder’s mobility, it could also exacerbate the damage already done to your torn rotator cuff, significantly decreasing your mobility.” She thanked him, declined the surgery & we headed out on a delightful drive home – she was so grateful to that specialist, she felt lighter than air. And I was mega impressed she asked him to think of her as his grandmother – will remember that!
Many of us are profoundly afraid of how (we will die). We do not want to suffer. … We may also worry that we will lose our dignity. … We want to retain our power, yet it is highly likely that we will not. – – Mom knew all about suffering & loss of dignity connected to dying. She experienced it first hand with her father, in her mid-late teens, and for decades with her mother, who was never mentally stable, who ultimately developed senility & was institutionalized, a period of care that sent Mom into an emotional tailspin, a nervous breakdown & being institutionalized for months. She made sure that Dad did not have to experience the indignities that can come with being in a nursing home, however briefly, especially doing all she could to ensure he continued to have a sense of power, even when in a coma. John & I took up the torch, making sure Mom retained a sense of power, right up to her final farewell.
For many of us, contemplating death arouses the awareness of all that we love about life. We fear missing out… – – This never seemed an issue for Mom. She loved every moment of her life, yet had a keener excitement about finding out what was going to happen next than she did a dread of missing out on anything happening back in the land of the living!
Like Moses (who never set foot in The Promised Land), we will die with one or many aspects of our lives unfulfilled. … Eventually we will be called to make peace with this, too. – – It will always be a point of pride that in her closing years, Mom & I were able to identify the issues that could have torn us apart, even if we weren’t able to address them all. She would have liked that to have been true with all her children, but she had the satisfaction of knowing that she’d done her best to make that so. The last few years of her life were filled with such unexpected fulfillment & accomplishment, relationships & her own sense of personal self healed, that my guess is she would have agreed she was leaving aspects of her life unfulfilled, but not for lack of trying.
Facing our own death sets the agenda for the rest of our life. It helps us identify the unfinished business of the past and the callings of the future. Facing dying enables us to grow older with wisdom & intentionality. – – Mom didn’t just quote, “This is the day the Lord has made. Rejoice & be glad in it!” ~ she lived it. I don’t think it was facing dying that enabled Mom to open up & share herself via e-mails (which readers experienced as wow wisdom), but being willing to face life as it actually was, not as she wanted it to be – “warts & all.”
Rebbe Nachman does not actually instruct us not to have fear (death) but rather not to be swallowed up by it. … We can hold awareness of our mortality without either obsessing or giving up. – – Mom to a T!
(Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi) suggests that awareness of our mortality calls us to listen to “the voice of the authentic self,” to focus on that which we have left undone or unexplored. If we fail to pick up these incomplete parts of our lives, he teaches, “our unlived lives are like ringing telephones that we refuse to answer.” – – It doesn’t feel like an awareness of her mortality called Mom to finally listen to the voice of her authentic, once rigorously denied, self, but it was certainly connected to being an “Ancient,” so perhaps it was. I am pretty sure she would have agreed with Rebbe Zalman that her unlived life was like an unanswered ringing telephone. How interesting that Mom’s moment of great courage involved picking up the phone!
The call of life in the face of death is to be honest, true, and present. The unlived life invites us to embrace, to complete, to reach. … Should we not make this day, which could be our last, as full and rich as possible? – – Again, Mom to a T.
It strikes me that everyone will bring something uniquely theirs to & from reading Rabbi Friedman’s remarkably wise, tenderly written book. What I share is so trifling compared to all she shares. Again, if I could put this in the hands of all my friends, their parents & their children, I would. And although I did not get to read this with Mom, who’d been gone many years by the time it was published, I certainly feel her with me as I read & reread each chapter.