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The Fragility of Life

Rabbis have an odd perspective on life (at least, this rabbi does). We see people at their extremes:

  • Extreme joy: Wedding, bar/bat mitzvah
  • Extreme sadness: funerals
  • extreme exhaustion: baby namings

We experience on a regular basis events that for others happen occasionally over the course of a life (case in point: at a wedding last weekend someone told me it was the loveliest wedding she’d ever been to–then noted that it was only the second wedding she’d ever been to; for me, it was my first wedding (of the year), but will be one of at least 7 or so I am present for between now and October). I am present when families experience the death of a loved one. I’m visiting in the hospital as a person realizes his mortality is not quite so abstract as he had assumed.

Rabbis listen to the stories of people’s lives. We are allowed into their lives in ways which others aren’t: people put up fewer filters, and are more likely to tell us how they’re really feeling when we ask. Which is good, because otherwise we (or at least, I) can’t respond to them usefully.

All of the above is preamble to this: I’ve been very aware of the fragility of life during the last week. Teaching an adult education session on Yom Kippur, I was found myself speaking of how the liturgy of Yom Kippur seeks to remind us of the fact that each of us might die in the coming year. Calling someone I hadn’t spoken to in months about returning some tiki torches I borrowed for a congregational event, she answers the phone from her husband’s hospital room, where he’s been for the last month since being in an accident. And, of course, there’s the basic experience of aging, which is to say, more of our own friends fighting cancer, losing parents, etc.

So, last weekend, when I got into the car to drive 3 hours to a wedding, I brought a certain awareness of how fragile our existence is: how easy it is to glance away from the road, and drive into a tree, for instance. After all, it happens all the time–just not to us (at least, not on a good day).

I leave you with the point I was making in the class I taught: it’s not that we should live every day as though it were our last, but that every now and again, we should think about whether we’re living our life in such a way that if it were to end tomorrow, we’d be pleased with the life we’ve led.

Facing Death

I’m a rabbi. As such, I deal with death frequently. I officiate at maybe five funerals a year. I spend a lot of time at graveyards (compared to your average American). Death is something I think about and talk about professionally. But I don’t have to deal with it in my own life very often.

Until now. Somehow, over the past three months or so, I’ve found myself dealing the loss of a number of people in my life. My friend Paul died in April, while I was in Boston spending time with my grandfather who was in hospice. My grandfather died at the end of May. And my college classmate Elinor passed away last night, following a lengthy battle with cancer. All in all, that’s a lot of death (putting aside the three funerals I’ve already done this year).

It makes me reflective. I find myself thinking about how long I’ll live. Certainly no one knows when they’ll die (unless, like Elinor, they are able to plan the moment), but somehow I always think about my own death as somewhere in the nebulous–but distant–future. After all, people my age don’t die of natural causes. . .

Except that as I get older, and age into my forties, more and more of my contemporaries do die of natural causes. Part of that is just the nature of statistics. The longer you live, the greater the chance of dying of natural causes. And as I get older, the people I bury get closer and closer to my own age. Usually that doesn’t strike close to home. This spring, however, it’s beginning to feel personal.

Elinor, Paul and my grandfather represent exactly three generations. My grandfather died at age 91. Paul in his early 60s. Elinor in her early 40s. Death is an equal opportunity employer.

All of which has me feeling just a touch reflective, a touch melancholy. Buy while I am yet above the ground, I will celebrate the day. I will lift a glass of wine to the memories of loved ones who have passed, and savor the flavor of life.

It’s Amazing That Our Bodies Function

Spending time around my grandfather as he is dying pushes my thinking in interesting ways. One of those ways is about how amazing it is that bodies function, and how resilient they are.

Judaism has a specific blessing about this (arguably, Judaism has a specific blessing for everything), and it’s a blessing that has spoken to me for many years.

Blessed are you, Divine One, our God, nature’s rulemaker, who formed humanity in wisdom, and created within us openings and channels. It is evident and known that should one of these openings be closed when it should be open, or open when it should be closed, we would be unable to stand before you. Blessed are You, Divine One, healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

It is known, colloquially, as the bathroom blessing, since it is recited, among other times, when one relieves oneself (it is also a part of the litany of blessings recited each morning upon getting up).

For me, this blessing has always drawn attention to the miracle of the intricacy of the human body. How everything fits together, and, for the most part, functions without our conscious attention. How, until the advent of computers, it would have been impossible for humans to design a system this complex (which is not to say that I believe that we were “designed” by a conscious deity, merely that we could not have designed something like ourselves, which nature did). I have always seen it as a reminder of the delicacy of the human body, the fragility of our inner workings.

As I watch my grandfather slipping slowly down his final road, however, I am, ironically,  reminded just how robust the human body is. Even as his body is riddled with a cancer which does not belong, and squeezes out the organs which do, his body continues to function. His brain, for the most part, continues to function, albeit with the occasional fault. Our bodies are remarkably fault-tolerant, to use the language of technology. And somehow, I find this fault-tolerance an even greater occasion for wonder.

Blessed is the one who heals flesh and works wonders.

Living in Death

Right at the moment, I’m feeling a little surrounded by death. I’m in Boston for an indeterminate period of time accompanying my grandfather on his journey towards death. As I wrote yesterday, Paul Bingman, a friend and amazing person died on Sunday, and I’m having conversations with various folks about planning a memorial service for him (something I know more about than most folks, being involved in several funerals a year in a professional way).

I’m coming to a conclusion. Dying is hard work. I don’t know how hard it is for the one actually doing the dying (though it looks pretty rough, and on the basis of my observations I really wouldn’t recommend it). But for those of us involved in ancillary ways, it takes a toll, both physical and emotional. I know this sounds awfully flip for a post ab out death and dying, but sometimes, humor is all one has to hold things together.

For the past couple of days I’ve been beginning to think about a prayer (or meditation, if you prefer) to be said before entering a space where someone is dying (or in hospice). So far, I’ve gotten this far:

Here I am, prepared to accompany ___________ on their final journey. As I spend time with him/her let me be there for him/her, not for myself. May I answer them in the ways that are best for him/her, not those that are easiest or most comfortable for me. May my presence bring us both peace.

As the task becomes harder, may I remain equal to the task. And when I am not, may I forgive myself, knowing that what I do is hard work, and impossible to do perfectly.

May the time I spend with __________ be as meaningful and enjoyable as it can be for both of us.

It’s not perfect. It’s not exactly what needs to be said. But it’s a start.

May the source of comfort grant peace to all those who seek it.

Paul Bingman’s Death: The Passing of a Giant

Paul Bingman was a fixture in the Portland Tech Community. If by fixture one means the largest person in the room who was constantly moving around talking to everyone. Yet, I’m clear that the tech community was only one of the many communities he belonged to.

Paul Bingman

He passed away Sunday, April 3. Our community will never be the same.

Paul was the extrovert in a community of introverts. On the facebook page, Friends of Paul Bingman many people are commenting about how he was the first person they met when they moved to Portland, or entered the Portland tech community, and the like. It’s not a coincidence. Paul was someone who would come up to you and introduce himself. He would say something funny and engaging. Usually something smarter than you could respond to immediately.

Paul was part of so many different communities. Whether it was the tech community, the Jungians, the film community or some amorphous spiritual community (at least amorphous to me), he was central and involved. His beloved VW vanagan was constantly in use transporting equipment to one event or another–because he was always helping (unless the vanagan was awaiting a part–which might take months to find). I heard hints of other communities involving music, railroads etc. He was truly a renaissance man.

Paul was a tech geek who took spirituality seriously. He loved to ask questions about Judaism. In asking, he was seeking knowledge, listening with neither acceptance of truth, nor rejection of spiritual truth, but hearing it was true to me (or someone). He would challenge the ideas presented, not implying they were silly, but trying to understand how they worked. As I think about it, he would have made a fabulous rabbinic scholar, chasing down ideas and debates, some of which were simply about the intellectual pleasure of the debate, some of which had great practical implications, and usually with a few incisive puns thrown in.

I’ve had a little trouble figuring out how to write about Paul. A serious tech geek, he was never quite satisfied with the forms of communications we had available. Sure, there was twitter, email, texting and the like. But I can just hear his response to the suggestion that one communicate by those tools: “Though, you know…” proceeding to tell us how smoke signals were actually a much more elegant solution, and could be practical if the world was just slightly different (and better).

But I lack Paul’s engineering creativity. So I write a blog post, and announce it via facebook and twitter, and hope that Paul will forgive me that it isn’t funnier or cleverer. And know that he is in a place of peace, disturbed only by crazy engineering a fabulous puns.

Why Do We Fear Death?

I’ve been reading an article in the New Yorker about Death and Dying. It talks about people’s reluctance to accept that there comes a point when there is nothing more that can be done for them, medically. This is part of the reason why people are so reluctant to move into hospice: it means giving up on getting better.

All of this makes perfect sense: after all, death is the big bugaboo, that which we fear above all else. But why?

From a religious point of view, if one believes in an afterlife, then death should bring rewards, or at least peace (at least for those who have led good lives, and who truly believes that they have done more evil than good?). For those who do not believe in an afterlife, death should simply be seen as a cessation. I suppose for that small minority of religious believers in an afterlife who think they have done great evil, death is something to fear. Yet it is, almost universally, feared.

Is it the unknown? The fact that death is the barrier beyond which lies the great undiscovered? If so, one would expect that there would be those who would see it as an adventure, the next frontier to be explored.

When faced with death, we, as humans, twist and turn to try to avoid it. We will go to great lengths and discomfort to prolong our lives even a little bit. We accept great pain, unhappiness, physical infirmity, rarely wondering if that is actually better than death.

There is an old Jewish joke: A man is complaining about how hard his life is. How he works three jobs for just enough money to feed himself, he hurts all the time and has no hope for the future. He tells his friend, “it would be better had I never been born.” His friend replies, “ah, but how many are that lucky? Maybe one in a million!”

As humans, we seem to be hard-coded to seek life. No doubt this is good for the survival of the species. But I have to ask, is it good for us as human beings? How much suffering is created because we fear death? I don’t know what the answer is, but I believe our current attitudes aren’t serving us well.

Death and Adolescence Don't Mix

This week I did something I’ve been dreading for a long time: I buried a 17-year-old.

In this case, I didn’t perform the funeral (that was done by another rabbi in another state), but the family plot was here in Portland, and so they needed a rabbi for the interment. It meant I had less contact with the family than I usually do for a funeral, and was less clear on the relationships and the background. I thought that would make me feel less connected, but I don’t think it did.

As opposed to most people, I’m fairly familiar with the what it looks like when you bury a loved one. I know about how much crying there will usually be, or at least the range of crying to expect. I don’t mean to sound callous, and I certainly don’t feel immune to the sadness and grief that accompany a funeral, but having been to 30 or  so funerals, one develops a certain sense of what is regular. This wasn’t regular.

The entire family was crying. Not shedding a few tears, but really crying. Most of the other folks who were there to support the family had tears in their eyes. This was a pain that tore at the soul. This was a pain that tore at my soul.

I have written before about my views of God, and why bad things happen to good people. My view tends to boil down to the idea that God is not a controlling deity who can just “fix things.” but is rather that part of the universe that can cause us to do good. Or is the universe itself, but without a true volition. This is my intellectual, and often spiritual belief in God. Events like burying a 17-year-old challenge this.

At the graveside, I found myself asking God, “why?’ I found myself thinking that just as adolescents feel immortal, perhaps they should be immortal. That they should not die. I found myself asking the Holy for an explanation, and trying to hold the Divine responsible. These are not reactions born of intellectual reason. Even as I asked them, I knew they implied a theology which is not my own. Yet I couldn’t stop myself from asking them.

Sometimes, the pain of the day is too much, and I need God to be more than God is. And I cry out to  God, because even if God cannot act to change what is, at least God can hear my pain. And I, perhaps, can feel a little better.

If you have adolescents, hug them. Remind them to have fun, but that there are behaviors that are too risky, even if they feel immortal. Driving too fast can be deadly. There are drugs which can kill you. There are many risks which will turn out okay most of the time, but once in a while, will kill you. And even if your kids won’t change their behavior to protect their lives, ask them to do it to protect all those who love them from their death. Please. This is pain no one should suffer.

Eva's Memorial to Artemis

I read a draft of David’s blog post about Artemis and told him that he had not gotten anywhere close to capturing the quality of their connection. I later realized that I had a different perspective on their relationship, and what I wasn’t seeing was an outsider’s perspective. I asked David if I could write a guest post and he agreed. So here goes. picture-001

When my cat, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and I landed at PHL to meet up with David (who had moved there a few months prior to start rabbinical school), he met us with the keys to our new house. We stopped by his apartment to pick up his cats, Artemis and Diana, and we all moved into our first home together. Thus began my life with the deities (my collective term for Artemis and Diana).

Having lived with David and Artemis for almost 11 years, I still struggle to find words to describe the nature of their relationship. In some ways, they were like an old married couple: reflecting each other’s moods, taking comfort in their routine and knowing exactly how to press each other’s buttons—which they did with great regularity.

Artemis on White SofaDavid and Artemis would pick up each other’s moods. When David was anxious, Artemis became anxious. When one of them was grumpy, the other one became grumpy. This was a particular issue because Artemis used to get very grumpy when she was sick. Unfortunately for all 3 of us, Artemis had a lot of experience with illness. Thus when Artemis was sick, I got to deal with both a grumpy David and a sick Artemis.

As one might imagine, Artemis developed a deep loathing of the vet. She loved the part where she got to sit on David’s lap and look out the window on the car ride to and from the vet’s office. As soon as we entered the vet’s building, she would start hissing. She hated that place so much that she would hiss at inanimate objects, just in case we forgot how angry she was to be there. But, as soon as we got back into the car, she would revert to her normal happy self and enjoy the ride home.

At some point our vet realized that Artemis was slightly less agitated if David held her while her blood was being drawn. This stopped working when David started getting really anxious about Artemis’ health, which, in turn, made Artemis anxious. Once we got to the point where I had to calm David so he could calm Artemis our vet decided that David had become more of a hindrance than a help.

Artemis often treated David like an oversized kitten. She loved to groom him to make sure that he was always clean and tidy. Artemis groomed me on occasion, but gave up grooming my hair once she realized that I was a VERY long-haired cat and that was not within her job description.

Artemis had no compunction about disciplining David when he did something wrong (using her own definition, of course). Artemis indicated her displeasure to most people with a very gentle bite which clearly conveyed “thank you very much, but that is all for now.” With David, she used a wide range of bites, depending on her degree of displeasure with his behavior. She never did that with anyone else. Not me, not the other cats, no one but David.Artemis peeved

Artemis hated it when David traveled and responded by defiantly acting out. She would get on the table (something she knew was forbidden) and look me straight in the eye, daring me to remove her. When David returned she would snub him. She would occasionally have to get on his lap or groom him, but as soon as she was done, the snubbing resumed.

When we both went away we would get a cat sitter because the conventional wisdom is that cats prefer to stay in their home territory and dogs prefer a kennel. Although we were always happy to come home to our cats, we did so with a bit of dread. We knew that Artemis would act out for the next few days, just in case we thought she was ok with the idea of us leaving home.

At some point we tried boarding Artemis and Diana at the Arnold Creek Cat Retreat. This turned out to be a brilliant move on our part. Artemis enjoyed her vacations so much that she ceased her post-travel retaliatory behavior. When we arrived at the cattery, Artemis would offer some perfunctory hisses before slipping into her routine. She would walk around the cattery informing all of the other cats that she was in charge, then she would go sit under the feather toy and wait patiently for Shirley to play with her. There were some more perfunctory, guilt inducing, hisses when we left. Apparently, once we were out of sight she would settle in and enjoy herself.

For reasons beyond our ken, all three of our cats developed lymphoma. When we moved back to Portland in 2004, Artemis was just becoming symptomatic and we were concerned that she might not even make it through the move. As soon as we got somewhat settled, we went to the Cat Hospital of Portland and met Dr. Elizabeth Colleran—Artemis’ arch nemesis. Artemis never did figure out why we were so enamored with her and we had to resort to euphemisms when she learned the words “vet” and “Dr. Colleran.”

I give Dr. Colleran most of the credit for getting Artemis’ lymphoma into remission not once, but twice. I also know that Artemis fought her disease with everything she had because she did not want to leave her David.

It is no exaggeration to say that Artemis was in charge of our household. She supervised everything we did: our morning showers, our meals, working, reading, everything. Since there were two of us she was sometimes forced to split her attention, but she never slacked on her responsibilities.

Artemis did not always come to the door to see us out, but she was always in the window meowing when we got home. Artemis at the DoorIf I got home before David she would hang out with me, while always keeping an ear out for David’s return. Every time we walked in the door, she would remind us of the protocol. Specifically, that she was to be picked up and properly greeted before we did anything else. She always voiced her disapproval if we wanted (or needed) to put things down before picking her up. That was just not how it was done.

Artemis aged very quickly at the end, and she only started really looking like the old lady she was in the last 3 months of her life. But even though she was feeling really crappy all that time, she did not forgo any of her responsibilities to David or the household. Recognizing that time was short, David fretted over whether he would be able to let her go if it came to that. But Artemis was true to the end. She was herself until her final seizure, after which it was unquestionably time to say goodbye.

I have had 5 cats who were with me until they died. But Artemis’ death has been the hardest to bear. There is nowhere I can go or anything I can do at home without being acutely aware of her absence. When I sit on the couch with my laptop, I still contort my body so I can leave my lap available for her (she always felt that laptops were a waste of a good lap, even if she was happily settled on someone else’s lap).Artemis and David I still automatically check for her water bowl. Most cats hate drinking water, but not Artemis. She loved drinking.

Artemis had a very odd fetish, but I suppose everyone is entitled to at least one. Artemis loved to sit on my dirty bras, the stinkier, the better. Artemis herself had an amazing smell. It was warm and comforting in a way that I imagine mothers smell to their babies.

Mornings are the time I miss her most. Mornings were the one time of day when I had Artemis all to myself. I always found it comforting to leave David, barely awake, cuddled with his most beloved Artemis.

I often say that I come second to Artemis in David’s world. He has always denied it, but I still think there is some truth there. There was something about their love for each other that went deeper than I could fathom. I am confident that David’s love for me is true and deep. I also believe that there was something ineffable between Artemis and David. A quality of love that he and I will never share.

Artemis Died

My most beloved cat, Artemis, died last night. That’s about all I’m up for saying about it at the moment, but will do a fuller memorial to her here at some point soon(-ish).

A Departed Friend

For someone who spends so much time at funerals, I’ve attended relatively few at which I wasn’t officiating. Today, I’m attending my first funeral for a friend. 

I first met Pam Webb 13 years ago, almost to the day that she died. We first met at Rosh Hashanah services at Havurah Shalom in 1995. I was just finding my way back to Judaism and was slowly exploring options. Pam informed me that I “should” take the adult education class being offered. In fact, I suspect she informed me that I “would” be taking the class. Pam was a force of nature, and tended to give very concrete and directive advice. 

During a bone marrow replacement, Pam wanted a project to keep her mind off of the chemo. It was at about this time that Eva and I were remodeling the house. Pam was an architect, and decided to take on our remodel as something to keep her occupied in the hospital. Pam spoke for the house. Eva and I would talk about what we wanted out of the remodel, and Pam would speak of what “the house wanted.” Mainly, this consisted of making sure we weren’t doing terrible damage to the feel of the house. She always brought a certainty to the discussion, however, giving me a feeling that the house had some sort of spirit with which she was communing. Needless to say, the final design was both functional and beautiful, incorporating elements that a less creative architect would have said were not possible within the space limitations.

When Eva and I went off to Philadelphia, Pam was there with words of wisdom about couples moving for one partner’s career. When we started CubeSpace, Pam was available with advice, referrals and reality checks. After we opened, she took part in a multi-artist exhibition, displaying her fused glass. 

Pam was always full of ideas and projects. She was always heading off in some new direction. She was never daunted by barriers, and always sought ways around them. She kept more balls in the air than I could imagine. 

I will miss Pam’s energy and her wisdom. I will miss her presence. Her memory will be a blessing to all of us who knew her.