Parashat Vayechi - Bedside Pearls

For Congregation Ner Shalom. (And for me.)

I wondered what I would talk about tonight; what of the immense experience of this last dozen days would bubble up as the take-away for a Shabbat drash. What of the surprise and sadness of my mother’s stroke? What of our agonizingly sluggish high-speed drive to the Memorial Hospital emergency room, during which my Mom, becoming aware of how bad this might go, looked at me and said, “Shit, shit, shit.” What of the fact that the last thing she had been doing before the stroke was learning! With me and the other members of Yiddish Tish, a poem by Kadya Molodovsky, in which the poet asks God to help her give up this pained world and to invite her to His house instead; asking God to prepare a meal and a footstool; asking God to send His most beautiful angel for her so that her last gaze would be extinguished with a smile? 

And what of our subsequent and continuing bedside vigil?

Or the tremendous show of support from this community, including the likes of Shari Brenner who dispensed with all her week’s plans in order to care for us and coordinate for us. Or the outpouring from Mom’s home synagogue and PFLAG communities and her large and loving family? What of any of this would float to the surface as the nugget that illuminates or is illuminated by this week’s Torah portion?

For obvious reasons I found myself drawn not to this week’s parasha, Vayigash, in which Joseph and his brothers are tearfully reunited, but instead next week’s, Vayechi, in which we see Joseph in vigil at his father’s bedside, his 147-year old father, from whom he had long been separated, but who, unforeseen, or perhaps completely foreseen by Joseph the interpreter of dreams, had ended up coming to him, and was now resettled in the green Egyptian exurb of Goshen. Joseph’s father was now nearby, literally embedded in a place where Joseph could keep company and give care.

All the obvious parallels jumped out at me. Like Joseph, I ended up far away from my birthplace; taking up a new life in what is, for all intents and purposes, another country. Like Joseph, I’ve lived with constant anxiety about a distant parent. And like Joseph, I found, beyond all reasonable expectation, that parent on my own doorstep at a moment of great need. I imagine that Joseph’s mind wandered to the question of bashertness, however that was said in Egyptian.

That it was all meant to be: Pharaoh’s dreams, the rationing plan, the famine itself. So that Jacob would end up not in Hebron, near his parents’ graves, but in Egypt, on Joseph’s turf, where Joseph could rally the best healers and magicians and musicians. So that Jacob could be comfortable in his last days, in a safe and cozy bed, with his children and grandchildren in attendance.

So were we similarly fortunate. For decades I’ve lived with the anxiety: what if Mom’s life-changing event (because we will all have one, whether disease or disaster or death) happens while she’s alone in her house in Niles, Illinois? This decades-old anxiety was resolved overnight with no special effort on my part. The cards of chesed were dealt, and my mother ended up close by, in my car when it happened, and for this last fortnight just a few miles from my house. We too have been able to marshal remarkable resources for her – healers, magicians, musicians. Including my sister, who by coincidence was at a moment where she could make herself free to simply be here. What were the odds?

All of this bashertness is not necessarily destiny – I am not a strong believer in destiny. But it is blessing nonetheless. I am deeply aware of that at every moment. Every member of this community who comes into the room to read Mom a story or hold her hand or lay healing hands on her makes my own sense of blessing and gratitude well up and overflow. Yes, we would have made sure she got plenty of fine care and loving company in Chicago. But here it is happening without our having to engineer it. I have felt firmly supported, as have my sister and my husband and the rest our family. The doctors have been good, the nurses fabulous. The healers of this Ner Shalom community have helped us talk through our decision tree – the what-ifs that will make us more prepared in the coming days and weeks and months to make decisions based on what Mom would want for herself.

We have had magnificent moments in the hospital room. An Erev Shabbat in the ICU more intense and magical than any I could hope to achieve here. And then this week: moments of recovery. The first half-smile. An attempt to form a word. The squeeze of a hand. A reaction to a song or story or voice or face. A soft moaning that shifts in pitch until it matches a niggun being sung around the bedside. Each of these is a treasure. I feel like a diver discovering an oyster bed and finding pearl after pearl. Not in every oyster, not by far, but in enough to make me not give up the dive. This could have been my teaching tonight – something about the magnificent miracle of each moment. How spending Chanukah in the ICU and the neurology ward reawakens you to the miracles that are encoded in our very bodies – in our abilities to heal, or to recognize each other, or to make each other laugh. These are miracles no less significant than the Maccabbees expelling the Greeks back in the day. And all we have to do is notice.

This teaching is not new or revolutionary. Mindfulness. Easy. Just not always easy to do in our day-to-day lives. Mindfulness comes naturally at life’s biggest moments: births, deaths, grave illnesses. Moments when our usual yardsticks of success and failure drop away, when our field of vision narrows and we sidle into a more primitive relationship with the stuff of life. Where a smile or a squeeze of the hand or a clear, unimpeded breath matter and mean more than anything.

Joseph must have felt such extraordinary mindfulness at his father’s bedside. Torah tells the story as a series of events, but it hints at the heightened emotion and awareness behind the action. The events: Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in the family plot in Hebron. Later, in his final illness, Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons, giving the firstborn blessing to the second-born, much as he, a second son, connived the firstborn blessing from his aged father, Isaac. Jacob offers prophecies about each of his sons’ descendants. Then he gathers his feet back into the bed and is gathered in turn by his ancestors, as the story beautifully reads.

But the emotion behind it. The text tells of Joseph prostrating himself at the bedside, but in our mind’s eye we see Joseph collapsing from grief. After all, he’d been without his father for so many years; how sad and bitter to anticipate losing him now a second time.

Torah doesn’t tell us how much time passed between Jacob’s exacting Joseph’s promise to bury him in the Old Country and his actual death. But no matter how long, we must imagine that there was enough time for Joseph to sit by his father’s bedside and tell him stories of Egypt and stroke his hand. Torah doesn’t tell us how many pearls of closeness and love Joseph and Jacob harvested together in those days or weeks or months until Jacob died so peacefully. But surely there were many. And the obvious teaching would have been: those pearls are always waiting for us; we can dive and fetch them at any time. An obvious teaching, and no less true for being obvious.

Or there might be here a teaching about making sure that nothing is left unsaid. That words of love must be uttered with frequency and sincerity, because you never know when your words might be taken away from you. If they are, you need to know that there are no “I love you’s” missing. I’m guessing that between Jacob and Joseph nothing was left unsaid, just as in our case as well. My mother was and is an insistent articulator of her love, through her words and her actions. She loves freely and extravagantly, taking people under her wing with ease. As I told a young ICU nurse, if she were awake she would ask you how you came to be a nurse and would then tell you how proud your parents must be of you. No, speaking words of love and encouragement is simply her way. And between us, nothing is unsaid, no endearments are missing. Offering this reminder, perhaps more from her than from me, would also an obvious teaching, and no less true for being obvious.

But this will not, I think, be what I ultimately offer here tonight. Yes, it was that kind of week when time slows and you notice every precious moment. But I was also misled by my heightened mindfulness; I was lulled by the strength and beauty of the support we were offered. I was being mindful; I was grateful; I was glad that I had no loose ends with my mother, no “I love you” left unsaid. I was feeling pretty on top of things from a metaphysical perspective - and from a practical perspective as well. I was reasonably in control of a difficult situation. Friends back in Chicago were checking on the house; mail was already being forwarded; doctors were being consulted; a Facebook group was channeling updates on Mom’s condition to well over 200 loved ones and admirers, like a town crier, or like the shames in the Chelm story, who would rap on everyone’s shutters to announce the coming of Shabbos, until he was too old and frail to do the walk, and so everyone in the town unhinged their shutters and brought them to the synagogue so the shames could rap on them all in one place. Facebook is nothing if it is not that. In any event, I had things under control.

In fact, I felt so in charge of things that, determined to demonstrate the self-care people encouraged me to engage in, I scheduled myself a haircut yesterday, followed by a bodywork session with Sally Churgel to take care of my lower back and left thigh, which had been in spasm for weeks, now substantially exacerbated by the stress of Mom’s stroke, not to mention the initial nights of sleeping in the La-Z-Boy in the Memorial Hospital ICU. I was proud that I was taking care of myself. Glad that Mom was safe at the hospital with my sister. The terrific nurses had their eye on her. Shoshana Fershtman was coming to give Mom reiki. Atzilah Solot would be coming later to chant. And Mac McCaffry the next day to read Mom some more Kipling. Yes, all things considered, this was going well, and I was feeling very in charge of an otherwise dire situation.

But yesterday it was explained to me that I was not in charge of it all. That you cannot be in charge of it all. It was explained to me not in words, and not by any person. It was conveyed to me by the Universe, in the form of a large dog, a Catahoula Hound, who was frustrated perhaps at not having a shared language, or aggravated at the lack of opposable thumbs that would otherwise enable it to grab its masters and shake them and complain about the miserable life they were providing it. This dog, an unfamiliar familiar, carried the message to me that we cannot count on staying in control, that we cannot count on only one thing going wrong at a time. It did so using a traditional canine non-verbal method, involving sinking its teeth into flesh, into my hamstring. My mindfulness soared for moment, as fear and pain gave way to a moment of mindful grace in which I thought, “Aha, so this is what it feels like to be bitten by a large dog.”

I did not catch this dog’s name, although Demon Spawn comes to mind. But maybe it was Angel. My thigh was swelling like Jacob’s after his famed wrestling match, so maybe this dog was an angel too, delivering to me a message: a message that it was time for me to humble the fuck up. And sure enough, instead of on Sally’s very peaceful and healing table, I found myself back at the Memorial Hospital ER where they looked at me, puzzled, still remembering my colorful arrival with Mom last week. My sister came down from Mom’s room to meet me at registration, and wondered aloud whether she ought to just fill out her own emergency admission paperwork now, just in case.

I got good care, antibiotics and Percocet. I got, unexpectedly, an afternoon of relief from the muscle spasm I’d been experiencing in that very thigh, not unlike a bee sting relieving arthritis.

And I got a lesson, a thankfully non-fatal lesson, that anything can happen. That this life unfolds in messy ways, even if we’re blessed that some of it unfolds well. That staying on top of things is not possible and really not desirable either. Staying on top of things won’t keep the pain away, or make the catastrophe un-happen.

Instead, maybe, we are condemned – or privileged – to struggle. To slog through the messes and the sadnesses and to rejoice at the simches that don’t always quite make up for the pain but which deserve all our love anyway. To learn to roll with the unexpected without regard to how you will handle it or what you will do about it. To be, as Berrine often reminds me, a human being, not a human doing. And yes, to be mindful of the pearls that you find as you move in this current. And yes, to say all your “I love you’s” well in advance of dire need, because you never know when a large dog’s denim-piercing teeth will keep you away from a bedside at a critical moment.

I learned all this from the Universe, from an Angel, whose teeth and slobber I can still feel. It could have been worse. Oh wait, it was worse, just a week before, when I arrived at the ER with my mother, who was busy losing her motion and her words. And oh wait, that could have been worse too.

We all live through hard times. And these times are ultimately bigger than our optimism or our pessimism or our managerial skills. Instead, I guess, the trick is just to be open. Enlist help. Be brave enough to be vulnerable. Be brave enough to hurt and to heal.

A lovely Kinsey Sicks fan and seminary student, Charles May, caught wind of what was going on this week and sent me this unattributed prayer-poem:

God, make me brave for life: oh, braver than this.

Let me straighten after pain, as a tree straightens after the rain,

Shining and lovely again.

God, make me brave for life; much braver than this.

As the blown grass lifts, let me rise

From sorrow with quiet eyes,

Knowing Thy way is wise.

God, make me brave, life brings

Such blinding things.

Help me to keep my sight;

Help me to see aright

That out of dark comes light.

My life is filled with blessing without measure, baruch Hashem. I am blessed that because this time is uncontrollable, unmanageable, the pearls – a smile, the squeeze of a hand, the arching of an eyebrow – are all the more precious.