Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Gift of Fading Memory

There are occasions in our lives, when our emotions are so powerful, our pain so strong or our work so difficult, that we are certain we will remember it forever. Every detail is etched on our minds and hearts, and we know we could never forget.

We do remember for a while. And then the memory fades, allowing us to put the experience behind us - perhaps to even grow from it - and move on with our lives.

It's a blessing, really.

During one such time in my life, we were asked to temporarily host a ten year old boy with some serious issues. He stayed with us for three weeks before he had to be placed in the psychiatric ward of the hospital.

I don't remember a lot about those weeks. I don't think I want to. But I do remember that it was more physically and emotionally draining than I ever imagined it could be, and that it took a tremendous toll on everyone in the family and turned our lives upside-down.

I remember how I felt so sad that he ended up in the hospital despite all our efforts to keep him out; and at the same time, so relieved to have my life back.

And after it was all over, I remember telling a friend how this was the most difficult three weeks of my life.

Looking back, I don't know that it was. I've had other challenges that were at least as difficult, if not more so. But time passed. I forgot...and I healed. And those other things didn't seem so hard anymore.

With time, the same thing happened with this. I thought I'd never undertake anything like this ever again. But when I was recently asked to have a boy in my son's class stay with us for a few days, I agreed. The memories of that ordeal have faded, the hardships have dimmed. I can hardly remember why I found it so excruciating.

Meanwhile, those few days are stretching into weeks, and he's still with us.

It's a funny thing, the mind. 

The heart, too.

There are times I've been so hurt...in so much pain...I didn't know if I could ever heal.

But time passed. The hurt faded. And sometimes, when I look back, I almost can't remember what it was that hurt so intensely. Almost.

When that happens, I am finally able to judge favorably; to try to see things from another point of view. Maybe even forgive.

It's a blessing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

One Step At A Time

I couldn't do it. I just couldn't.

I've been with the chevra kaddisha for a while, and there is very little that fazes me. I've seen a lot. And most of the time, I get down to work and do what I am there to do. It never becomes routine, and I never get used to seeing the pain that people suffer, but I can put my feelings aside while I get the job done.

Sometimes, though, I can see at first glance that it will be difficult, and for a minute, I get a feeling of dread. Only for a minute. The feeling quickly passes, as I start doing whatever needs to be done.

This time, I was prepared in advance. I knew it would be difficult. But I had no idea how difficult until I was there. I took one look, and I knew I couldn't do it.

I looked around at the women who were there with me. I was the most experienced of the group, and they were watching me and waiting for my direction. It was up to me to get them started, to tell them what needs to be done and how we were going to do it. They were counting on me.

"I can't do this," I told them. "I can't do it."

I saw the look in their eyes turn to panic. One woman removed her apron.

"It's impossible," she said. "She's just going to have to buried the way she is. There's nothing we can do."

I was tempted to agree. I felt so overwhelmed...I had no idea how to accomplish what needed to be done. I didn't know where to start. But I knew this was my responsibility.

"No," I said, sounding more confident than I felt. "We can do it. We have to do it. Let's get started."

Thinking about the whole process and the ultimate goal was daunting, but I could think about the first step. We could start with one step, and worry about the next step when that was done.

We could do it. One step at a time.

It's like life, kind of.

Sometimes I look at my life, and I'm overwhelmed. There are so many things I need to fix, so much to do, so much I want to be. I look at my role models, and I know that this is how I would like to be some day. But it's daunting. I don't know where to start. It's too hard. I just want to give up.

But I know I can do it. One step at a time.

This is a lesson of the Chanukah menorah. We light one small flame at a time, representing small steps, but we aspire to ultimately kindle all of the candles.

The ultimate goal may be drastic change, but it has to be accomplished taking one step at a time.

Monday, November 5, 2012

To Give Or Not To Give

I spent my day yesterday getting gas.

All day. Seven hours.

I didn't even come prepared. I didn't bring anything to do or read while I waited. I had no idea I would wait that long. Had I known, I would never have gotten on that line. I wasn't even that desperate for the gas.

So I had plenty of time to watch the people outside my window. I got to know the drivers of the cars around me. I watched how people who started the day smiling became irritable as the day wore on. I witnessed the fight that broke out when someone cut the line and patience was wearing thin. I observed the man two cars ahead of mine who got out and pushed his car every time the line inched forward so as not to use whatever gas he had, and who, after waiting five hours, chose to leave.

Then, about three hours into my wait, I watched a man and his little girl walk from car to car offering candy and chocolate. And suddenly, the mood lifted, and there were smiles. People got out of their cars and talked to other drivers.

One small act of kindness, so much light.

Why did he do it?

Last week, my son and his friends drove to Sea Gate, an area that was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, and helped some of the residents pack their belongings and load the trucks so they could leave.


Why did they leave their comfortable, dry yeshiva building to go help some people they didn't even know?

Why do we give?

In this week's parsha, Eliezer asks Rivka for some water from the well. She notices that he is leading a whole caravan of thirsty camels, and she voluntarily brings enough water for Eliezer and all of his camels. She had one motivation - to give to someone else with kindness.

Giving leads to caring. Every time we give, we invest ourselves in the lives of others and we become deeper and richer for it.

But the more we give, the more we care, and the more we open ourselves up to hurt.

The Chasam Sofer once did an enormous favor for someone, who later asked him, “What can I ever do to repay you for your kindness?” The Chasam Sofer replied, “One day, when you get upset and angry with me, please remember what I have done for you today. And, rather than pelting me with big rocks, please throw small stones instead.”

I don't give in order to receive. I don't give because I want the appreciation. A thank you can feel so rewarding, but it is not the reason I give.

But I am human.

I don't need the thank you, but when I am pelted with rocks, it hurts.

I sometimes think about protecting myself, about being more careful with how much I give and not opening myself up to hurt. I'm only human.

But...is this the kind of person I want to become? Is this who I want to be?

So when I find myself faced with the opportunity to do someone a favor, and a little voice inside me says, "She doesn't appreciate what you do for her," I won't listen and I will do it anyway. And when the voice says, "He will pelt you with big rocks," I won't listen and I will do it anyway.

When I have the opportunity to give, I will give.

I will do it because it is the right thing. And because that is the kind of human I want to be.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Year Later...

My daughter is late.

I don't worry. Maybe she stopped at some stores on the way home. Maybe she's walking with friends and lost track of time. Maybe she stayed at school late.

But...it's getting later. And she's still not home. It's a short Friday afternoon. She usually comes straight home. I'm still not worried. Not really. But there is that tiny, familiar fear inside me. What if she meant to come straight home, but something happened? What if she's not okay? What if she never even got to school?? My chest feels tight. I imagine the worst.

I call a few friends. They don't know where she is. It's really late now, and I'm worried.

By the time she walks into the house, I am frantic. She doesn't seem to understand why. I'm not sure I understand it, either. I could have thought of a hundred plausible explanations for her lateness. I did. But I also thought of a hundred frightening possibilities.

Because, for some people, those things really happened.

This week marks the first yahrtzeit of Leiby Kletzky.

I spent most of last summer driving my very independent little boy to and from camp. He would not be walking himself anymore. It was too dangerous. There were monsters waiting to prey on little boys who walked home alone. No monster was going to get my little boy. I would make sure of that.

Life goes on. And eventually, I allowed him to walk himself. I needed to let my little boy grow up. It was time.

But something changed for me. I am no longer the same calm, easygoing mother I once was. I worry now. When my little boy walks home himself, I worry. When my kids go swimming, I worry. When they go on school trips, I worry.

Bad things happen. I know that now. Not somewhere out there, to someone I don't know and don't relate to. Right here, to someone in the same camp as my little boy, walking the same route home. And it scares me.

May we soon merit the fulfillment of the prophecy: "I will turn their mourning into joy and will comfort them and make them rejoice from their sorrow"

May Leiby's neshama have an aliya.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Giver of Life

The first thing I noticed was her French manicure.

And then I saw her arm.

I've seen a lot in my work with the chevrah kaddisha, but this unnerved me, and I had to look away.

At the age of 69, she decided that life wasn't worth living, and she jumped to her death. Out of her third floor apartment's window.

And I, together with 3 other women, were left to clean up the mess and prepare her for burial.

I was shaken up after I was done with that tahara. It wasn't about death. I've seen enough of that. And it wasn't even about the condition of her body. It wasn't the worst I've seen. It was about how her body came to be in this condition. About what she did.

Taharas don't scare me. Death doesn't scare me. It's the way of the world. We are born, we grow old and we die.

But this....this is not the way of the world.

Life has its ups and downs. And I've had my fair share of them. I know pain. But I don't know the feeling that life is not worth living. 

How much pain does it take to make someone want to just end it all? How much suffering must one go through to make them decide to end their life? What does it take to make one feel that their life is not worthwhile?

The Gemara says that Hashem never challenges us with more than He has empowered us to handle. So how can we explain a pain so unbearable that it causes one to take her own life in such a violent way?

Honestly...sometimes we do get more than we can handle. It happens. Sometimes it's just...too...much.

Sometimes, for some people, the pain is so sharp and overwhelming that people suffering from an onslaught of it are hardly in control of themselves. They just want the pain to stop.

According to Judaism, we do not own our soul or body, and we are not free to end life when we want. Life belongs to the Giver of Life. And the consequences for taking one's life are severe.

But there are those who commit suicide out of extreme distress and emotional agony. We leave it up to the Giver of Life to know whether this person really had any free choice left in his soul. It is not our job to judge.

So she received a Jewish burial and we performed the tahara. The most unsettling and heartbreaking tahara I ever did.

May we always remember how precious and valuable life is.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Million Pieces

"He seems smitten," the shadchan tells me after the third date.

"He's smitten," I repeat to my daughter. She grins, and I know she is equally smitten. It is all moving so fast, I can barely catch my breath.

"What does smitten mean?" my little boy asks.

"You know...like the firstborn in Mitzrayim were smitten," my daughter explains. "Like...hit hard." My daughter is laughing, and my little boy is not happy with her explanation.

It's good to see her so excited. So this is how it is, I think. Just when it all seems so hopeless, along comes the right one. All those dry months, waiting for the phone to ring. And then it does ring. And they seem so right for each other. She likes him. He likes her. Everything falls into place.

It all just seems so...right.

And then it's over.

As quickly as it started, it's over.

I would die for my children. I knew that instantly, the moment they were born. I hope I am never tested, but I wonder sometimes if seeing them in pain and knowing there is nothing I can do to take it away isn't harder, in some way.

I want to be able to tell her that it'll be ok. That this wasn't bashert. That someone more wonderful will come along soon. But I don't know that it's true. How can I know?

My heart aches for her. I wish I could fix this somehow. I wish I could take the pain away. I wish I could feel it for her. Instead of her.

But I can't. I see her anguish and it's breaking my heart into a million pieces.

And there's nothing I can do.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

When It Doesn't Make Sense

They were sitting around on Shabbos afternoon, when the conversation turned serious. The boy who was hit with a bat before Purim is the nephew of my son's friend. He is in critical condition, and my son was upset.

"Imagine how the boy who hit him feels," my daughter said.

There were sighs all around as that thought sank in.

"It's like Suri Brisk's chosson," she continued. "Imagine how he feels."

I couldn't even begin to imagine.

"I can't believe she's gone." She sighed deeply. "She was just a couple of years older than me. Just a regular girl from a regular family. It doesn't make sense."

Someone I've been working very closely with every day is now fighting for her life. She was fine just a short time ago. She's just a regular woman with a regular family. With a husband and children who need her.

It doesn't make sense.

As I write this, I wonder if I spend too much time focusing on the things that don't make sense to me - on the times I don't see Hashem - the times when He is hidden.

"Why didn't you make kreplach this year?" my little boy asked me on Purim. Kreplach are traditionally eaten on Purim because the hidden filling is reminiscent of the hidden nature of the Purim miracle.

"I made stuffed cabbage," I told him. "It's the same idea. The meat filling is hidden inside the cabbage."

"Right," he agreed, "hamantashen too."

"Not really." I wasn't sure. "The filling in hamantashen isn't hidden. It's peeking out a bit."

"Like the Purim nes!" He smiled as he explained. "Hashem wasn't completely hidden. He was peeking out a bit."

There are times I do see Him, of course. There are times when the miracles are so obvious. I only need to look at my sweet granddaughter, at each of my children, at all the good I'm blessed with, to see Him peeking out. It's easy to see Him then.

But I need to take the message of Purim and discover Hashem even when He is concealed.

Even when it doesn't make sense.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Instant Love

I look back at photos from when my kids were little, and it seems like a lifetime ago.

My presence is just as necessary to my kids these days as it was when I was getting up in middle of the night. It is still emotionally and intellectually demanding to have these people in my life – children whose world has become so complex – children who have reached an age where their heartbreaks can no longer be repaired with a hug.

But I miss those days. The days of endlessly pushing a child on a swing. Of rereading One Fish Two Fish for the millionth time. Of tantrums and spilled milk.

Sometimes, I'd give anything to return to those days.

Maybe that's why we are given grandchildren.

As I hold this beautiful new baby, I am filled with such happiness and love. She turns my heart upside down and gives me so much joy that it brings a lump to my throat and makes my heart want to burst. And I could wish for nothing more at this moment in time.

Instant love.

It takes me back to the time when I held my own babies, looking into their eyes with wonder and awe.

Once again, I can live through the joy of watching a baby grow. I have been given a second chance to experience that first step…those first words…that first tooth - this time with more wisdom and experience.

I received the blessing of life and love and so much sunshine. And I'm so grateful.

Welcome, my sweet little granddaughter, to the world and to my heart.