Rabbi Richard Yellin for the Jewish New Year – September 2002, wrote the following. Originally a sermon, it was delivered before 1600 congregants of Temple Emeth in Delray Beach, Florida.
When we speak of life or death the expression length of days comes to mind. We want length of days it seems more than anything else. To live long and well is a notion that underlies all of religion as well as secular society. But there is something unusual about this expression.
Wouldn’t it be better to say that we want long years; why long days? We worry more about the years than about the days ahead and we are constantly reminded of the aging process. Our very bones sing the songs for younger years; we hope that in the years ahead all our limbs will still be nimble and quick as in the prime years of our lives.
The fifth commandment speaks of long productive days. “Honor your Father and your mother so that your days will be long on this earth.” Long days? On first blush it seems that the rewards of looking after parents are put in terms of longer and better hours and days for our selves. I have found a commentary on this phrase that points me in another direction. A 14th century commentator Hebrew commentator wrote “there is no length of days in this world but only in the afterlife.” We gain eternity not through long days or short days but only thru singular moments of time in this world.
What is life other than a still photograph, one captured moment in a stream of consciousness? We do not remember the movies of our lives; we save the old pictures, which capture just a fraction of a moment. And if we could have just that singular moment again, life would be even more precious. No movie is long enough; no life is really ever long enough. We barely start to enjoy life to its fullest, then, before we know it, it is gone and over. Only the moment is really remembered.
I had these thoughts because of what I learned from my declining mother this past year and what we can all learn from her about aging and the passage of time and growing older. It is not the length of time here that counts, but rather it is those singular special moments that make all the difference in the world. When it comes to time, more or less makes no difference really. Only a good moment makes any life, no matter how long, significant.
I was given a book to read called the “36 hour day” – It is a description of Alzheimer’s disease. The title is also the challenge for these comments; the title is meant to describe how difficult Alzheimer’s is and how the caring for an Alzheimer’s patient is long and tedious – almost like the expression: “Boy have I had a long day!” Terrible, right?
I read the book several times and it is all true, because it describes exactly what is happening to patients of this disease and to my mother; the paradox of course is that she is totally unaware of what is happening to her. It is a 1000 times harder on my father than on her.
As I see it, the days don’t really count any more for the patients; the moment now is everything in my mother’s life. She does not have a real memory, except for things in the distant past. She has no future thoughts either – there are no expectations, no mission statements, no hopes or dreams for the future. From our point of view it is extremely sad; but then again, from her point of view, she has no point of view, and is unaware of ours.
Physically she has no pains or diseases and is unaware of any incontinence. The angels who care for her are my idols. They have the long tedious 36-hour days. I always sit with them ask how they cope and I found their answers were really my joys as well.
So what is it that my mother taught me this year?
First: Essentially it is, that the moment is everything. All the immediate senses of the body for that particular moment are filled with joy for my mother. The holding of a hand, the rubbing of her back and neck, the singing of a song she knows from the distant past, the dancing with her, the eating of that specific meal, these are everything in her life. 2 minutes afterward she does not remember what she has just done. The several times a week I am with her, I have to teach her who I am and I go over the relationships, over and over, with her. When she finally understands “son” – it is not because she knows me, but it is because the relationship is something of speech – she knows what a “son” is, but not who “I” am.
To give someone true joy or perhaps the only joy they know for a moment, and that is all that it is, is worth an eternity in the world to come. The reward of the present encounter is only the present! The learning I received from my mother at this stage in life is, that there is no joy greater than giving, even if it cannot be reciprocated, and it cannot be remembered. Giving is its own true reward.
Secondly – The future is nothing or at the very best, it is not dependable. That is all of life in fact. Certainly the stock market, or buildings blown up in the center of NY or Washington. Life is not dependable. We all know that. With my mother, to even hope that something will be better for my mother is not realistic. Yes I pray for some new drug, but … we don’t depend on miracles. Does that mean it is fatalism that one is doomed to depression, not for the person who so lives in the present for the moment. There is no thought of the future because there is no sequence of events. From my mother in this present state of hers, I have learned that it is not what you will do for her that makes all the difference, but what you bring now and only for that moment. That is a pure gift. There is only appreciation for the moment and it is worth everything in that world of hers.
I have learned that I have to be regular and steady in my care because there is no expectation on her part, so it is only personal commitment that makes a difference for her care and oversight. And because there must be constant care, I have learned that we cannot be total caregivers for those that we love, so much as providing them with special moments as often as we can, so long as we remain “healthy, wealthy, and wise” to the best of our abilities.
Special singular moments are as important for us, not just for loved ones who become dependent upon us. Perpetual care is for the dead; in the case of
Alzheimer’s, I have been present at all hours of the night and day and I have come to understand that it is impossible to be another person’s whole life, or a perpetual care giver, without the round the clock nursing supervision that it takes to preserve in health someone who only has a present.
When those you love cannot think of their own future, then our life in the future takes on added meaning. Without us or our concerns or our providing supervision, they cannot go on with their meaningful present. Because she has no future, my future and our well-being becomes even more important.
I see this in people who have lost loved ones. Suddenly without their loved one, one of two things happens; they die a spiritual death because they only looked forward to caring for their loved one, and when the loved one died, so went their own hopes and expectations.
But you see, usually the other alternative takes place; the survivor rebounds from the loss and lives out his or her own future committed to making memory into a springboard for their own renewed strength and well-being; the best amongst the survivors look for new love and shared healthy presents. Many joyfully get married again.
My mother taught me, who has all his faculties, that living only in the present is an illness, despite the fact that it gives joy to those without memory. It is not for the fully alive. My mother no longer delays gratifications. Everything is either now or it does not exist. From our point of view it is a terrible life. From my mother’s, it is joy and contentment and nothing to worry or be afraid about.
The third thing I learned from my mother is the importance of past basic learning and the role it plays in our joys for the present. When I go to the home, I sing with the patients. My mother leads the singing. She knows the oldest show tunes by rote, etched into her encrusted brain, almost like it was scratched into a stone, with the surrounding material inert. She sings the tunes without any real understanding of what they mean. Her favorite is “I could have danced all night” and that “love was so exciting.” I know that she and my father were passionate lovers and that song remains even though she does not know my father after 62 years of a blessed marriage. So the song is evidence of a deeply learned love pattern. The symptoms of a good love relationship remain after memory has dissipated.
And my mother also sings religious and ethnic songs. She has lost her memory, but her religious identity, like her own name and no one else’s, remains, and so too the songs and melodies that identify her as an observant Jew. She loves to sing Shma Yisrael [Jewish Declaration of Faith]. She instinctively knows the icon and the motto of her faith. She loves to sing the Sabbath songs, even though she has no clue about the calendar or what day of the week it is. She sings the famous “Who shall live and who shall die” … even though she is not frightened of the prospects of death, because even though some of the distant past is deeply ingrained, the future has no consequence.
When it comes to mentioning past relatives, she will recognize a mother’s name or a siblings, and always asks where they are; and when I say they died, she says “Oh,” and goes on to the next subject. Death is irrelevant in a real way. No tears will ever be shed by my mother for anyone who is close to her, should they die, or if she learns of their death. No painful Remembrance prayers.
For us, that is what makes us alive. For her, she can only say “Oh” and go on with the immediate present. Not a way we want to live, but all that she has in her life.
For us the past makes us who we are, and even if we lose our minds, we will never lose our identities and that is why we must be proud and strong participants in our religious and ethnic traditions. Other than our names, that is all that will remain.
The last thing that I learned from my mother is that I can be myself and not be afraid or concerned with what anyone thinks; which is precisely the way she behaves; without a thought of anyone else in the room. With Alzheimer’s you can walk away in the middle of the night, without donning your clothes, without a thought or care. In relating to my mother and the others in the home, I find myself singing and dancing and behaving without a care in the world about what anyone thinks except for giving patients some permissible joys.
There are people they’re of other religious backgrounds, but they love singing our ethnic folk songs. We sing all lullabies that we learned as babies. I sing Shma Yisrael and they love the melody even though they have no idea of what it means or conveys. There is no danger that anyone would think that religious persuasions were an issue.
What did I learn? — If you know that you are doing right and bringing proper joy and care to an other human being, it does not matter what others think — what a joy when we can be ourselves, confident that we are doing good for other people and trying to make this a better world at least on one small spot on this planet.
Life is not about “length of days” or long days – but rather the special moments of each and every day; and certainly not the length of our years. Not how old we are, but how many gifted moments do we have. When was a moment everything for us, and what was the quality of that moment?
Secondly – do we make the future now by becoming a creative survivor, or, are we always escaping from the present, doing nothing important?
Thirdly, what is our identity that is truly etched in our memories and within our brains? Will it always show that we are proud of what we are? If we should only be left completely alone with our present selves, what will it say of who we are, what will it say of our ethnicity or our religious identity?
And lastly, can we proudly be ourselves and do the right things when there are no earthly rewards for our behavior. May our precious moments far outnumber whatever number the years of our lives might be.
Copyrighted by Rabbi Richard Yellin
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