Of Breath and Kisses by Rabbi Janet Madden
For almost a week now, it’s been my turn to oversee my father’s care. I have been at his side, liaising with physicians and nurses in order to bring his pain under control, reassuring him that he is not a burden, assisting him to eat whatever he is able to eat, helping him with personal care and engaging in conversations around what his life will look like now, post-fall. Each time I leave his room, I kiss him gently on the cheek and tell him that we love him.
My father, who began his ninth decade of life with a birthday admission to the Emergency Room, does not experience cognitive deficits. He continues to be clear-minded and resolute about his end of life decisions. What is less clear for him—and for his children—is how, exactly, we will navigate the narrowing straits in which we now paddle: how we can reach the best possible balance between how he wants to live with the living arrangements that are now possible for him. The only certainty is that we recognize and are adjusting to the reality that a limit has been reached and that he is no longer able to live independently.
This life-changing time is different from, yet similar to, bereavement. It is a transitional time, a time that will require adaptability and sensitivity to many adjustments and ongoing changes from now until the end of my father’s life. Like so many of the families that I serve as a hospital chaplain, my family, too, now inhabits this liminal place of anticipatory grief—a grief that is no less real than bereavement and which comes from knowing that we are grieving not just what was and what now is but also what we know lies ahead.
With every injury and illness and every experience of recovery, we are reminded that our bodies are complex physical embodiments of fragility and resilience. Aging teaches us that our bodies are not well suited to long lives; our bodies are created to break down, to disintegrate into elements. As I witness the many complications that have resulted from his fall, I think, ruefully, of how my father’s physical experience of growing old is not that of Moses, who, we are told, died at age 120, with eyes “undimmed and vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7-8). My father’s aging is following a more common physical pattern: slow, incremental losses and then a precipitating, life-and-circumstance-changing event.
But as we spend these long days together and I continue to learn from my father, I’ve also been thinking that the Torah’s description of Moses’ clear vision and intense energy might not in fact refer to Moses’ physical body, but rather to his spiritual condition. Perhaps what the Torah is really telling us is that Moses’ many years of being in deep relationship with the Divine both sustained him through the disappointments and difficulties during his life and also supported him in old age, right up to the moment when he died “al pi Adonai” (“by the mouth of God”), which the midrash interprets as a loving, gentle kiss—the original “Kiss of Death.”
Like many of the elderly patients I’ve served in chaplaincy, my father is striving to cooperate with and accomplish everything that occupational therapists, physical therapists, nurses and aides ask of him. He is apologetic when he cannot. He is unfailingly polite, expressing thanks to everyone who cares for him, appreciative of the smallest things. Because he is a man of deep faith, he has shared with me how he is actively praying for Divine guidance in coming to acceptance of his new reality and in making decisions even as he is grieving his loss of independence and trying hard to recover sufficiently to transition to the next stage of his life, should he survive. He is aware that the combination of his pre-existing conditions and these recent injuries mean that he will never be as he was just weeks ago and that he may not live much longer. He is engaging in life review and sharing thoughts, reminiscences and instructions.
As my siblings, my father and I progress through this liminal, sacred time, the self-care practices that are sustaining me include meditation and chanting. These breath practices are important to keeping my spiritual and emotional balance. They keep me from becoming complacent about the miracle of breathing. They keep me mindful of how, on the physical level, life literally begins and ends with breath. They keep me mindful of how the Divine breath sustains me in my own spiritual life.
I pray the Mi Shebeirach for my father, knowing that healing comes in many forms, including in the cessation of breath. The prayer of my heart is that when that moment that breath ceases comes for him and for me, it will come gently, and we will know it for what it is: the breath-taking, unifying and loving kiss that comes by the mouth of God.
Rabbi Janet Madden PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute. She is a regular contributor to this blog.
GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE
The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practices (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting January 9th, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2). The instructors will be Rabbi Stuart Kelman and Rabbi SaraLeya Schley, with some guest instructors during the course.
The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).
There will be an orientation session January 2nd.
Information on attending the online orientation and the course will be announced and sent to those registered.
For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or see the information at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email email@example.com, or phone at 410-733-3700.
Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session, held mnthly. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is December 20th with a discussion of the creation of the Chai Mitzvah curriculum on discussing Jewish dying and death by Rena Boroditsky and Rabbi Joe Blair.
Starting in January 2018, the Gamleil Café will move to Thursday evenings at the same time. Watch for information on these events.
Gamliel Continuing Education Courses
Gamliel students should be on the lookout for information on a series of “Gamliel Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series. The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first course took place in Fall 2017, focusing on Psalms. The next course will be in April, and will look at death as seen in the Zohar, taught by Beth Huppin. Registration is required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for the three sessions. Contact us for information, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 410-733-3700, or simply register online at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/.
16th annual Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference
Mark your calendar and hold the dates! June 3-5, 2018, in the Washington D.C. area. Details to be forthcoming soon.
Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the annual conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Continuing Education courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.
You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD 21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.
You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).
If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at email@example.com.
Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.
RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!
If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.