When my father died, my mother died too, but a little bit at a time, the victim of unremitting grief that I never understood. My father had been a dedicated podiatrist, who (way back in the 1950s) was pioneering “inlays,” his early word for what later became known as orthotics. But he knew nothing about running a practice, and he began making ends meet only when my mother became his receptionist, bookkeeper, and all-around business head. Yet when he died, she inexplicably descended into relative incompetence. Three years later, she died too.
I was in graduate school at the time, and my mother came regularly for extended stays to see her grandchildren: I could almost chart her decline from one visit to the next. “How could this be happening?” I wondered. Here was a woman of the world; a woman, moreover, whose natural warmth and kindness had won her countless friends; a woman finally, with a sister and sisters-in-law who lavished empathy, love, and care upon her. How could she have taken the slow and steady path to her own dying, as everyone around her was quite certain she did?
Gayle, my wife of only nine years, passed away a little over six weeks ago, and I now understand my mother better. I do not intend to follow her example, but I newly comprehend her despair. Over my fifty some-odd years of being a rabbi and a scholar, I have read countless tracts on death and dying; world literature on mourning; and, as you can imagine, whole collections of Jewish wisdom on the subject. But now, as an actual mourner — and still early on, as mourning goes — I know first-hand what had eluded me before. I am not yet on the fabled balcony from which one achieves total perspective on what is transpiring below, but even a few steps up the ladder to the balcony, I can say something about grief that I think will resonate with very many people, who (like my mother) might still elect to die, or who (like me) is choosing somehow to live.
Many years ago, I wrote an article on the subject of illness, drawing on essayist Susan Sontag’s trenchant claim that when we are born, we are issued two passports, one to the Land of the Well and the other to the Land of the Sick. We pocket the first and put aside the second, determined never to use it. But the day comes, for some of us earlier than others, when we exchange passports, and (inexplicably and against our will) are transported across a river to a land and culture not our own. To this spectacular metaphor, I added the liturgical concept of “inculturation,” the way religion can be transported into another culture but only with full acceptance of its indeed being another culture. Pastoral care is a sort of inculturation, where well-meaning people make boat trips across the river to the sick, but without realizing how meaningless their normal religious language may sound to residents there. How do we speak meaningfully, I asked, to people for whom ordinary sentences, even well-intentioned ones, may seem hollow?
I believe now that the two “lands” are better understood as “states”: the State of Wellbeing and the State of Sickness, because wellbeing and sickness are existential states of being. The State of Wellbeing feels so normal, that as long as you are in it, you hardly notice it. Not so the State of Sickness, where you notice almost nothing else. When you enter the State of Sickness with a serious, chronic, and maybe even fatal disease, you are forced to admit that you have a passport to remain in that state, from which nothing looks the same anymore.
Having attended the horror of my wife’s final stages of cancer, even holding her hand here at home as she breathed her last, I finally understood my own article. I know now that it is one thing to read – and even to write – the truths of illness or of death; and another to experience them. As Gayle’s condition worsened, as our days were filled with chemotherapy, doctors’ visits, MRIs, and endless pills, salves and supplements to counteract the cancer and its treatments, it dawned on me that I was not just visiting across the river; I was living there; if I hadn’t actually accessed my passport to the State of Sickness, I was at least in possession of a Green Card.
Now that Gayle is gone, I am trying to get back home to the other side. From where I sit, I see my friends in the State of Wellbeing waving welcome balloons from the riverbank, in anticipation of my return. Increasingly, I have been spending whole days in a canoe that I have fashioned, paddling furiously to reach them, only to find that by nightfall, the current carries me back to an area adjacent to the State of Sickness, but its own independent state, a breakoff, apparently, from it, a state of deep-down sadness called “Grief”; and what I want to say is that grief is more than just a feeling, an emptiness, and an indescribably terrible heartache. It is its own existential state of being, the State of Grief, just a short walk away from that part of the State of Sickness where the people you loved have died. It is a state that quarantines its victims in loneliness (even when people visit) and in memories that are painful rather than comforting (however much people say they will be comforting, someday).
When Gayle died, my Green Card to the State of Sickness was automatically cancelled; but the announcement of its cancellation came along with an unexpected passport to The State of Grief. Some small print on my passport says that most people quite properly take up residence there for a while, but then sail back home to the Land of Wellbeing again. The print is not just tiny, however, but lighter as well, and it carries the warning that it fades with time. Some people, like my mother, never was able to operationalize the escape clause. She kept that passport to the end: it expired when she did. It was not her fault. Living in the State of Grief myself, I have seen how hard it is to leave.
They say it is healthy to live here for a while, as long as I don’t actually settle in so long that the small print fades utterly away. But I am anxious now to trade in my Grief Passport for the Wellbeing one that I left behind somewhere across the river. On a clear day, I can see every detail of its shoreline, even the tiny wharf from which I once sailed away. It is also where my new little boat will land. But I cannot yet fully imagine reaching it. The State of Grief is a marshland. The trails are barely marked; it is easy to get lost in the jungle of despair. Worse yet, at some point the marsh becomes quicksand. Look away, for even a second, from the promise of deliverance on the opposite bank, and you risk stepping into the quicksand, and then sinking into deeper and deeper desperation, rather than holding out hope for dry land again. I suspect my mother died there.
I am among the luckier ones. Hundreds of people have wished me well just on Facebook alone, never mind the emails and handwritten cards. I am enormously indebted to all of you reading this posting, because I took great comfort in your virtual presence. In addition, I have received many visitors who let me share my condition with them. But when they phone me, after their visit, it is a long-distance call to where I sit: across the river, still.
I am muddling through, however, thanks to wonderful friends and family who have not abandoned me, but mostly through some unknown factor having nothing to do with what I deserve – call it the grace of God. Why, after all, do I suspect I will someday cross the river, whereas my mother, who had friends and family also, let the quicksand have its way?
Did I just say “let”? I apologize, Mom. No one “lets” the quicksand swallow her up; no one “chooses” to sink deeper within it. For you, however, Mom, I see that life without Dad had become overwhelming, intolerable. You did your best. It was all you could do at the time.
God willing, I, however, will make it across the river. Through all the tears, and despite the insistent memories of Gayle worsening and then dying before my eyes, through all of this, I see my strength increasing to the point where I will paddle successfully beyond the current that impedes my repatriation. I am packing my canoe with memories of course – they won’t go away anyway – but whereas now they are painful, they will look more consoling in the Land of Wellbeing.
Meanwhile, I think, endlessly, taking mental notes on my condition – that’s what scholars do, I guess. And I continue to learn. I may have more to say in future posts.