Sarah walked into my office, sat in a chair and confessed, “My mother doesn’t know me anymore.” Tears began streaming down her face. I recognized that a while had passed since I saw her around the synagogue. She continued, “My mother Barbara sits in the convalescent home, weeks now after her fall. Her hip is on the mend, but her mind continues to deteriorate. I tell her, ‘Ma, it’s me. Your daughter.’ Sometimes she looks confused. Sometimes she smiles. Then … then it is as if she’s gone. She just doesn’t remember me.”
“Rabbi, I haven’t been to services in months. I really want to come to temple – to be with friends, to hear the Cantor’s calming music. But I can’t. Because every time I hear the Mi Shebeirach prayer, all I can think is, God is a fraud. I wanted to come by to tell you that. So you will know…”
God is a fraud. Those are harsh words, but not the first time I have heard that sentiment. And the concept is not nearly as harsh as the new life stage which this woman and her mother have entered into. Roles had suddenly switched. The nurturing mother and her rebellious daughter have now become the cared-for elder and the care-taking adult. Neither saw it coming; neither was prepared for the emotional, spiritual and physical turmoil this change forced upon them. Neither could understand why the Source of Life could allow their lives to become so painfully messed up.
So I held onto Sarah’s hand as she cried in my office. We spoke about God. I said, “The Holy One can hold onto both your love and your frustration and even anger. Your pain will not, and cannot, overwhelm God like it so often overwhelms your relatives and friends. The Source of Life stands with you throughout all the stages of life, not just the easy or the pleasant ones. Know that when the exhaustion overwhelms you such that you wonder if you can even get out of bed to face a new day, God is there patiently prodding you on. When sadness seeks to smother you, God offers you the strength to still play catch with the kids, or sit down and pay the bills nonetheless.”
“You know, the Mi Shebeirach is about healing, not necessarily curing. In my reading of Jewish tradition, I have not found any guarantee that God offers a cure. To cure is to remove the illness, the depression, or the disease from our bodies and minds. But the One Who Heals always offers us, and our loved ones, the promise of refu’ah, of healing. Healing is about finding a way to face whatever is ahead. It is about shalom, that sense of wholeness, amidst the brokenness of our lives. Healing is about chometz lev, the courage to go on and face the new day.”
“So perhaps next time you hear the Mi Shebeirach, you will think of your mother, and ask for shalom. Maybe you can say it for yourself, asking for the strength to get up each day, the courage to sit through the visit with your mother, to have the willingness to do homework with your two kids even though you really just want to collapse into bed. Yes, the Mi Shebeirach can be a source of comfort for you, when you are ready to receive its blessings. And we at Or Ami are prepared to listen and hold your hand through it all.”
Postscript: It was not long before we began seeing Sarah at services again. More recently, she began to reach out to other adults struggling with the newfound role of being caretakers. Together they are finding a way to offer each other support.