Home » Blog » Preparing to Breathe Your Last Breath: Lessons Learned While Sitting with Jerry and David

Preparing to Breathe Your Last Breath: Lessons Learned While Sitting with Jerry and David

e757852199c96e39152d28c1efea00c0A Yom Kippur Sermon

Watch the video [beginning at 44:17]

Last Thursday, the key tasks on my “to do” list wer
e to edit this sermon, update our visual t’filah, and prepare for the yizkor memorial service. Important stuff for a rabbi less than a week before Yom Kippur. But when the two calls came in, I quickly put aside my “to do” list to instead spend a day focused on Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick. I sat with two different congregants and their families, as they moved slowly into the next phase on their journey of life, preparing this week to breathe their last breaths.

Visiting Jerry

I visited Jerry in his home in Beverly Hills. Jerry and I met many times before, as five of his grandchildren became B’nai Mitzvah. Back then, we smiled, schmoozed and kvelled. But until this week, we never really talked. This week, Jerry laid in the den on a bed that hospice recently delivered, along with medications and regular nursing care. I sat down.

Jerry smiled and schmoozed. Boy, is he a great schmoozer! He regaled me with stories. My favorites were about the outsized personalities he met working for El Al, Israel’s national airline. As its West Coast rep, Jerry is credited with opening up flights from California so anyone who has ever flown El Al direct to Tel Aviv can thank Jerry.

Jerry told me that after 15 years with a heart condition, his heart was finally unable to pump enough oxygen through his body. His organs were shutting down. The doctors gave him three days.
Jerry was having trouble keeping his eyes open. He begged my forgiveness. I invited him to relax, to close his eyes. And not to worry. He wouldn’t be the first person to fall asleep when a Rabbi was talking. He suggested that I ask him questions. So I did.

“Are you afraid?” I asked. “Of what,” he responded. “Of dying?” I said. “No,” he whispered, “but I’m not yet ready. You know, my wife Lynn and I had 13 wonderful years together, and before that, many great decades of love with our first spouses before they died. But I’m more concerned,” he said, “for my family. That they do well. That goodness comes to them.”

“What do you think happens after this part of the journey ends,” I asked? He took a slow breath. “I think we just go to a long deep sleep. What do you think, rabbi?” I said, “You remember the Chanukah candle that lights the other candles?” “Yes, the shamash,” he answered. “I think we are like the shamash. We kindle light in other candles, burn brightly, and then one day we are gone. Think about this: If, after lighting the other candles, I were to blow out the shamash, where would the flame go?” “Well, it’s gone.” “But what about those other candles,” I asked? “They are still lit.”

“Yes,” I said, “the shamash’s flame is gone AND it lives on as the flames of the other candles. Like us. We kindle new lights: In our children. In our grandchildren. In friends, neighbors and colleagues. In those we teach and those whose lives we touch. Those whom we lift up through our chesed – our unconditional love – and those we help through our tzedakah (charitable giving). When we die, I think, we are simultaneously gone and we are not. We live on in the lights we kindled.

“What about God,” I asked? Jerry responded, “I don’t know if God is a being, a spirit or a force. I’m just not sure.” I told him I believed that the soul, that part of us which animates us and gives us life, returns to the Eternal Soul of the Universe. Memory returns to eternal memory. Love to love. It helps us retain the connection.

“At this moment – and my beliefs grow and change – I think God is like the Internet. God connects you to me to him to her to them. To everyone, everywhere. With the internet, I am able to be smarter, more efficient, more connected. When I boot up my mind and open my soul, I am an elevated, a better me. That’s what God can be.”

Just then, Jerry’s hospice nurse came by to adjust his medicine. Hugely fabulous are these angels of God. Hospice provides in home compassionate care, enabling people to overcome fear and discomfort, to cope with loss, and embrace the experience and value of each and every day of life. Hospice is precious, enabling patients to remain where they live, outside of the hospital, so they can be surrounded by loved ones when hospitalization is no longer expected to cure their illness.

It was time to go. We gathered together, holding hands: Jerry’s wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, his caretaker and me. I asked the group, “What shall we pray for?” Jerry’s first answer? “World peace.” He was serious, and yet teasing too. Of course, what better gift could you give your loved ones than a world at peace? Jerry continued, “That my family will be okay.” Someone else said, “That he has no pain.” Jerry added, “That my love ones know that I love them.” I included, “That your family, Jerry, have the fortitude, courage and patience to sit with you, to hold your hand.” We concluded together: Baruch ata Adonai, shomei-ah t’filah – Blessed are You, O God, who hears our prayer.

I asked if I could sound the shofar. This would be the last time Jerry hears those stirring notes. I called the sounds one by one, asking them to repeat it. Tekiah… tekiah, they said softly. And I sounded [tekiah]. He looked content. Shevarim, teruah. They repeated and I sounded the shofar. I kept calling the sounds. Tekiah. Then, in his loudest voice, the loudest his voice has been in a long time, Jerry cried out “Tekiah.” With Shevarim… his voice grew stronger still. He seemed to straighten up. Teruah. I kept going. I didn’t want it to end. I saw in Jerry now a renewed reflection of the strength that once must have animated this wonderful man.

Tekiah Gedolah, I called. Tekiah Gedolah, he belted out. It seemed that Jerry was not calling for the shofar any longer. He became the shofar. And I understood that moment, with precise clarity, the message that the shofar was calling out to us: To wake up. To see life in all its beauty. To do our best. To strive to live fully.

… And then I needed to go.

Visiting David

From one end of the city to the other end of the valley. Soon I was in Agoura, sitting with David and his family, as he moved into the last phases of his life. It was not easy watching this. David, Lisa and their kids, Michelle and I and ours, have lives long intertwined. Michelle, then a synagogue Program Director, placed them in a havurah for newly married couples at their first temple. Our eldest children were in nursery school together at Temple Beth Hillel, where I was a rabbi. Our paths crossed again when they joined Congregation Or Ami, and since then we have celebrated multiple B’nai Mitzvah, and provided comfort through the deaths of David’s father and grandfather.

David stood on this very bimah two years ago, teaching us about Kehillah Kedoshah (holy community), and how community helps us endure the hardship that the cancer brings. He said, “In April of 2013, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was given less than a year to get my affairs in order. Being here today, [he said then] at this High Holy Day service, means the world to me… Because last year’s services were supposed to be my last. The fortunate thing for my family is not only that am I here to enjoy these amazing services and to reflect on one’s deeds over the past year, but that I am so thrilled to be able to share this time with MY community.”

But that day, David lay quietly in their small office in a hospital bed delivered by hospice, surrounded by his wife, two kids, his mom, and his siblings. I sat down. Once a big man in a big world, David was no longer speaking. He reached out. We held hands. I practiced the hardest lesson we rabbis must learn: how to just stand there, holding hands and being quiet, when words won’t really help.

His son turned on Cantor Doug’s CD. The stirring sounds seemed to bring comfort. At least to us, as we could not fully ascertain what David was feeling. Putting arms around each other, we stood in a circle around the bed, singing “I’m Standing on the Shoulders of the Ones who Came Before Me.” We shed tears as we sang, slightly off-key. This was one of David’s favorite songs.

It occurred to me that with this song, David was setting his family up for a future without his physical presence. It reminded me of Mufasa in Disney’s Lion King, who responded to his young son Simba’s question, “Dad, we will always be together, right?” Mufasa said, “Let me tell you something that my father told me. Look at the stars. The great kings of the past look down on us f rom those stars. So whenever you feel alone, remember those kings will always be there to guide you. And so will I.” David loved that song. By choosing that song – “I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me” – as his favorite, David, I believe, was reminding his sons and wife to feel him under their feet. That they will always be standing atop his shoulders. No matter how high or how low they go, he will always be there to support them.

Then the CD played Listen, Cantor Cotler’s prayer/song, that culminates with words from Shema, Adonai Echad, God is one. Adonai, God’s proper name, is really a collection of three verbs: Haya – was. Hoveh – is. And Yih’yeh – will be. God is that which was, is and, will be forevermore. God is existence. And Adonai echad – Existence is one. When we sing Shema, we are declaring that we are all connected. That existence transcends time and space, so that whether we are physically here now or have moved on to Olam Haba, the existence beyond this one, there remains connection, memory to memory, heart to heart, soul to soul.

So as we stood around that hospice bed, holding each other, I saw the beautiful truth. That there are no democrats or republicans in a dying man’s room. No right and wrong. Just a good person, moving ever so slowly, on the journey from this life to whatever is next. David died this past Sunday night, surrounded by his family.

How Shall We Live?

We have little choice as to when we take that next step. Some of us, with a doctor’s diagnosis, having faced an accident or living with a chronic illness, realize that later might come sooner. But we all will be taking that next step, sooner or later. The real question is not how we will die but rather how we shall live. How we will make the most of our lives in this complex, overwhelming world in which we live?

My friends. There is an election going on, in case you haven’t noticed. And like many of you, I find much of it to be depressing, frustrating and noxious. There are things being said about people – women and Mexicans, the disabled and immigrants, and Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians, about Israel, with swastikas – that anger and horrify me. That make me worry about our future. There is a tilt away from the compromise of democracy toward authoritarianism and that terrifies me. And I, and I hope you all, will use your vote, as you best see fit, to guard against that trend in American life.

Yes, this election is very big and very worrisome. No, there are no republicans or democrats in a dying man’s room. But none of that was in the forefront of my mind as I sat beside the bed, with Jerry or David, in their homes. For them, life was ending or almost ending, and the preciousness of each breath was set in stark relief. Jerry, David and their families were not taking a single breath for granted, because though they may not be ready, they knew it soon might be their loved one’s last.

The tasks on your “to do” list seem very important. But when you sit around a loved one, wishing that there were just a few more days or hours or minutes together, you realize that the seemingly most important stuff wasn’t so vital after all. But life – and time with our loved ones – that passes by so quickly. How much the moreso when your loved one dies too quickly and you do not even get the chance to say goodbye, and hold them, and usher them to the next part of their journey.

In Deuteronomy 30:19, God says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day… Hachayim v’hamavet natati lifanecha, habracha v’haklala – that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.” God continues, “U’vacharta bachayim l’ma’an t’chiyeh, atah v’zarecha. Choose life so that you and your descendants will live…

That precious day with Jerry and David, and their families – to do lists thrown to the wind – was a reminder, in the midst of these Yamim Noraim, these Awe-filled Days, to go forth and choose life. To live and love and then transform the world for goodness.

So go heal your broken relationships. Hug your loved ones. Get yourself to a doctor for a check up. Go comfort a friend. Give tzedakah. Mentor a child. Accept someone who you once thought was unacceptable. Go out of your way to choose life. Yes, heed advice of the Holy One from the Torah. U’vacharta bachayim. Choose life. Choose to live.

[David Silverstone was buried on the morning before Kol Nidre. Jerry Linkin took his last breath just after the end of Neilah. Some say that those who die during the Holy Days are especially righteous. ‘Tis true with these two. May their memories always be a blessing.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *