In a world where everything seems to be in a constant process of change — and not for the better — I long for something solid, something I can depend on day after day, year after year. I don’t need to be “breaking in” something or working double time to adjust to and assimilate it into my life. I need something that I can plant my feet on and it won’t move. I need bedrock.
There have been so very many changes over the last year, an uncomfortable number of which have been the results of life-altering events. In the last three months of the year, we lost my mother, an aunt, two cousins and over two dozen long time family friends. While most were elderly, faithful Christians who had been in declining health for a number of years, not all were. My cousin Casey died from injuries sustained when his pickup truck was hit broadside by a tractor-trailer leaving behind a wife and high school age daughter. My friend Francesca went to sleep in the arms of her belovéd husband on Friday night and slipped into heaven on Shabbat morning. She had just learned on Thursday that she needed open-heart surgery. For my mother and my aunt, their home-going followed decades long battles with emphysema and Alzheimer’s disease. The time has been stunning with so many going in such rapid succession.
It has been impossible to watch all of this happen without becoming dumbstruck. I say “watch” because it is simply not possible to experience it all. The mind goes into freeze-frame and it is like watching a computer that does not have enough bandwidth. You only get periodic snapshots of what is happening and miss what occurred in between.
As news of each person’s passing came on the heels of the person before them, it became like watching a jack-knifing freight train. After a while, one wonders how long it is going to take and where all the cars are going to end up when it stops. And it does stop. Eventually.
By the end of the year, the patterns of events had returned to their old routines and the process of grieving could begin in earnest with its seemingly endless, many times painful adjustments working toward returning to “normal” life. But exactly how does one process the deaths of over thirty people in such a short period of time? Finding the answer to this question has brought to the surface a new need for significant periods of introspection and long talks with the L-rd.
I have searched through my life and the lives of my friends over the years to see if anyone had shared with me their own experiences at this sort of thing with the resulting insight and wisdom gained. No one I have ever known has experienced such an overwhelming number of deaths in such a short period of time, except during wars, famine, epidemics and natural disasters. But I have had a number of friends who were survivors of WWII in Europe, some having spent time in Nazi concentration camps, others having survived wars in Southeast Asia and Africa. From these people, I have found what I have been needing.
The one thing that has made it possible for all of them to survive and flourish has been faith in G-d. Some of them had it and some of them found it in the midst of their experiences, but none of them would have been able to face the crushing impact of these events without it.
That was the surprise for me when we walked through my mother’s final days. It is one thing to intellectually understand that faith is the answer. It is something else when you are doubled over on the floor wailing in grief with sounds coming out of your mouth that you have never heard before and the pain is beyond comprehension at all levels: physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. Coming in wave after wave, nothing can be done to stop it. I call it the “roller coaster.”
What do we have when everything else fails, when there is no consolation available on this earth? What is left?
There is a faith born of the fire that cannot be found any other way. It is only in the crucible of intense trial that bedrock can be found.
I am not the same person today as I was a year ago when my mother’s physical health began its final descent. I have seen a greater number of trials in my lifetime than the average person and I thought I understood what intense was. I had no idea.
Little has actually happened to alter the course of my day-to-day living. I still live in the same apartment with all of the same things and go to the same places for most of the same reasons. But I am profoundly different and so is my interaction with much of the world in which I live.
When everything was stripped away and I found myself doubled over on the floor, I needed something to make it possible for me to breathe. What I found in the emotional tumbling over and over and over was that when I mentally put my feet down, there was bedrock.
I was at our rabbi’s home with him, his wife and the friend who took me there. My mother, who lived nearly a thousand miles from me, had been in intensive care for two weeks. After much discussion in the family, the decision had been made. My sister had just called to tell me that they were going to discontinue all medical treatment and move my mother to the hospice unit. She was in dire condition and was not expected to survive much longer.
In that crucible, I began to experience the full weight of G-d’s answers to the many prayers being made on behalf of me and my family. I was consumed with grief. Yet, like the burning bush, I was not consumed. Such a paradox.
As the ability for words and thought failed and everything else was useless to meet the need, it was G-d and G-d alone, the very being in His Presence, that made it possible to breathe. The comforting hand of my friend who kept rubbing my back until I could sit up again along with the prayers and support of the others who were there filled a reservoir of memories that I will draw on for many years to come.
So was the faith mine? No, it was the faith G-d gave me and built into me through those experiences. And the same faith He gave to me, He will give to anyone who will come to Him.
Surely G-d is my help; the L-rd is the one who sustains me.
— Psalm 54: 4 (NIV, 2010)
— J. E. Clark / 24 January 2010