Thursday, October 28, 2010


My mother lives in a nursing home now. She is one of the many people sitting in the middle of the common room of Claire Bridge community. The residents are placed there because it is easier to care for everyone when they are rallied together instead of being alone in their rooms.

My mother is not happy. She is in the middle of this world and the next. Dementia seeps in and spreads quickly. There are many simple things, some of them basic hygienic practises, my mother can no longer do. She needs the regular care of others to help her in her daily tasks.

Brookdale is a good place. The people who work there show a great deal of compassion and care. They seem to genuinely like my mother. It’s the best we can do. And my mother is not happy. Mom puts up with the people in her midst. She is trying to fit in quietly.

“What’s your name, young lady?” That’s Georgia. Georgia has Alzheimer’s. Her eyes barely move. She seems to be looking at the same thing all the time. Her head moves but her eyeballs stay constant. Georgia smiles a lot though, especially when she looks across the table.

“That’s my husband”, she says. “He’s the best thing that ever happened to me. We’ve been married for 63 years”

I look inquisitively at the man sitting next to my mom at the lunch table. The same people eat their meals together regularly. This is my first visit. I am meeting them for the first time.

“63 years!”, I exclaim. “Wow” that’s amazing!”

“Yes” says Harvey, “We’ve been together for 65 years. I live upstairs. I come down every day to have lunch with Georgia and to make sure she’s getting whatever she needs. We moved here from Arizona a few years ago to be near our children. We moved in to one of the apartments upstairs. Now Georgia needs to be down here, but we get to see each other every day.”

“Yep” says Georgia. “We met 65 years ago. He just walked in to my brother in law’s gas station and we’ve been together ever since. He’s the best thing that ever happened to me. “

“That’s true”, Harvey pipes in. “It was a real gasser” He’s obviously used that joke before.

Constance sits across the table from me. She too, seems a bit disoriented. I watch her turn her head to look straight at Georgia. Her hand slowly crawls “I love you.” She says clearly. “I would love you even more if you loved me too. Give me your hand.” Georgia ignores her. Constance continues to stare.

I slowly slide my hand across the table. “I’ll hold your hand.” I say. Constance shifts her eyes from Georgia to me. She smiles gently. She thinks briefly and then switches her hand from Georgia’s direction into mine. Her eyes close just a touch and she says, “Hmmm, that feels so good. You feel so warm.” We sit holding hands for several minutes massaging each other’s palms and warmly moving our hands around one another.

The man sitting at the end of the table is called Ben. Ben never speaks with his voice. Everything Ben says happens with his eye gestures and the nature of his smile. Today, Ben is happy. His toothless smiles shows contentment with each bite of the hamburger he munches. Ben smiles and winks at me, a stranger. I am a friendly face sitting at his table.

Mom doesn’t want to talk to anyone. I am acutely aware of the stories that will never be told. Nobody seems to care about the stories. Nursing homes are necessary places in this society in which we live. I am uncomfortable.

As warm and compassionate and loving as the staff might be, they are still strangers to my mom. I wish I could take her home and be there for her on a daily basis. I know she is comforted when we hug together or when, while lying on her bed we lie side by side as two spoons in a drawer.

It will take a few generations to get us back to caring for our parents. It won’t happen in my lifetime. But if I plant a seed in my grandchildren’s soul, it is possible that they might nurture it and help it grow.

For now, I am comforted by the fact that (at least) my two oldest boys know that, whatever they choose to do about me better be pretty nice because they are not long after me.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Doing and Being

There is a woman who comes to our synagogue every week. She’s not Jewish. I know this because I’ve talked to her.

Eva is a small framed, solid-looking Philippino woman with long, thick dark hair pulled together into a simple ponytail at the back of her head. The wheelchair that she maneuvers holds middle-aged Penny. She is paraplegic with coiffed sandy red hair, and thick wide rimmed glasses that often fall down the arch of her nose. Eva, I find out is Catholic. She is non practicing and unsure of her religious commitment. She has been sponsored from her homeland to be a full time caregiver for Penny.

Penny is Jewish and tells me she is relieved to have found our Reconstructionist synagogue in Toronto. Here, she can practice Judaism in a liberal, traditional practice that values inclusivity and diversity. As a Reconstructionist, women and men have the same rights and responsibilities, Jews and non-Jews are both considered chosen by God, and the synagogue sanctuary is a home for all.

Penny’s accident a year and a half ago prevents her from living independently. She relies completely on the help she gets from others. Attending synagogue has brought her back to her roots, allows her to self reflect and helps her to feel reconnected. I’m not surprised to learn that Penny anticipates her weekly involvement in Shabbat service, time for prayer and meditation, and opportunity to interact and engage with others. I feel the same way about my attendance each week.

Eva makes sure that Penny gets to services each week, pushing her wheelchair through the snowy streets and settling her among the synagogue pews. Eva sits down beside her and throughout our very long service attends to Penny’s needs, sometimes turning the pages of the prayer book, often wiping her nose with a fresh tissue, occasionally whispering something to her.

Week after week they are there. As the traditional prayers and songs are sung together, I often sympathize somewhat with Eva. “She must be so bored,” I think to myself. “How noble is she to sit patiently with Penny during a 3 hour service.” I wonder about the depth of the relationship that must be developing between these two women and how each depends so much on the other.

At the end of each service, as we all meet in the dining area for our shared Shabbat meal together, I greet them both with a “Shabbat Shalom”; in English means “Good resting day”.

A few weeks ago, engaged in my own self-reflective prayer, I happened to glance over to the other side of our sanctuary. There was Penny in her wheelchair, leaning back, cushioned in her protective neck brace. Next to her was Eva. This time Eva had her own prayer book in hand and she was confidently and knowingly singing along with the rest of the congregation. “A real Jew.” I said to myself, and with a smile and a nod shared the sight with my husband Paul.

Eva was being Jewish. I wondered how much she understood…how much she knew. And then I thought, that for those three hours of practice, it didn’t really matter. She was engaged in communal prayer in our Jewish community. The two women shared something profound.

It reminded me then of what an old mentor of mine once said. In preparing me for professional growth and possible promotion, she commented, “In order to get this job, Amy, you will need to already be doing the job.” It made sense to me that I need to show that I could do what the job required.

Sometimes being depends on what we do. In Judaic law you don’t have to believe in God to serve God. Judaism is a religion of practice - lighting candles on Friday night, sharing a ritual meal before the Sabbath, sitting Shiva for deceased family members, and remembering the anniversary of their death by saying a memorial prayer each year, fasting on Yom Kippur, and symbolically throwing our sins in to the rivers in the form of breadcrumbs for ducks to eat as they swim away. For many the practice is the beginning of the belief. If we “do” Jewish before we feel Jewish, it is only a matter of time before what we do becomes who we are.

I don’t know if Eva will ever consider herself to be religious. And religion isn’t what this is all about. I realized that what we do in this world eventually translates to who we are. And what we are is recognizable, ultimately, in what we choose to do.