“We each have two lives.
The second begins
When we realize we have only one.”
Rabbi Margot Stein’s son Aryeh died six months ago, and she unfolded her grief on Yom Kippur by facing the prayer “Unataneh tokef – Who shall live, who shall die?” She is a writer and singer of Jewish music, including the songs for an eco-Jewish musical drama, “Guarding the Garden.” She is developing new approaches to Jewish education for developmentally disabled children. Rabbi Stein is a member of the Board of The Shalom Center. — AW
There is a moment I remember so clearly, it flooded my senses like a cold shower.
“Good Lord,” I realized, “my son is going to die.”
“Within a matter of days, he will stop breathing, and I won’t. It doesn’t matter what I want, or prefer, or desire. It doesn’t matter what I have prayed for, fought for, researched and scoured the world for. There is another Will in operation here besides my own.”
“Dear God, really? Is this your will for my 24-year-old son? That he die from this devastating and aggressive pediatric sarcoma, as the tumors fill his lungs and cause him to gasp for air?”
And with that, I fell to the floor, doubled over with intense stomach pain, as though I’d just been punched. As I lay there, I willed myself to face this truth, this inevitability. I felt myself, if you can imagine, sort of unhooking my solar plexus, seat of my life force, from his, as though we had been tied by an invisible umbilical cord throughout his illness.
I released the thread of his life that I had been clutching these last months. And I let it go. Because I had to.
A few hours after he took his last, labored breath, as we were still sitting quietly watching his pale, noble-looking countenance, the light began to fill the room. It was midnight, in NYC. The light was fierce. It was light you had to feel, rather than see. It filled the space over his head. Even after his body left us, even after burial, the light remained.
By then, I felt a sense of speed, as though he were zooming around, joyful to move literally with the speed of light, joyful to be released from a failing body, even joyful to discover that there is, it would seem, more to life than this mortal flesh, that something beautiful remains that is Eternal.
I have learned many lessons from this death.
One of them is that having a strong spiritual practice, preferably rooted in a strong community of practice, can save your own life when someone you love is losing theirs.
Another is that humans are terrible predictors. We cannot predict what the future will be like, although we think we can. One of the things that gets in the way for many of us when we think about death, is our predictions. What it’s going to be like, how we’re going to feel, mostly how very hard it’s going to be.
I could not have predicted how strong his presence would be still, and how vibrant.
My friends, love really is stronger than death. I did not know this until five months ago.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, “Who shall live and who shall die?”
When Aryeh realized he was definitely going to die, he did several things. He asked me to move him from his dark and tiny shared apartment on the Upper West Side to a space filled with light and windows. My brother helped me locate such a space and three days later, Aryeh moved into it.
My sister, a psychiatric nurse practitioner in Boston, and single mother, left her daughter with a series of cousins and friends and moved in with us. Myriam juggled New York and Philadelphia, trying to be in both places with sensitivity and presence, as I settled into caring for Aryeh around the clock.
A few days later, Aryeh spent an evening doing a life review with Mordechai Liebling and Talia Malka, who sat and talked with him late into the night.
At that point, we still thought he was going to die from pneumonia. But then the antibiotics fought that back, and one day he woke up feeling well enough to go out and buy an iPhone 6. Continue Reading