I've written half a dozen different openings to this post, but none of them feel as honest as beginning with this truth: sometimes it's hard to be far away when a loved one is sick. As a rabbi I've bumped into this truth frequently, ministering to people whose loved ones are distant. But there's a gulf between experiencing something vicariously, even through profound empathy, and experiencing it in one's own heart. As I wrote a while back (Spiritual life in the open), I am learning now to navigate the experience of praying for a loved one who is ill. Sometimes that experience stretches me. Often I feel that I am not handling it well enough. (What would "handing it well enough" even mean? I'm not sure. But the feeling arises even so.)
Intellectually I know that even if we were in the same place, there wouldn't be much I could do. I wouldn't be able to heal them. I wouldn't be able to make them feel better. I wouldn't be able to magically lift the exhaustion or the discomfort. I wouldn't be able to do away with the myriad insults of longterm illness, from the pic line through which chemicals daily flow, to the side effects of those chemicals, to the weariness which makes even previously-pleasant experiences too tiring to imagine. But when I am far away, not only can I not do any of those things, but I only get scattered glimpses of how my loved one is doing. I'm looking at them through a tiny gap in a moving curtain -- a phone call here, some emails there, none of which are enough to add up to a complete picture. I imagine that if I were there in person, I would be able to help more. At least I would be there.
That's what runs through my mind all the time. And then I spend a few days with my loved one, and I recognize the ways in which even being physically present doesn't hold a candle to the limitless fog of longterm illness with no definitive endpoint in sight. These are rocky shoals and unfamiliar waters, and there is no lighthouse guiding the way. Nothing is easy. And my heart overflows with emotion, because this is not what I want for my loved one, and I am entirely powerless to effect any change at all. What does it mean to try to maintain optimism in the face of a beloved's suffering? What does it mean to try to maintain hope? To what extent am I obligated to cultivate hope even if my loved one can't join me in feeling that hope? There is a low thrum of grief, as steady as the beating of my heart. Jewishly we say that descent is for the sake of ascent, but I can't see how to transform this.
Sometimes it's hard to stay in the moment when a loved one is sick. Something in me doesn't want to accept this status quo. I want to wish it away, pretend it away, think ahead to a future moment when they will be restored to health. I anticipate all of the wonderful things we will do when they are well enough again. Sometimes that's comforting. But it's all too easy to slip, from there, into wondering -- worrying -- what we will do if they don't become well enough again. What if the last trip we took together is actually the last trip. What if, what if. And in the way of people who love each other, we each want to spare the other these painful thoughts. My loved one doesn't want to talk about the things that are hard, because that would make me sad. I don't want to talk about how much I worry, because that would make them sad. We try to protect each other.
Sometimes it's hard to be in the world when a loved one is sick. Tears rise to the surface unexpectedly. Television commercials I previously considered emotionally manipulative suddenly bring me to tears. My heart is tender and fragile and the slightest pressure can bruise it. I discover that I can't bear the awful news in the world right now. Word of anyone who is sick, anyone wounded, anyone afraid, anyone grieving -- it taps right into my own sorrows, intensifying them and being intensified by them. Sometimes I can hold the knowledge of the illness, and I can hold the things I need to do in my mundane life, and the two don't cancel each other out. Other times, I forget about the illness for a while and when I'm reminded, I can't believe I forgot, and emotions wash over me, an incoming wave. I wonder: how can the world seem so normal when life and health are so fragile?
Sometimes it's hard to know how to write when a loved one is sick. One answer, of course, is simply to write about other things. I know that is what my loved one would prefer! And yet not-writing about this, which has become a substantial part of what's going on in my heart and mind every day, feels like a lie of omission. My love and my worry and my fear loom so large that they block other subject matter from my sight. The fact that I'm worried about my loved one has an impact on everything I do: how I feel when I wake up, what I think about before I fall asleep, how I do my work in the world. What I read, and what I can't bear to read. The things I say, and the things I don't say. Part of my heart is clinging to my loved one, grieving the fact that I can't bring healing where it is so sorely needed. I think this is something you need to know in order to understand where I'm coming from these days.
Imagine that you are talking with someone who has a loved one in a war zone. (Certainly it feels as though much of the internet is rife with those conversations right now.) That person might say, "listen, just so you know, I have a family member who's being shot-at, so I'm a little bit fragile right now." I'm grateful that no one in my immediate circle of beloveds is in an active war zone right now, and I don't mean to diminish or downplay the experience of those who are in that boat. But I feel as though this loved one were someplace both dangerous and awful, right now. My loved one's health is a battle with an invisible adversary, and I'm not sure who's going to win. I think of Superman Sam and his "ninja" leukemia. (May his memory be a blessing; may his family be comforted.) The doctors are bringing their biggest guns to this fight, but no one is sure whether those guns will be enough.
I want to write an ending to this post which resolves the emotional tensions I've opened here. I could write about how everywhere we go, there are people navigating this territory. In every crowd, someone who's worried or sorrowed. On every bus, someone who's grieving. In every congregation, someone whose loved one is struggling. Someone whose heart is divided in two, one part here and now, the other part far away, having flown to be with a loved one far away. Maybe that someone is you, reading this, right now. But because we have no way to identify each other, no secret hand signal or semaphore flags, it feels as though each of us is experiencing this alone. And I'm not sure there is a neat way to tie up these threads. I don't know how to fashion these thoughts conveniently into a pretty gift-wrapped package adorned with a bow. My heart is frayed like the tzitzit on my prayer shawl.
This is a season of grieving. Here we are in the period of the Jewish calendar called the Three Weeks, also known as bein ha-meitzarim, "between the narrows" or "in the narrow straits." It's seasonally appropriate, liturgically appropriate, to be sorrowing right now. But after Tisha b'Av the Jewish community will emerge from this collective darkness into the ascent toward the high holidays...and I don't know how or when or whether the narrow straits of my loved one's illness will open up into expansiveness. I pray for the ability to just sit with what is, and to bring compassion to bear on everything that's unfolding. I pray for the ability to integrate this experience in a way which will make me kinder, more loving, better able to serve. But most of all I pray for healing for my loved one, and for the faith which will allow me to trust that God hears my cry.