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.