It was one of those nights. I could not sleep at all. Sadness and worries crowded in. I went to bed after reading that Sam Sommer, an 8-year-old boy, had died of cancer. I first found out about his diagnosis in 2012 from his mother, Phyllis’s, Facebook status. We are Facebook friends. As a fellow rabbi and mother, Phyllis was someone I followed regularly. She had also just been admitted to a Fellowship program I run for rabbis called Rabbis Without Borders. Due to Sam’s diagnosis, she decided to defer her acceptance to the program. We have never met in person.
Yet, because she and her husband chronicled Sam’s cancer journey on their blog Superman Sam, I feel very close to them. Each time I read the blog tears would come to my eyes, tears of joy when Sam was doing well and tears of sadness when he was not. Phyllis and Michael’s posts on the blog were so open, honest, and full of love for their child it was impossible not to be drawn into their story.
Some people decry the public way many of us live our lives today, sharing intimate stories on our blogs and though our Facebook updates. Just a few months ago, I had a conversation with a rabbinic colleague who was uncomfortable with NPR host Scott Simon tweeting his mother’s death. He felt that somehow this public sharing of death took away its sacred nature. I could not disagree more.
Our modern American society has tried to whitewashed death. We want to push death away, pretend it is not difficult and painful, pretend that it does not have to happen, that our medical community will find cure after cure. We are afraid to speak to our children about death, or have them visit grandma or grandpa in the hospital lest it upset them. Yet death is a part of life. We cannot ignore it.
Over the past year and a half I read Phyllis and Michael’s blog with reverence. I know they did not share every detail of Sam’s journey with us. Some things are meant to be kept private. But in sharing what they did share, we, the reading public, were taken on a journey of childhood cancer. Going on this journey with the Sommers made me a better person. That may sounds grandiose, but it is true.
Most days I am absorbed in the drama of my own life, the daily arguing with my daughter to do her homework, balancing career and family, answering millions of emails, and generally living life. Checking in with Sam a few times a week reminded me to feel grateful for what I did have. Reading the blog reminded me to pray each day, a deep prayer of thanks for my life and the people in it, and caused me to send prayers of healing for Sam and others I knew who were suffering. I was more gentle and compassionate to my own family because I had this regular reminder that life could change on a dime.
Going public with your own or a loved one’s journey towards death is not for everyone. I completely respect that many people want and need to keep their journeys private. But for those for whom it is cathartic to write, blog, Facebook, and Tweet, I am thankful that we now have these tools available to us. Reading others’ stories and how they find incredible reserves of courage, strength, and love in the face of death makes us all stronger. We can learn that moments of great happiness can occur while the body is dying, that when we face things honestly and openly we can lessen the fear of the unknown.
I don’t think we can ever fully take away the fear and pain of death. It is a part of life. However, if we discussed it more openly and shared our stories, I would like to think that we could learn both how to die more peacefully and mourn more freely. What is more sacred than getting in touch with our emotions, and helping others navigate theirs? In my mind this is God’s work, helping us be more human in all of its messy glory.
Thousands of people are now mourning with the Sommers. I can only hope that the outpouring of love that has occurred on social media since word of Sam’s death arrived is buoying the Sommers though these incredibly painful days.
May God be with them on this new journey without Sam.
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“Everything is rent.” – Rent, by Jonathan Larson
This week our Jewish high school put on a production of Rent, a rather bold choice for a religious institution. I was very proud of the kids. Their performance was spectacular, but better, through dialogue with teachers, rabbis, surviving families and friends of people who lived and died of AIDS, they understood the message, and it’s a core, it’s a Jewish one: Life is the most precious gift we have, so let us not waste it.
The message reminds me of a favorite story:
A few hundred years ago, a Jewish merchant came upon a shtetl he had never visited before. The times we difficult, many of the usual towns in his travels had been ravaged by plague, or abandoned after a pogrom. Thinking about all the people in all those places broke the peddler’s heart. It broke again at this new town as he wound his way along the path to the gates of the town that led past gravestones and markers through a sprawling cemetery. It was not the enormity of the graveyard that stuck him, he had seen the fields outside of Cracow, Prague, and even Warsaw. No, it was the numbers on the graves: 9, 25, 12, 13. Oy gevalt! My God, he thought, these were children. This is a town that is bereft of her young!
When he reached the synagogue, he was warmly greeted by a few elderly gentlemen who were just leaving the great building in the town’s central square.
“A gutn tag,” one said to the peddler.
“Good afternoon to you sir,” he replied. “Tell me, what calamity has befallen your lovely community?”
“It’s too awful to speak of. Please ask the rabbi.”
The peddler entered the synagogue and found the rabbi at the front of the hall, he was seated at a long wooden table.
“Yes, my friend,” the rabbi said over the brown leather volume he had been pouring over.
“Rabbi, I am a peddler, a visitor to your town. I have visited many towns and cities that have been afflicted by war, by plague, and even pogrom. Rabbi, I have seen and heard of many tragedies, but your town, what horrid thing has befallen your townspeople?”
“You have seen our cemetery?”
“I have, and I cried for your children and for their parents too.”
“ I see,” said the sage, “ You were right to weep, but you may have misunderstood. It is the custom of our town not to list on the gravestone a person’s age, but rather to list on the marker the number years a person really lived.”
As an encore, the players in the show invited the audience to sing along to one of the show’s signature songs; Seasons of Love was printed inside the program. “Five Hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes”. We reminded ourselves and each other to count the blessings of each minutes of every day, month and year we are privileged to share. Likewise, we reminded ourselves to make each and every minute count.
Memories can play such tricks on our minds. Last night, I returned to a synagogue where my husband had served as an assistant rabbi for 5 years. We were there to celebrate the installation of the new senior rabbi who is a good friend. People from different parts of our lives swirled together, past congregants from the synagogue, current friends, and colleagues who we looked forward to meeting. All of this taking place in this synagogue building which holds such an important place in my life. I was married on the bimah, celebrated my wedding reception in the ballroom, watched my husband bloom from a rabbinic intern in to a full fledge rabbi, and taught my own first adult education courses. The five years I walked in and out of that synagogue mark the years I grew up and became an adult.
All of this came flooding back as I sat in the pews and walked the halls. But one emotion hit me in the gut, regret. Walking down the hall a picture of the cantor my husband worked with, Cantor Renee Colson stared down at me from the wall. The minute I saw her tears came to my eyes. The last time we were in the synagogue was seven years ago for her funeral. She was diagnosed with cancer and died within two years of our leaving the synagogue.
Her eyes seemed to follow me as I walked down the hallway. And I remembered… I remembered having to cancel a dinner date I had made with her because a work commitment got in the way. She was already very sick at the time, though I did not realize how sick. I was surprised, when I called to tell her I couldn’t make it, when she said, “Well it doesn’t matter, since I can’t eat anyway.” She wouldn’t, or couldn’t reschedule. Her words stuck with me like an arrow in the gut. I meant to reach out again, but then I heard she had died. To this day, I regret that I cancelled our dinner date.
I know that having dinner with her would not have changed the course of her cancer. But I feel like I let down a friend in need. Today I do not remember the work commitment I had that night, but I remember where I should have been.
It is easy to spout aphorisms about living each day to the fullest and spending less time at work and more with family and friends. But it is hard for us to follow them. I wish my priorities had been in the right place that night.
I will always remember Renee being full of life and voice. Every Rosh Hashannah certain songs bring her to mind. Her high notes still ring in my ears and her memory lives on in me.
Sitting in the sanctuary last night, as I celebrated my friend’s new beginning as the rabbi there, I remembered. For a moment, the past, present, and future all combined. I sat in the moment with both joy and pain in my heart.
I hope I will not make a similar mistake in the future. May Renee’s memory teach me to celebrate with friends in the good times and be with them in the bad, for life inescapably brings both.