I Would Not Wish This On My Worst Enemy

Those were the first words his mom said to me as I hugged her not knowing how to ease her pain.

I stood out in the bitter cold for 45 minutes. The line just to get inside the funeral home snaked its way around the building even now in the 4th hour of the visitation. The line never got shorter until the doors closed 5 hours later. Hundreds and hundreds of people who loved him, loved his family came to say they were sorry and to ask “Why?”.

Scottie was 17. Smart, athletic, funny. Dozens of good friends, dated regularly. Two older brothers who were friends as well as siblings. Two loving and attentive parents. Lots of close family. Seemed to be happy.

And then came Monday night. He seemed tired and went to bed early. His parents went to bed a little later. At 4:30 the police were at their door telling them that their son was dead.

The details are sketchy. At some point he drove from his house, parked the car on an overpass above an expressway and left the car with the motor running. Somewhere around one he was lying on the expressway when he was hit by a car. The assumption is that this kid, who was seemingly happy and loved life, and according to his father “afraid of roller coasters”, jumped off the height of the overpass with the intent to die. The injuries sustained from being hit by the car make it impossible to know for sure that he jumped. Questions of why was the car motor left running and did he jump or go down to the highway by foot would be interesting mystery clues if this were a made for TV movie. Instead it is all too real life.

The bigger and much, much harder to answer question is  WHY. No note. No signs of depression or despair. Had been talking to parents and friends about making various plans for the future. Why?

The sad thing is that we will probably never know. Actually the tragically sad thing is that Scottie is dead. Not knowing why just adds to the pain. Could something have been done? Should someone have noticed something more? We will never know. What I do know that for the past two days I have been witnessing the toll of this tragedy on his parents, brothers, grandfather and uncle. All have been a part of my life for a long time, 3 of them for most of my life. Let me share some moments from the visitation day on Friday and the funeral service on Saturday.

Just one word can describe Friday. People. Hundreds of people. They just kept coming and coming. They waited in line in the cold for an hour and then inside for another hour until you finally got to the family and the casket. The visitation was scheduled from 3-9 but lasted until 11 because people just kept coming.

Maybe there are three more words, love, sorrow and hugs. Love could be seen on the numerous poster boards with pictures remembering and celebrating Scott’s life. In so many of the picture he had that great big smile that he was so well-known for just beaming. Only one of the poster boards had been prepared by the family. The others were spontaneous gestures by friends and extended family, all who loved this kid.Because the love was so strong the sorrow went so deep. So deep for so many people. All of whom were asking why.As Scott’s grandfather said, this is the worst day of my life.

The hugs. When there are no words to be said, nothing that can provide any comfort, there are hugs. There was more hugging done in these two days than I can ever remember being a part of. A hug, a squeeze, a rub on the shoulder provided some measure of comfort to all of us who mourned.

Saturday was the church service and the cemetery. What I noticed the most about the church service was when a family member  would be heart-broken and sobbing another would be strong for the moment and provide loving support. Then sometime later, often moments later, the strong would become the weak and someone else would provide comfort and strength. During one of those moments Scott’s father broke down and his eldest on just put his arm around his dad as if to say yes, this is horror but I am here by your side and I will be strong for you now.

Scott’s uncle is one of my oldest and closest friends. His grandfather and my mother lived together for almost thirty years until her death. My goal was to be strong for them. Instead as I approached them during the service I broke down and sobbed. Loudly. Not the comfort I had been planning to provide but we all understood.

The deacon led a beautiful service and many good memories of Scot were shared. His eldest brother delivered a powerful speech. He made the point that as the youngest of three boys Scott wanted to grow up fast. He always wanted what his brothers had, wanted to do what they did and hang around with their friends. We were told that to honor Scott’s life we should each live our life as we want it to be lived. No compromises and no excuses. That is what a grown up does.

After the cemetery there was a lunch. At least 200 people came. It was the Catholic version of a Shiva. People and food together help the family to momentarily ease the pain and to recognize that while it will forever be different, life will go on. I was glad to hear the beginning of some normalcy in the conversation. Somethings other than more words about a life ended and how sad it all is. There was even a discussion of the best pizza in town. Why do I find that to be worth mentioning? Because I know from experience that the sorrow ebbs and flows and will be strong for quite some time and that talk of pizza takes nothing away from the respect that Scott’s memory deserves but it does mean there is life for others after his death.

After the lunch my wife and I could do nothing more than collapse at home. I have no idea how the family could physically and emotionally endure the past few days. I was exhausted and my body hurt as if I had taken a beating.

The last point I want to share takes some set up. Through my mother and their father our families became family. At several gatherings over the past couple of years, Scott’s dad had challenged my wife, an avid tennis player, to a game of doubles, he and Scott versus my wife and son.

One of the last things Scott’s dad said to my wife yesterday was;

“I guess we will never have that doubles match”.

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Cirrhosis, And Strokes and Bleeding… Oh My!

I wish this was Oz and I could click the heels of my ruby slippers and things would go back to the way they were. No such luck. My Mom has been in the hospital since July 4. In addition to cirrhosis of the liver, a bad dude when traveling alone, it was discovered that she had a minor stoke (not her first) some number of days before we convinced her to go to the hospital.

Fast forward 15 days and while she is still looking like a starving refugee  and her speech is slow she has been moved to the rehab wing and is getting physical and speech therapy with the idea that in two weeks or so she would be in shape to go home. Maybe walk a little. maybe be able to get outside more than she had been. With some in-home care and therapy perhaps some quality of life. Presumably for years to come. At least that was where my head was.

Today i thought I was lucky because I caught an early flight and got home at 9 pm instead of 11:30. Some lucky day. My sister caught me on the way home to tell me that Mom was back in the regular hospital ward. They could not wake her this morning and that she was low on blood. They put in 3 pints which seemed to help. No blood on the outside means internal bleeding to non-medical types like me. They don’t know why, where the blood is leaking from or even when they will do the tests to figure all of this out. Are they out of their freakin’ minds? Do the test NOW!

Hospitals are not good places to stay if life is your goal. Just after they loaded one of the transfusions my sister realized Mom’s arm was weird colors and bloated. She has had arms thinner than toothpicks so something was wrong. Oh. Mistake. The blood was being pumped into her arm and not the vein. Sorry.

With cirrhosis of the liver, not all the toxins being produced are being filtered. No doc has said this to us but a nurse friend tells us that the toxins are shooting through her body.

Not much to do but scream, cry and wait. I keep hoping that there is some measure of treatment that will give her a few more years. No one has told us otherwise but…

JRC

The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston has “been my synagogue” for the past 10 years. I put those words in quotation marks after staring at the screen for 10 minutes trying to find words to relate the JRC to me. Those words came to me but I feel they need further explanation. Let me get back to that at the end of this post.

I came to the JRC shortly after becoming no longer single and learning the importance, if not the skill, of compromise. While not terribly religious on a daily basis I grew up in a Traditional congregation. That slice of Jewish observance falls a half step below orthodox. The women are not separated physically from the men but they play no direct role in leading the worship service or the business of being a congregation. Most of the service is in Hebrew and it tends to be long. Rabbinic sermons were filled with fire and brimstone. I only grew up at this congregation because my aunt and uncle belonged there when we moved into the neighborhood. Yet this approach to being a Jew was how I spent my formative years, provided the foundation of my Jewish education and all I knew for thirty years.

My wife on the other hand grew up in a Humanist congregation. I do not know exactly what this means but in terms of worship service it seems to have been lighter than most reform congregations. Short and mostly in English.  All I know is the family rabbi that married us refused to wear a yarmulke, the traditional head covering which I had been led to believe was part of Jew 101.

Needless to say, finding a congregation that we could both be comfortable in was going to be challenging. After 6-8 attempts at various places we lowered the standard of success to finding a place we both could tolerate. JRC became that place.  

In the first couple of years I was mostly focused on what JRC wasn’t. I would tell my friends how they shortened most of the prayers and did much more in English than in Hebrew. It felt less religious. Worst of all they used different tunes for the prayer/songs that I knew and loved. You cannot overestimate how closely my spiritual tie to the entire service, to being Jewish, was linked to those songs. I don’t particularly like change.

I believe my wife seemed focused initially on how much more Hebrew was read than what she had been accustomed to and the increased length of the services. We both however had appreciation for how music was integrated into the service which created beauty.  In my former place of worship, no musical instruments were allowed, just a small men’s choir. Here, in addition to a choir of women and men came guitar, piano, flute and cello. I began to notice the joy that much of the congregation took from the service. In the early years though I stayed true to my introverted self and emotionally held the entire experience at arm’s length. This was a place to be on the high holidays and a place for my son to receive a Jewish education. It continued to meet the “high” standard of compromise that my wife and I set.  

Fast forward to Wednesday, September 13, 2007, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, marking the beginning of the Jewish New Year. I was in an ugly mood and having trouble connecting in any way to the service. The turning point for me came after the rabbi introduced one of the members of the congregation to provide her personal reflection, a regular event on the high holiday program of JRC.

The woman’s theme was redemption. She spoke of growing up in an orthodox tradition and learning to love being Jewish. As a young adult, however, she began feeling left out given the orthodox focus on men and the exclusion of women from the most holy aspects of the rituals. It was not until her partner chose to convert and become a Jew and then later dragged her to the JRC that she reconnected with her religion and found a warm and accepting religious community. She had been concerned that being female, gay and an adoptive parent were facets of her personality that would make connections difficult. At JRC she found not only people that would accept her as she was but also people similar to her.

For some reason this woman’s story struck me harder than usual. I was vaguely aware that JRC was an open and accepting community. I say vaguely only because I have always stayed on the periphery. In prior years, others had in similar personal reflections echoed those sentiments. I could also visually observe the differences in the congregation and how JRC conducted itself. This time however I felt the truth of her observations.

At JRC it does not matter if you are female or male, gay or straight, or young or old. Anyone showing interest and being deserving (based on their actions, especially in support of the JRC and its community) can participate in meaningful ways in the prayer service. As an example, my friend’s son Sam reads from the Torah though he is only a few years beyond his bar mitzvah. (He does an excellent job btw.)

On JRC’s website you will find the words below.

Welcoming

 

Joyful

Innovative

Dynamic

Inclusive
 

Caring

 

The JRC and its community are all that. The Rabbi, Brant Rosen has brought to us attention to religious study, humor, good nature, a focus on community and an activist’s focus on doing good works– both within the Jewish community but also anywhere else they are needed. Despite the fact that he looks as if he is barely out of rabbinic school he provides the right kind of leadership to this community.

Cantor Howard Friedland is one of the warmest individuals you could ever meet. This comes through in his chanting and his comportment in front of the congregation. Taking a slightly different road to JRC, he was a free-lance actor before becoming a cantor. While not having a long cantorial resume would have excluded him from consideration at other congregations, it was who he is and not what he previously did that mattered to the JRC.

So why am I writing over a thousand words about the JRC? The values of JRC are values that I hold dear. Values are a big part of who I am. That JRC and I had this in common struck me intellectually and I connected at least on that level. For me this was a significant step forward. The next day, the second day of Rosh Hashanah is attended by only 20%-25% of the crowd from the day before. I enjoy the more intimate setting. I sat with friends and actually prayed. The beginning of a connection on an emotional level. A baby step anyway. For now for me JRC is a place to be. It is my synagogue in name. My dues are current. For now I recognize that it is much more for many people and could be more for me some day. Who knows if or when? Stay tuned.

Count Your Blessings; Say Your Prayers

Some more perspective for anyone having an irritating day and complaining about it.

I have a friend who has had a difficult pregnancy. She gave birth to a son, her first child last week. Brett came 14 weeks early and weighed 2 pounds. I can eat sandwiches bigger than that. He will be in the hospital, if all goes well, for most of the 14 weeks he should have stayed inside his mom. Count your blessings.

Say your prayers. Let’s hope that this has a happy ending. Both Mother and Father are good people. Having a premature baby is dramatically hard. I cannot imagine how my friend will go on with her life if this should take a turn for the worse.

No complaining about little things. Not today.

Strangers on a Plane

The setting. Tuesday. I had already been in airports or on the first of two planes for 7 1/2 hours after being on the road for 3 days. This flight was running 90 minutes late because US Air could not get a crew to fly a plane that was sitting on the ground waiting to bring me home. I had 3 more hours to go.

Just as I found my aisle seat, a pleasant, averaging looking man in his sixties informed me he had the window. He took out some papers to work on. I took out my iPod. All I wanted to do was vegetate and be on my way home.  Not sure who started talking. Topic was something polite. Small talk, gag me. Next thing I knew the plane was landing at O’Hare and I had one of my top 10 , if not top 5, plane conversations of all time.

He works for the Lutheran Church, the national organization. Works on development/growth. From what I gathered this means both the personal development and growth of the senior pastors of Lutheran  churches through education and training  as well as growth and development of the church through fund raising. He had 51 people working for him scattered across the U.S. Qualified for this role by once having been a pastor but also running his own business.

We talked about what we do and how we do it. At first he asked questions about my work such as how I built consensus among business leaders, what were the traits of the CEOs I work with and what did I like about my work.

I learned about his passion for helping the senior pastors improve by giving them the skills to be more effective at achieving their mission. He felt strongly that while pastors were usually excellently trained in theology they were missing the basic skills to run an organization. Some of his thoughts:

  • churches too often accept mediocracy rather than strive for excellence
  • many church suffered from a wealth of opportunities to do good things. Leadership lacked priorities, focus and and the willingness to give up some things in order to be great at few things
  • the best churches have senior pastors that involve their lay leaders and strive for excellence
  • there are material differences between Lutheran churches in different regions across the country
  • there is evidence that the heart follows the money rather than money follows the heart (At first this went over my head. What he meant was that while for some, degree charitable giving follows what the person is passionate about, you will become passionate about the cause to which you give your money.)

 With the possible exception of this last point, I found many direct parallels between the world of Church and the world of Business. We went on to discuss family, charitable giving, the value to one’s self of helping others, our parents that had suffered from dementia, raising children to become good people–he has 6 , I but 1. He asked me if I considered myself a man of faith. I am pretty sure that no one had asked me this before on a plane.  There were times the conversation lagged and I thought it was over. A part of me hoped it was over but then one of us would ask a new question and on we went.

As the plane began its decent, he shared two last things. First, he had taken out papers with the intention of pretending to work in order to avoid conversation. He then shared that the last time he did that on a plane he was in a row with 5 black people all obviously family. Being tired he avoided conversation most of the flight.  Finally, in order to not seem prejudiced, he asked what he believed to be an innocuous question of the father next to him. “Are you leaving home or going home.”  The man’s reply was that he had no home. He was a refugee and this was his first day in America after seven years of living in a camp in Africa. My companion then relayed that the conversation just got better and better.

Much the way I felt about mine. I never would have had this gift if my day had gone well to begin with.