The Soul Remembers
During eight years of social work in a Jewish geriatric center, I gravitated to Barnhard Pavilion for residents who lived with dementia. I sat with elderly men and women, talking quietly, feeding them breakfast or singing show tunes from the 1950s. Most often, they remained locked in their own diminished world. But if I sang “Shalom Aleichem” or brought a lulav and etrog to shake or lit Chanukah candles, the frail resident would come alive in that moment, often joining in the words of the song or the blessing. Those words would emerge from a deep, hidden place. I call that place the soul.
Zachor! We are commanded as Jews time and again to remember. Jewish ritual, study and celebration are anchored in national and personal memory.
Can Jews who live with Alzheimer’s or some other form of senility still participate in Jewish life? What happens to the souls of Jews whose memory has been robbed by dementia of some kind? And more importantly, how can the family and friends of a person who has lost some or all memory find their loved one within the person before them?
We are commanded “You shall rise before the aged and show deference [v’hadarta] to the old.” (Vayikra 19:32) Poet Danny Siegel plays on the Hebrew word v’hadarta and translates this verse: “You shall rise before the aged and allow the beauty, glory and majesty of their faces to emerge.”
The answer at a theological level seems to be that the soul of a person is still within. Soul is somehow separate from intellect, emotion or memory. The pure piece of God implanted within every person remains as long as breath remains in the body. In rare and gentle moments, the soul shows itself.
The answer to the question about coping at a personal level, however, is very different. Theology does not help when long, painful days of coping with a loved one’s losses are our reality. A fleeting moment in a heartbreaking flow of hours, days and weeks is not enough to sustain most of us. The mourning process is excruciating for those who have lost a person even as that person sits before them. And yet, I still encourage families to seek those moments when the beauty and majesty of the face emerges, the moment of soul.
My Nana could not remember which grandchild I was during the last three years of her life, but she would snap to attention when I asked her for the chicken soup recipe that delighted her family every Friday evening at her Shabbat table. The Cantor who lived on Barnhard Pavilion for four years could not tell me where he had lived before the nursing home, but he could lean back in his chair and sing Kol Nidre as if he were in his sanctuary once again. I felt privileged to recognize their souls in those moments.
My friend Charlotte Abramson’s daughter Adena wrote a a prayer-poem for Yizkor this year. Adena wrote about her father, Rabbi Robert Abramson, my friend and teacher. I share it here with Adena’s permission, in the hope that it will bring recognition and succor to those of us coping with dementia in a loved one and that it will encourage all of us to reach out today to someone who is living the long grieving process of a family member of someone with senile dementia.
You are still here, but I remember.
I remember when your mind was connected to your voice.
I remember when your mind and body acted as one.
When with two words you could cut through all the noise or cause the room to burst in laughter
When your eyes sparkled green and were clear with focus.
Is it too early for me to start remembering?
You are still here. Your heart still beats. You are kind.
Do you experience joy?sadness? fear?
Is it still there?
So, I remember because you cannot, and by doing so, I feel all.
With blessings, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
thank you for the beauty in your writing.
You are spot on. My mother z”l had dementia in the last years of her life. She had been sharp and funny, but no longer remembered how to boil water for coffee. Being with her was often heartbreaking. One day my brother and I entered her house and heard music coming from downstairs. It wasn’t her caretaker. We looked downstairs and there was our mother, playing the piano. We never had any idea she could play, since she never did while we were growing up. For most of her last years she was usually lost in her own world, but once when she and I were snuggling on her bed, she looked at me and said “I love you.” Thank you for this reflection on the soul remembering.
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I too, have been there and am deeply moved by your capturing the incredible gift of a loved one joining with us again for an unforgettable moment. Thank you for this beautiful piece.luv Eileen
I was deeply touched by your reflection on the soul remembering. This Sunday I have yiskor for my dad, he was my best friend. It’s been 7 years since he passed, but his last 5 years of his life will always stay with me. I was glad I could get to Long Island to visit each weekend. I’m thankful for his wonderful caretakers as well.
Thank you for reminding of the ways I can connect with my Aunt Ann and with my patients in a meaningful and compassionate way!