My cousin is dying. Unexplainably, unexpectedly, his entire being has been assaulted by an irreversible degenerative disease. He is barely sixty years old, a university professor, the father of two girls, and a darn nice guy. We grew up together. He and his family occupied the upstairs of a duplex, and we were down below. It was not out of the ordinary to be privy to my aunt’s shrieking castigations and my cousin’s ensuing piercing protestations of defense.
We hung out together, sat together at family Passover Seders, skated together on the icy surfaces of Canadian public skating rinks, threw snowballs at one another, attended the same school, and drank together into the wee hours of the morning on the eve of my uncle’s funeral.
He lives abroad. I haven’t seen much of him in the past 25 years. On occasion, when visiting this part of the world, we would talk-either in person or over the phone as he placed a last minute call a few hours before his flight back to England.
He is very bright, a man of ideas and ideals. Living simply, almost to the point of self –deprivation, he nevertheless succeeded to see the world. Not from the vantage point of five-star hotels, but in the midst of the masses’ huddle of humanity. A skeptic and cynic, he was never bitter. Rarely did he raise his voice-at least not with me- in heated argument. In our health conscious society, he was the last of the junk food junkies.
His imminent passing, together with my own advancing age, has elicited a constant and inescapable flow of feelings of my mortality, feelings reflected best in the opening words of Ecclesiastes, “Futility of futilities; all is futility!” I wonder about life’s meaning, knowing that it is merely a question of time before I too drop over the edge of human existence. Indeed the future is frightening.
What about the past? I don’t deny a surge of reminiscing in my waking hours as well as during dream-laden sleep. Sadly, these dreams are neither sweet nor reassuring. I awaken fitfully, or exhausted from the struggle with a past that I wish I could have changed.
How do I preserve my sanity, a sense of the beauty and blessing in life?
Whatever I do, whatever I enjoy and anticipate, I interpret and understand from the perspective of the giftedness of the present moment. Without the recognition of the fullness of the now, I wonder how I would find the psychological and philosophical rationale to continue life in a way that makes sense. I have absolutely no intention of deliberately ending my life. I am neither depressed nor suicidal. Yet, is it not natural, even logical to feel the absurdity of life, to perceive life as merging with the meaningless?
My only refuge is in the blessing of the moment, the richness and the fullness of each passing minute in which and for which I am able to say thank you and carry a feeling of gratefulness deep within my heart for the gift of each single second of breath, sight, taste, touch, music, laughter, even the shedding of tears?
And so my dedication to the spiritual pursuit of gratitude. When gratefulness slips from my heart’s grasp, I am terrified, alone, adrift in a sea of uncertainty and dread. The past is no longer, the future unknown, its ending finite and final. All we have is a fleeting now, with moments meandering between what was and what will be. To be grateful for this gift of what is, that is my refuge and my strength.
The Grateful rabbi.