The room was dark, except for a few candles. Wearing her winter coat indoors, hands cupping hot soup brought in from a friend, she sat on her mourner’s stool. That’s how you sit shiva during Hurricane Sandy, when you’ve lost your electricity, heat, the normal amenities of life, and your dad.
The funeral was in NY, hours before the main outrage of the storm, allowing my friend to get out and get back to PA. “Gesturing around her, she laughed, “Dad would have liked this – the drama of it all,” and she recounted one of her father’s exploits in his old age, where he parachuted out of a plane – and had a heart attack on the way down.
At age, 60, he walked away from the garment industry where he had worked for almost 40 years and went back to graduate school, becoming a licensed social worker at age 63. He then went on to have a practice counseling addicts, until his early 80’s. He worked up until a month before his death, dragging his oxygen tank with him wherever he went. His favorite toy was a horn he kept by his feet during his therapy sessions and when a client was in denial and blame mode, he would surreptitiously reach down and then suddenly blast the horn. The therapy technique is called “pattern interrupt” which stands for “cut it out!” When you’re on oxygen, and routinely on dialysis, you get that life is too short for the persistent avoidance of truth.
But some days were rough, really rough, and when my friend would call her dad, sometime in the hospital, or in bed recovering from the latest round of dialysis, and she would ask, “How are you feeling, dad?”, he would always answer, “Fannnn-tastic!!!! So what’s going on with you? Tell me something good, tell me something new, what’s making your world rock today, sweetheart?”
The weekly Torah portion that we read right after the hurricane was “Vayeira”, about the angels visiting Abraham and Sarah with the message that they would have a son, and the Torah describes Abraham and Sarah as being “well on in years”. The Zohar comments that “each day in a person’s life carries its own challenges and mission. What is to be accomplished today cannot be postponed to tomorrow, because tomorrow has its own set of things to do.” For Sarah and Abraham, being “well on in years” meant that they fully used their days, and that they tapped into their life’s mission on a day-by-day basis.
By the time he died, my friend’s father’s body had completely wasted away; there was nothing physically left of him. He squandered nothing – not a day, not an hour, not even his muscles and sinews. When he was strong and vigorous, he lived larger than life. Ill and incapacitated, he lived as large as he could under the circumstances, because that was his mission then – to beam happiness when others would be bitter.
I say the prayer which begins “modah ani” (“I gratefully thank You”) every morning when I wake up, thanking G-d for a new day of life. Sometimes I’m really tuned in to the words, but often I am not. The idea is to wake up with an “attitude of gratitude”. I see it differently now. The point is not to have a “modah ani” moment, or a “modah ani” morning, but to create a “modah ani” day, and hopefully, live a “modah ani” life. Yes, that’s it – a “modah ani” life. So let it be said of us at the end of our days, that we were “well on in years”, that we weathered our storms, and that we had a life that was absolutely “Fannn-tastic!!!!!”
Hanna Perlberger, J.D., B.C.C.