This past weekend, I drove to Columbia, SC to meet with several of my High School classmates to begin planning our 20th reunion. Whenever I go to Columbia, there are always two women who I visit – probably the two most important women in my life until I met Batya. One, Claire Lilly Boxt, resides in a grave at the Hebrew Benevolent Cemetery in downtown Columbia. The other, Betty Rhoad Lilly, the mother of Claire Lilly Boxt (and my Nana), resides at the Presbyterian Home right off of I-20 just outside of Columbia.
Claire Lilly Boxt, my mother, died on December 1, 2004 and I have vowed to visit her every time I am in Columbia. These are not usually very long visits – but long enough for me to say hello, catch my Mom up with whatever is going on in my life and to kiss her Headstone. To say my mother and I had a challenging relationship would have been an understatement. However, she was/is my mother and I will always visit, no matter what.
Betty Lilly, my Nana, will turn 90 years old this year. Visiting with Nana has become somewhat more challenging as time has moved forward. You see, Nana has Dementia and no longer remembers who I am. As a matter of fact, when I visited with her on Sunday, she asked me if I was married 3 times. Unfortunately, in my line of work, I see this way too often. I will admit that the first time I visited someone with Dementia or Alzheimer’s; it was very difficult to understand what was going on.
One of the doctors said to me the following: “No matter how hard it is for you…it is always harder for them.” He explained that for those who are getting older, it is extremely difficult (at least at first) to feel as if you are losing your memory…losing the most precious of thoughts, images and information you may ever have. My sister texted me shortly after I left, and asked if Nana remembered who I was. I replied, “I don’t think so.” Bekki then sent me a frownie face text. I replied, “Unfortunately, I see this every day.” She replied, “Not from your Nana.”
As I was driving home, back to Marietta, I began to think about what Bekki said – and how I responded. You see, the losing of one’s memory is one of those unexplainable things. There may be science behind it, but it is something we may never truly understand. You might think that it should be more difficult for me that it is Nana who is not remembering me…as opposed to the family member of a congregant. However, for me, it is very much the same. As a rabbi, I find myself in situations all the time that may be perceived by someone as miserable. And, do not get me wrong, sometimes I have to take a breath and a break.
You see – I buried a 6 week old child last summer. Everything since then has been put in perspective. When my 90 year old Nana doesn’t recognize me – for sure, it hurts. However, Nana has lived a full and amazing life. She is the mother, grandmother and great-grandmother of an entire family of people. She has influenced a great deal of people. It is not that I have no feelings or am inhuman. It is, though, that I appreciate all of the many things that I will always remember about Nana – even when she doesn’t remember them. And, even though she did not recognize or remember me, she treated me and loved me as if she did – and no one can take that away from me.
So, what does this story have to do with Parashat Metzora from the Book of Leviticus? This week, as last week, we read about Tzaraat, often mistranslated as leprosy or skin disease. Truthfully, what Tzaraat represents or symbolizes is much more important than what it actually is. What is represented is something bad…a disease, a plague, who knows. When I made the commitment to visit with Nana – it does not matter how badly or sad I feel when I realize I am not remembered. I still love Nana and deep down I know she loves me as well. She may be afflicted by something unknown or unexplainable…who knows? However, the Tzaraat appears when I forget to visit and love her.
I bet you thought I was referring to her sickness. Well, gotcha! Truth is, it is up to us to show love and support for those in our lives – regardless of what is happening to them. When it is the hardest for us, we must recognize it will always be harder for them. Just as homes can be affected by Tzaraat, as in this week’s Parasha, so can our hearts. If we allow ourselves to turn away or ignore the pain of others (even if it pains us to see our loved ones in this way), then we are afflicted with Tzaraat.
Parashat Metzora provides answers for how to cure our homes from Tzaraat. We can take the same cure and apply it to our own hearts. If we shut out and ignore, the disease is certain to stay. However, if we accept and reach out to embrace, then the disease goes away (even if only temporarily). I guess that is the answer I was looking for. Yes, I am saddened by the condition my Nana is in. However, I have so many years and years of memories, love and experiences that enable me to embrace Nana, even as she loses more of her memory. It is ok to break down and cry…there is no need to always be stoic. However, I choose to think of the happiness and the great fond memories I have.
My prayer for us is that we may take some time today and reach out to those in our families and circles of friends with whom we may have lost touch. Life is not infinite – it is finite. Therefore, we should always take advantage of the time we have. Never forget to say I love you…never forget to hug and kiss…and most importantly never forget those who made us who we are today.