Memory, even as it stirs the pot of unresolved feelings, can also restore connections. I remember the day we were packing to move my father into assisted living. My mom, divorced from my dad for nearly four decades, came to help. She spent hours patiently writing his name on his clothes and other belongings. She sorted through dad’s clothes, making sure to select the best things. Watching her sitting on the bed, her head bent over, writing carefully with a thick indelible marker, I remembered how she did the same for me when I went to summer camp. Then, and now, it felt like such an act of love. Strange, after all these years, the simplest thing could feel so intimate. That moment, one that I will always cherish, also brought some measure of healing to our family.
My dad sat in the other room in “his” chair. In fact, he refers to the chair as, “my chair,” which always makes me smile, because when I was growing up, dad also had a special chair. No one sat in it except for him. It reminds me about studying the rules written by the rabbis concerning not sitting in one’s fathers or one’s rabbi’s chair. It is considered a sign of disrespect. When dad would come home from a day’s work, not made any easier by a long commute, he would relax in his chair. There he was king. There he would nap, read, listen to all kinds of music and smoke his pipe. There he would help me study for tests, while I sat on the floor by his feet. There, my favorite times, he would tell his wonderful stories. This chair became a sacred space, a place that brought him physical and emotional comfort, and one that I associate with love. Of course he would bring his current chair to his new home, which both he and I found comforting. Now settled into his new home, he still tell me with such gratitude that he is relaxing in his chair. When I miss him, I imagine him there and take comfort in knowing that even as he moves deeper into dementia, he still has his throne of dignity.
As the day grew late, my father told me he couldn’t remember why he had gotten divorced from my mother. This, even though he had been in a long-time relationship with another woman following the divorce. I didn’t know what to say, especially since so many negative memories leading up to the divorce had been reinforced. My father called to my mother. He spoke to her with such intimacy that she was caught off guard. In a sweet moment, he asked if she remembered how they met. I enjoyed listening as they each recalled their own version of the story. When my dad opened his arms for an embrace, I could see confusion in her eyes. Later, when I asked her, she would admit that she had never really processed the divorce. But, at that utterly awkward moment, I needed to do something. “Family hug!” I cried out, transforming the moment into one of healing and wholeness. Here, after all this time, we created a new memory, one that fills me with gratitude and such love. A memory that makes me especially happy to share with my mom, which makes her happy.
Memory, even as it stirs the pot of unresolved feelings, can restore connections. And, if there can be a moment of redemption in dementia, it can be the loss of memories that make us sad. Opportunities to transform painful memories exist, but require openness and courage to change one’s actions. By forgiving ourselves and others we make room for our own healing and the healing of those we love or once loved.
May your reflections on this and every Shabbat lead to a deeper understanding of how remembering is a conscious act that can heal and deepen our capacity to love.
Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi
Shabbat Pekudei 5776