Q: One of my dear friends is dying from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). We are a group of women who have grown up next door to each other, from toddlers to now senior citizens (yikes). I am struggling (as we all are) with watching my friend slowly slipping away. She can no longer move or speak; we communicate through a code of eye blinking. We show up with food, which she can no longer chew, and we do our best to be cheerful and always let her know how much we love her. I wonder how you came to terms with your friend Father Tom's illness and eventual death. After being with my friend, I find myself so angry and depressed, and I lash out at others. I question my faith and try to hang on to what little I have. Please send me any advice you can to help in this situation. I will share it with the others who are also hurting. With my sincere gratitude and blessings to you. — L, Islip Terrace
A: Many pundits have remarked that the middle class is disappearing in America. Bowling leagues, service clubs and houses of worship are losing members as we become an increasingly fractionalized and isolated America. Except for you, dear L. You and your childhood friends have stuck together over the years and given one another the gift of knowing that you are not alone. In my view, you are doing everything right. You have surrounded your dying friend with love and not just for a few days but for all the days of your life. God bless you and your strong and steady friends, and may God receive the soul of your dying friend with open arms.
I am presuming that your friend can still hear you because you mentioned your eye-blinking code. Your friend's present is so grim I think that focusing on your joyous past is the best course until there is no future for her on this Earth at all.
So, let me suggest that you put on a play for your friend. It does not matter what the play is about. The best topic might be a funny incident that happened to all of you over many years of friendship. She might brighten up, and you will surely brighten up as you act out and celebrate a lifetime of friendship.
Now a word and a prayer about your own anger and despair. Let me say this simply. You should give thanks for your pain because it is in direct proportion to your love. Love is the fuel of your grief.
My favorite American poet, Mary Oliver, died last January. There is a passage at the end of her poem, "In Blackwater Woods" (from her collection "American Primitive") that I hope will make things clearer for you in your fog of grief:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
You have loved a mortal friend. You have held her close to your bones, and now it is time to let her go. Let go of the anger. Let go of the fantasy that you would have her forever.
I give this advice in love, but I freely admit that I have not yet let Tommy go. He died Feb. 16, 2016, and I have not let him go. I have transformed my anger into deep sadness, but I cling to my memories of what we had together.
I sat with Tommy every day the week before he died. I am not sure how much he could hear, but I would sit next to him and pretend that we were taping an episode of our show. I would interview some imaginary guest and then throw it to Tommy. Of course, he said nothing, but I would say, "What Father Tom meant to say was …" Then I would close the show the way we closed every show for 25 years. I said what Tommy always said, "I'm Father Tom Hartman." Then I said my line, "I'm Rabbi Marc Gellman." Then Tommy would say the final line. I was about to say it when Tom opened his eyes and said in a soft but clear voice, "And we ARE the God Squad." Those were the last words I heard from my friend.
God bless us, one and all.
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at email@example.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.