Yizkor D’rash 5774
September 14, 2013
Cantor Andrew Bernard
Of all the relationships we have, the ones with our parents might be the most complicated. We choose our friends; we choose spouses. We don’t choose our children, but we choose to have them. We don’t choose our siblings — but we don’t rely on them the same way we rely on parents. When we come into this world, we are 100% dependent upon our parents — for food, for shelter, for safety, and…ideally…for nurturing. As we grow older, we gradually gain the ability to see to our own safety, our own food, our own shelter. Nurturing, however, is something we continue to count on throughout our lives, even though the form it takes changes as we move through childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, and eventually into maturity. But not all parents are created equal in that department.
Working at the Children’s Hospital, I’ve learned that some parents need to put so much energy to managing their own needs that they have little left over for anyone else. They’re not bad people; as adults, they simply lack the personal resources — the personal bandwidth, if you will — to nurture another. Yet children who can’t count on adult nurturing still crave that parental presence. There are chronic illnesses that result in frequent hospitalizations if the child does not receive adequate care at home. I used to work with one such child. Even at a young age, she knew she wasn’t being properly taken care of. But she would shut down completely when questioned by the social worker about her home life. Even as she grew old enough to understand that her lack of care could be life-threatening, she would fiercely defend her mother without hesitation if anyone tried to probe. Even though that maternal nurturing was more wishful thinking than reality, the need to hold on to that parent-child bond remained paramount.
My mother was the nurturer throughout my life. When she died six years ago yesterday (thanks, Mom), it was, in many ways, simpler. I was very, very sad. The grief weighed on me. She was not only a steadfast nurturer herself, but she taught it to me. In fact, I stood on this very spot six years ago today and spoke about how I learned pastoral caregiving from her example. At that moment, it was a bit surreal in light of her death thirty-some hours earlier; but it also felt right speaking publicly about the gift she had given me.
My father’s death last month is a little more complicated. He was in many ways the stereotypical father of the 50s: it was his job to go to work and provide for the family, while my mother stayed home and cared for me and my siblings. And this worked well, because — as much as I believe that he wanted to be a nurturer
— his own insecurities, sometimes spilling over into paranoia — made it difficult for him to be the anchor I needed as I grew up.
I learned a great lesson about the role of the adult when I was at a conference in Southern California. The hotel was a short stroll from a marina where sea otters played between the wooden piers. In the center of this small inlet, wooden pylons driven deep into the ground below stuck up above the water so boats could tie up. As the sea otters swam every which way, chasing each other through the water, every so often one would pause, momentarily sticking its head above the surface to look around and get its bearings. I realized that the adult’s job is to be that fixed pylon. In the turmoil of growing up, kids’ emotional needs change constantly — sometimes monthly, sometimes weekly, sometimes, it seems, every hour. Yet wherever they are, kids need to be able to pause every so often and look up, and be able to count on a steady adult as their point of reference. Adults who are not themselves anchored can’t provide that vital source of security and emotional stability.
All the lessons we learn from our parents can be valuable — whether they are lessons about what to do or what not to do. From my mother, I learned how to care for others. From my father, I learned fear and self-doubt. I grew up outside of New York City. Any trips us kids made into The City made my father very nervous, and he insisted that every detail be planned. Years later a few weeks after I first moved to Seattle, I needed to go to a music store near the Seattle Center. To get there from the University District, you had to take a bus downtown, and then transfer to another bus up to the Center. I got my bus maps and studied them meticulously. I knew where the stops were, the routes, the schedule, the transfer point. I had exact change for the bus fare and knew I needed to get a transfer from the driver. It was a carefully planned mission. I executed the mission perfectly. And when I got home, I collapsed, sleeping several hours recovering from the stress. Looking back on that now, I just laugh. These days, I head to the corner — bus pass in hand — and jump on whatever is heading in my general direction. But it took years and hard work to unlearn that fear.
A decade or so after moving to Seattle, I decided to explore the fall New England foliage. A couple of days after Yom Kippur, I flew to Portland, Maine. All I had was my plane ticket, a rental car, and my bed-and-breakfasts-in-New-England guidebook. About half way through my drive each day, I’d consult the guidebook and call ahead to book a reservation for that evening. My father would have been horrified if he’d known. Overcoming that fear was a huge personal victory.
I remember as a teen riding with my father one night into New York City. He owned a store on 5th Avenue, and he couldn’t remember if he’d locked the gate and set the alarm when he’d left earlier that day. So we drove the 20 miles at 8:00 that night to check. Of course he had locked the gate and set the alarm. But that nervous feeling of having to check and double-check that I’d locked up when I left somewhere haunted me for years. It came to a head in college when I sometimes found myself paralyzed for 10 or 20 minutes, unsure of whether my dorm room door was really locked. I’d stand there frozen, checking and rechecking the door. One day I decided that the toll this was taking on my life far outweighed the consequences of having my room robbed and — with great effort — started closing the door and walking away. It was terrifying at first; and then ultimately liberating.
Because of my father’s insecurities, he had difficulty connecting with other people. Attending his funeral was his family, his caregivers, and my siblings’ friends and coworkers. But no friends of his. He never seemed to want friends; he just wanted controlled interaction with those few people around him in the safety of his own home. And while he’d been a successful enough retailer to provide for his family, neither of the businesses he built still exist. So what does remain?
People have often asked me how I can cope with the deaths of children. I tell them that I not only see examples of extraordinary strength and courage in the children and their families, but those children manage to have an impact on a great number of people, even at such a young age. In fact, I say, they have more of an impact on the people around them than some 80-year-olds I know. What I never said out loud was that I was thinking about my father. What legacy would he leave? After he was gone, would there even be a footprint showing that he’d been here? Yes, his children have gone on to do important things in each of their worlds. But those are our accomplishments. Would he have anything of his own? It’s an idea that made me profoundly sad.
My father did have a talent for building furniture. He was the slowest furniture builder in the history of the world. He would consult the drawings (usually done by my mother), take the piece of wood and make a measurement. Then he’d check the drawing once or twice more before making a pencil mark on the wood. He’d re-measure. Then he’d have a cigarette and stare at the wooden board. He’d check the drawing again, check his measurement again, and finally make a cut.
That could take an hour. He didn’t care because everyone left him alone to do his woodworking. And we had no expectations on when a piece of furniture would be completed. The grandfather’s clock he made took two years. He carved the moldings by hand. My mother embroidered the face. The mechanism that they bought no longer works, but this beautiful piece still stands in their living room.
Talking with my siblings the day before my father’s funeral, I found myself preoccupied with what would happen to that furniture. I didn’t need to have any of it myself, but I was surprised at how important it was to me that it remain in the family with one of them. I puzzled over this obsession for several days, finally realizing that this was his footprint — the lasting evidence that he had, indeed, walked on this earth. It is personally important to me that there be enduring physical proof of his place in this world — of his place in my world. My mother gave me the gift of nurturing- but it was an easy gift. All I had to do was open my eyes to it. My father gave me the gift of self-assurance. It was a gift I had to work hard to acquire. In some respects, because I had to work so hard, it is the greater gift.
Regardless of the relationship, we find it essential to be able to hold fast to that bond with our parents. Perhaps those we have loved did not always live up to our expectations. But they shaped our lives in profound ways, and their enduring legacy — its physical existence, and its place in our hearts — is a gift for which we are eternally grateful.