Saturday, October 09, 2004

Echoes and Shadows

October 1, 1999
After almost a week in the hospital, Timmi no longer has a fever and her blood counts are on their way back up. Although she still needs three more days of antibiotics (the fever was due to an attack of E Coli bacteria in her blood), she will come home for Shabbat/Simchat Torah* and will return to the hospital Saturday night. Very thankfully, her spirits have been pretty good, and quite stable, despite the fever, the herpes that attacked her face and the sores she has in her mouth and throat, which make eating painful.

Don and I are quite exhausted, and looking forward to the end of this round of hospitalization, although the week after next she will undergo a minor operation to insert a "Hickman" semi-permanent IV tube into a main artery in her chest (at the moments she has a "Pic-line", a tube inserted into an artery in her arm); that will require at least one night in the hospital. Then there's the next course of chemo, then the next fever, then the transplant.....

Well, at least she'll be home for Simchat Torah.

Love, S.

*Simchat Torah – the holiday immediately following the seven days of Sukkot (see my previous post).

October 7, 2004
We’ve just finished observing the last of the four holidays that fall during the first month of the Jewish calendar – Rosh Hashana (the New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Sukkot (Tabernacles) and now, Simchat Torah. Timmi loved participating in holiday services. She came with us to synagogue for holidays whenever she was home and feeling well enough – sometimes in a wheelchair, and even though she sometimes needed us to take her home early. She especially loved to read from the Torah, and both had a beautiful voice and chanted absolutely accurately. As I sat in the synagogue today, I could physically feel the absence of that sweet voice, of that body sitting next to me. But I was also reminded that the echoes of Timmi’s voice, and the shadow of her presence in this world, continue and will continue to be heard and felt.

On Simchat Torah, we honor God’s gift of the Five Books of Moses to the Jewish people by taking out the Torah scrolls and dancing around them in seven cycles. We also both complete and begin anew the yearly cycle of reciting the Torah, reading the last two chapters of the Bible immediately followed by the first part of the Book of Genesis, the story of the Creation.

We end the Torah and begin it again on the same day because the cycle of Torah is never-ending; we can never truly finish it because there is always something new to learn from its words, no matter how many times we read them. But the symbolism goes further: we finish the Torah with a description of Moses’ death and follow it with the story of God’s creation of the world – and of life itself – because life and death are both part of the same cycle. Just as the seasons of the year follow each other in an endless cycle of birth, maturity, death and then new life, we’re meant to be born, to grow, and to bring children into the world to continue the cycle after we die. This is a comforting thought – in a sense, death is not really final, because it's inevitably followed by new life. But how can I take comfort when the cycle has been cut short, when my child will not outlive me and will not bring her own children into the world to carry on?

I was absorbed in these thoughts during today’s festivities when H., who had at one time been a close friend of Timmi’s, came up to me. “I’ve been looking all over for you,” she said. When I asked why, she said, “I’ve been thinking of you and Timmi a lot recently. I even dreamed about her on Sukkot, after remembering that it had been her birthday.” I was struck by envy. Why can’t I ever dream about Timmi? I would give so much to see her, even in a dream. Despite my envy, though, I wanted to hear everything H. had to say, so I encouraged her to go on. “She gave me so many things. Presents for my birthday, mishloah manot for my family every Purim...** I now carry with me everywhere a miniature scroll containing beautifully written birthday wishes that Timmi wrote out, illustrated and folded into a matchbox. I remember how every Purim she would come to our house with the mishloach manot, and my father would ask her whether she had seen our wood-burning stove. It was a game they had. Every year she would say no, and they would sit down together and he would show her how the stove works. ...I’d better stop here, I think I’m going to cry.” Her eyes filled with tears.

I was again overcome with envy. Earlier in the service, I had listened as a lovely young girl read the Creation story, just as Timmi had read it at her Bat Mitzvah ten years ago and again a year later on Simchat Torah. I had recited Yizkor, the prayer for remembering the departed. But my eyes had remained dry. Why was H. able to cry at her memories, while I was denied the release of tears at mine?

But I still needed to hear everything H. had to say. She went on. “Timmi gave me so much, not only material things but also spiritually. The way she spoke of God especially means a lot to me, to this day. I’m not religiously observant, but I’ll never forget a conversation we once had about the Creation, when we were only fourteen or fifteen. She said she didn’t think God had created the world like an engineer, pulling strings and twisting wires. The way she saw it, God’s very presence created us. We’re like God’s shadow. We don’t do anything to create a shadow, but the very fact of our being here brings it into the world – and our shadow wouldn’t exist without us. In the same way, as God’s shadows our very existence is dependent on His presence with us. And so the rules and rituals of Judaism were given not because God needs our worship but for us, to keep us close to Him.” H. cried again, we hugged, and she went off to find her mother.

Thinking about Timmi’s view of our presence in the world, I’m reminded of a phrase from the centerpiece of the Yom Kippur service, U’Netane Tokef, which compares a human being to “…a broken vessel, a dry harvest, a wilted bud, a passing shadow.” Only God is truly infinite; our own physical presence disappears when night comes and the life of the body ends. But as God’s shadows, as beings created in His image, we're not only bodies but also spiritual beings. And just as a person’s physical shadow will reappear in the morning as long as she is present in this world – so her spiritual presence lingers even after her physical death, as long as her words and deeds continue to reverberate in and through those who knew her.

So I no longer envy H., but am grateful. Her dreams of Timmi, her tears for her, mean that Timmi is still with us. Timmi has affected her life deeply, has helped make her the person she is today, and she will pass some of that on to her own children as the cycle of human life goes on.

I’ll never again have Timmi sitting next to me in synagogue, and I’ll never again hear her lovely voice chanting verses from the Torah during the service. But I can catch a glimpse of her spirit, and hear an echo of her voice, in the insights she shared with all of us, and in the love she left behind.

**Purim - the Feast of Esther, celebrating the deliverance of the Jews of the Persian Empire from threatened annihilation, on which Jews bring each other mishloach manot, or gifts of food.

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