In My Own Words: Three lives

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I saw the obituary just before leaving to attend a gravestone dedication at a local cemetery. Most of the obituary talked about the hard work done by the woman’s late mother: she used patterning to help her daughter learn to walk, although nothing could be done about her other developmental disabilities. I knew some of this: the mother had been a good friend of my mom: both had been members of Broome Developmental Center’s Parents Group, where they advocated for everyone’s children and raised money to give individuals extras for which the state could not pay. They were also members of the mending group: twice a week, they and others met at the Center to replace zippers (they were masters at fixing winter coats), patch clothing and make wheelchair clothing protectors. I knew the daughter through my chaplaincy work, although she wasn’t at the day program I visit for long. As she aged, she had pain issues and was more comfortable remaining at her group home. I had not seen her in years and had recently wondered if she was still alive.

When I later stood at the cemetery listening to the rabbi offer the prayers and readings traditionally done at graveside, I could not help but ponder the differences in the two people’s lives. The woman whose grave we stood before had lived a full life: a husband, career, children and grandchildren. She was a respected member of her synagogue and the local Jewish community. I had not known her well, but well enough to show my respect to her and her family by attending the funeral last year and the unveiling this year. There was a large crowd at both, showing just how many people cared about her.

Two so very different lives: how are we to ponder their worth? If the measure is accomplishments, then there is no comparison. But is our worth only what we accomplish? I spend a great deal of time with people who have no accomplishments in the way we normally measure them. Yet, we are all betzelem Elohim, created in the image of God. There is a spark of the Divine in all of us. As for love, I’ve watched the staff at group homes and day programs, and those places are filled with love and caring.

I recently did a funeral for a developmentally disabled Jewish individual whom I had visited over the years. She also had no accomplishments as we normally think of them. No family attended the funeral: I don’t know if she had no remaining family or if they had lost touch with her. What surprised the funeral home staff was the number of people who attended. We took turns talking about the deceased – sharing funny stories and tearing up while we mourned her loss. Far more people than I expected attended the burial – a burial that took place at the same cemetery I was the morning I compared two other lives. What I realized is that love could be found when each of those losses were acknowledged.

Perhaps that is the true measure of a life: not what we do, but how many people love us. But, sometimes, it’s still difficult to note how different are the lives of the people with whom I work. Sometimes, life feels not only unfair to those who have done nothing to deserve the hardships they face, but cruel. Sometimes, I have to work very hard not to feel bitter or cynical. Sometimes, though, when I am at my chaplaincy work, I look at the faces of those I work with and recognize they, too, feel joy and sorrow, even if it takes a different form. Sometimes, I look at them and recognize the Divine presence that radiates from those around me.
May all three women’s memory be for a blessing.