From the Torah to contemporary novels, we Jews know that stories have power. They teach better than most other kinds of lessons because they put the message – the mashal – in the context of real people. No great news flash there.
What I didn’t realize about stories is their power to revive the dead.
My mother died last week. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, which was gradually robbing her of her ability to think, to communicate and most of all, to remember. We never reached the point where she didn’t recognize our family, although more often than not she couldn’t put a name – at least, not the right name – together with a face. But she still enjoyed seeing us and listening to conversations, as we saw when she smiled, nodded and even laughed appropriately when we spoke in her presence.
But being with a loved one with Alzheimer’s is like sitting shiva day after day, year after year, as she shed more and more of what made her… her. By the end it was hard for us to remember that the 71-pound, frail, old woman in front of us was the same person who danced ballet on Broadway, held her own with a war-hero husband a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than she was, raised two strong and strong-minded children and never lost the sense of dignity and manners that her Boston upbringing instilled in her.
So before her funeral, we told stories. AT her funeral, we told stories. During shiva – with family and friends who knew her, with members of Rodeph Torah who never met her – we told stories. And each time we did, we brought her back to life. Not to the last moments of life, but to the vital, powerful and involved years of her life when old age and death were just a mirage on the distant horizon.
Ha-Makom yinachem is the traditional Jewish benediction after a death. “My deepest condolences” also works. But from now on I am going to do this differently. At a shiva, or just meeting a mourner in any setting quiet enough to talk, I am going to begin the conversation with, “Could you please tell me a story about your loved one?”
Then I will be silent and listen as they revive their beloved dead before my eyes.
Shira and I, and our entire family, thank every one of you who reached out to comfort and console us in our time of grief. Most of all, we thank you for listening to our stories about my mom.