Category Archives: Support

Tending to Ending

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My father on Father’s Day, his last awake day, seeing the Pacific Ocean in Trinidad, one of his final wishes.

As I began writing this piece there were four more days of sitting shiva happening in our home. This shiva process has been an incredible blessing for me. I have facilitated and been present for many folks at this time, but never been the one to receive this offering. This last year, my father’s death was always on the table. We all knew it could happen at any time, but his will to live and his longevity, had us all a little fooled.

It’s been hard for my husband and I not to blame ourselves for taking him to the beach on a day that turned cold. It was sunny when we left the house, but by the time we got to Trinidad, the weather was cloudy. Also, it was the once a year fish festival, so everything took a very long time, which really wasn’t good for my father. The excursion to the beach was the equivalent of an aerobic work-out for a man with a weak heart, bound to hasten his heart giving out. I didn’t think this at the time, because my father, even in his slow weakening over the last few months, still seemed so vital and alive. This is not about my guilt, although I have some, which I think is okay. Perhaps he would have died a few days later or we might have had him for a few months more. If I’d been in charge, we certainly would have had more time together in the sun and in our home. I’m not in charge though, the Holy One is. My father’s pull date was never in my control.

It was a good last day of him being aware and enjoying his family and surroundings. As we were walking by the Seascape restaurant on the pier, my father said “wouldn’t it be nice to have some French Fries?” I’d been cooking for days to make a Father’s Day Moroccan dinner for my Papa and my husband, and I knew that French fries would eliminate any chance of my father eating that meal. I motioned for my husband to take him down to the pier and indicated that I’d go procure the fries as a surprise for my Papa (papas for Papa).

It took forever, because the restaurant was packed. I’d never ordered fries from this particular place, but when I finally got them fifteen minutes later they were in a large brown paper sack, that was warm, with grease coming through. Kevin and my father were coming towards me and I handed my chilled father a hot bag of fries. His face lit up, he put his hand in the bag and encountered warmth and grease and took a bite and was so happy. We all tried some and I have to say, I do not think I have ever had better fries in my entire life. I am never going back to this restaurant because they are seriously dangerous and I might only ever eat fries again for the rest of my life. Ethan, Kevin, my father and I just kept reaching our hands into the bag. It was truly a never-ending bag of magic delicious ever-warm fries.

We loaded my father back into the car and decided to take the scenic route home, hoping for some sun over the water. This was a bad choice as well, because the road was bumpy and my dad had to hold onto the handle above his seat to feel secure in some parts and that was effort-full and the sun never came out, so the view was obscured and it was just a long twenty-minute bumpy drive. By the time we got to our home and I got my father in his bed, he was not feeling well and had spiked a fever. This was the first fever he’d had since I took over taking care of him (over 6 months full-time care) and I knew it wasn’t a good sign.

Our beloved friend Ana, one of our care-givers, and her boyfriend, had come over for dinner. Originally my father had wanted to meet the boyfriend and give his approval or not! This was not to be. While my sons, husband and our company were eating the meal I’d prepared, I was with my father, trying to get him comfortable. The Humboldt Hospice nurse and I were on the phone a great deal and I got Tylenol into him and started him on .25 ml of morphine every hour for the first time. Ana, gave me a short break and I had a quick bowl of soup while she held his hand. Then Issac and Ethan took a turn.

I spent that evening giving him doses of morphine every hour or more, but in the morning he was miserable and uncomfortable and told me he was miserable. At this point the nurse was on her way and I asked him to wait a few more minutes before I upped his morphine dosage. I thought perhaps the nurse would advise me to do something different or more. He agreed to wait and our regular nurse Tiffany came to our rescue. She wasn’t supposed to be working that Monday, but the Holy One and the Angels must have worked some magic for us, because she happened to have traded shifts with someone, without knowing at the time, we would need her so desperately.

This was huge for me and my father, because she wasn’t someone he didn’t know. She knew him, us and our situation. She helped me get my father set up better in the bed and told me to increase the amount of morphine from .25ml to .50ml every hour and to let me know if that wasn’t working. It did work and from that point on, my father was not uncomfortable or suffering, that we could tell. She told me to call family and tell them he had a day or a few more hours most likely left. She felt certain that he’d had some kind of episode, and I felt so too, because his hands were shaking a lot and he just never had that happen before. I spoke with my brother in Boulder and told him to come now if he felt he needed to. He and my daughter looked into it, but it was pretty clear things were moving very fast.

So, with the help of my sons, we set up the computer by the bed so he could see them and they could see him and my smart technology savvy sons made it possible for my brother, his partner and my daughter to say goodbye to my father visually. He was still conscious and saw them and could smile, but couldn’t talk. He was lucid until his last two hours and could communicate with me via his mouth. I would ask him if he wanted more morphine or water or chocolate (his favorite thing in the world). “Yes,” would be open mouth, “No,” would be closed mouth, and this worked for us. When the small glass I was using, made by my friend Bryan Raskin of Mirador Glass, no longer worked, he was hydrated throughout his last hours with dropperfulls of coconut water or water. I hate plastic and the feel of the smooth glass was soothing for my father and for me.

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My Papa, Jacques Barchilon, born Jacobo Alberto Cohen, in Casablanca Morocco in 1923. He is pictured here: in his Free French Forces uniform; on the day of his wedding to Judy, the love of his life, at the age of 75. The beautiful woman in the back is his mother Perla Barchilon. The sign translates as “Careful! Mean Dog, Ferocious Master.” My father had a bark, but never a bite and didn’t have a dog, but this sign was on his door. The glass from Mirador that I gave him his last liquids with, his wedding ring, his watch as well as stones to remember him by, (a Jewish thing).

During my long vigil with my father (from Sunday afternoon until Tuesday, early a.m. hours), in the afternoon on Monday, I started getting a Maurice Chevalier song playing in my head. It was from our childhood and the chorus goes: “Paris, je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime.” Which means, Paris I love you, I love you, I love you. Now, Paris is where I was born, where my father had the best times of his life with his beloved wife Judy, may her memory be for a blessing. I changed the lyrics interspersing, “Papa, je t’aime….,” with the Paris part. He loved that and smiled. I told my brother and he found the original record we’d listened to as children and he put that on for my dad, via our technology sharing. My papa loved that.

The computer became a hindrance, since I wanted to be holding my father’s hand and he wasn’t really in a visual mode anymore. So, we switched to speaker phone and for the final hours of my father’s life in a body, my brother, his partner and my daughter were present. My mother and Kenny were also able to say goodbye this way and this was very important and a huge further healing/tikkun. We all sang to him and cried with him and told him we loved him and would miss him, but were ready for him to go. He was pretty lucid until shortly before his dying. The last words he heard was my chanting the Shema to him.

I will write more about my father’s final weeks and his coming to a belief in an after-life, after 95 years of avid and strong atheism. This made his leaving, for me, so much easier, because he was finally less afraid and had a bit of hope about joining his wife and daughter, my sister Paula. He took his final breaths in the arms of myself and my son Ethan, with our family present for him across many miles via technology that was truly a gift.

Jacobo Alberto HaCohen, (name at his birth), Jack Lawrence (nom de guerre, inspired by his favorite author of the time D.H. Lawrence, so the Nazi’s wouldn’t know he was a Jew, in case he was caught), Jacques Barchilon (American name), Jacov ben Perla v’Haim (Hebrew name) lived 95 full, intense, painful and glorious years from 1923 to 2018, he will be missed.

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From my father’s home, which I brought back with me to my home, and which exactly describes what he received from my brother and me. “Quand un père chéri, glacé par la viellesse, Reçoit de ses enfants les soins les plus touchans, Il voit le sombre hiver s’écouler sans tristesse, Et s’endori attendri dans leurs bras caressans.” When a beloved father, made brittle and hard by old age, receives from his children the most tender and touching care, He sees the somber winter of his life evaporating without sadness and falls asleep attended by their caressing arms.

 

 

 

Hooray, Heaven-Driven and Heading Home to my Honey and my Hearth

May Rose from Theresa May
My Merrily Blooms in May rose from my Rosey friend Theresa J. May

My father has agreed to move to our home in California!!!! I can be at my own hearth and help him and have all the support I need. It’s taken a year of my life and my brother’s life and our families’ lives. It has been extremely trying and deeply painful, but more triumphant and terrific than I could ever have imagined. Caring for all the parties in this story, including myself, has taken all of my being. Really, like the rose pictured above, which by the way is the size of a pecan pie, and smells like heaven, there are layers and layers to something this beautiful and there are thorns as well!

If it’s in the cards and written in the stars and with the will of the Divine we will move my father to our home in California. Since last March I have been here most of the time and home very little. It’s been very hard for me to be away from my husband and my home. It’s also been what needed to happen to help my father recover from his heart-attacks and subsequent heart issues and the death of his beloved wife Judy.

“A person, her days are like grass, She blossoms like a flower of a field. Then a wind passes, V’EINENU, and it is all gone, nothing! Her place on earth no longer knows her. But Havaya’s love stretches from world to world, the Holy One’s sovereignty embraces all life.” ~Psalm 103: 15-19  Rabbi Tirzah Firestone’s translation

It appears that my father is not in danger of dying anytime soon, in terms of how he seems to my brother and me. The  Denver Hospice folks are not so sure. My father is better than he has been in months. We have found the right cocktail of different medications given throughout the day along with an oxygen machine. He still uses his walker some part of every day. He sleeps a great deal of the time but is also awake and telling stories and getting his affairs in order. He has been given three choices.

  1. Move in with Kevin and me in Bayside.
  2. Stay in his apartment with care-givers 6 days a week and Paul one day a week.
  3. Go into a nursing home in Boulder with Paul and Kathryn visiting many times a week.

He is choosing to move in with Kevin and I. He is talking with Kevin regularly and there is a growing sense of him having something to look forward to. Ethan will be home for the summer and will help spell me when I need a break and I’ll hire a care-giver as well. The tricky part will be getting him to our home. Paul and I and the hospice team are working out the details so as to minimize the trauma to my father on his body. He has a medical death sentence, he is not getting better, but he may defy the odds and the statistics which do not account for the kind of care my father has been getting. The food, the massages, the love, the time spent in silence and also the stubborn strong Barchilon/Cohen genetic make-up are just not what most folks at this stage in their lives have.

My grandfather Jaimé, lived to almost a hundred and two. My great-grandfather, the Rabbi of Tangiers, Aaron Cohen lived to be a hundred and four. My father has longevity in his bones.

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Aaron Cohen, Rabbi of Tangiers, my Great Grandfather

There is no way to predict when my father will cross the river Jordan and leave this earth. I can no longer stay in his home caring for him indefinitely, the toll on my body and heart is just too great.

The current plan is that I will head home to California the first week in May. My friend and sister, by choice and love, Terret will fly from Boston to Denver to help me pack up the Xterra and drive it back to Arcata. Terret and my father have a sweet relationship, when I moved away, before he found Judy, he would take her out to dinner regularly. She was my proxy, while she lived in Boulder spending time with him.

Terret will spend two days here in Denver with us and then we will drive to Boulder and I will say goodbye to my mother and Kenny, who are now in Boulder to take up residence at their new condo at the Peloton. They will spend a few months of every year here and perhaps move back to Boulder. My brother Paul and I have been getting the space ready for them, with furniture and stereo systems and they arrived to a mostly furnished home. We will fête Kenny (my other beloved father/beau-père) who will be turning 70 on April 30th.

Mom and Ken by Ellen
My mother Helen Redman and Kenny Weissberg, picture taken by his sister Ellen.

It will take Terret and me three to four days to drive back. My friend and another one of my Holy sisters by love, Tara has already been in touch with the Humboldt Hospice.  When I get home, I’ll start getting the back bedroom and our house ready for Dad and making our home accessible and safe for him. My brother will fly with Dad in early June with a portable oxygen machine from Denver to Sacramento. I will drive down to meet them and we will go to a hotel overnight and let Dad rest there. The next day, we will get on the road and drive two or three hours more and stay at a hotel again, unless Dad is up for another three hours of driving and then we will be HOME!

On a spiritual/emotional/liminal note, I have a sense of how hard it is to leave a body. I’ve spent a great deal of time with folks leaving their bodies in my time as the chair of our Hevra Kadisha/Sacred/Burial society. Please see my piece Encountering Death Consciously if you haven’t already. I’ve attended many bedsides and witnessed folks crossing. It is rarely easy for a person to disengage from the shell/vessel of their bodies.

It takes time and some interesting uniquely personal set of circumstances for each person to be finished with their bodies.

Since my father has no religious beliefs, of any kind, it’s pretty much the end for him, like stepping off a cliff and knowing that’s final. I think moving to our home is sort of a gentle step towards death, a letting go of Judy, of their home, of his life as a professor of French for over 35 years at CU, of all his Free French Forces resistance books and posters and all the stuff of his 95 years of life.

This is where he met and married my mother, this is where my sister died, this is where my brother was born, this is where he was divorced, this is where he worked and lived and where he got together with Judy and married her and enjoyed almost 20 years of love with her. This is where she died and where he is mourning her actively.

Our home is none of those things. It’s full of music, books and great art and the best part is Kevin (who my father, like me, adores). He will be able to sit on my deck and enjoy the flowers and the sunshine and the beauty of the outdoors. He will be closer to the sky and the earth and to a place of expansiveness and grace. So, his coming to us, is like a step away from his life, but not the final one, it’s the next one, bringing him closer to the step out of his body.

Please hold him, my brother and me in your thoughts and prayers as we navigate the next two months of work to make this happen. My father will have been six months with Denver Hospice by May. The statistics for his condition, age and situation say he should be dead very soon. As Mark Twain said though: “There’s lies, damn lies and then there’s statistics.”

We just have no idea what will unfold, but we’re making plans for a shift and hope it will be a gentle bridge to a time of sunshine, Ethan playing Chopin and Bach on the piano for him, Kevin having intellectual conversations with him and telling him jokes, flowers blooming, time on our deck with the birds and my beloved Redwood Tree standing sentinel over Papa and reminding him of all that is beautiful and good and of course, lots of artichokes!

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Chez Papa with my brother Paul Barchilon and his partner Kathryn Taylor. Photo by my cousin Dan Levy.

While my father and I spend a great deal of time in silence, his preference, there are times when he wants to wax philosophical.  I’m sharing teachings with him from the Buddhist tradition, the Jewish tradition and many others. Lovely and meaningful conversations are ensuing and unfolding around all of this.

Here’s one of the teachings from a Buddhist perspective that we read together.

37 Practices: Verse 4

“You will separate from long-time friends and relatives. You will leave behind the wealth you worked to build up. The Guest, your consciousness, will move from the inn, your body. Give up your life—this is the practice of a bodhisattva” ~Tokme Zongpo

“Tokme Zongpo was a 14th century Tibetan monk. After serving as abbot of his monastery, he retreated for 20 years and wrote these 37 practices of a Bodhisattva, seen by many as the core of Mahayana Buddhism.” ~Rabbi Tirzah Firestone

This teaching comes from the materials that were part of a Shabbaton/Weekend intensive I attended, called: (Lighting the Way in a Dark World The Tzaddik and the Bodhisattva). This workshop was given by one of my dear friends, and teachers Rabbi Tirzah Firestone.  My father remarked that the teachings were very interesting and beautiful. No more comment has been made about them, but I know he is processing slowly all of these moments we share. One of the teachings from the weekend really moved me profoundly and my favorite line is at the end.

“He (Rabbi Akiva, born 20 CE) used to say: Everything is given on loan. And a net is spread out over all that is alive. The store is open and the storekeeper extends credit; the ledger is open and the hand writes, and whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow. And the collectors go round every day and exact payment, with or without our knowledge. And they do not act capriciously; their judgments are correct. And everything is prepared for the banquet.” ~Mishneh Avot/Pirkei Avot:

“Commentary: Life is on loan. Receive all that is given, and do not pretend to choice or ownership. You are a knot of God’s infinitely knotted net, never apart from and always a part of the One Who Is All. Reality allows you to do as you will, for good and for bad, and every deed has its consequence.”

~Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Many folks no longer have any relationship to Holiness or any beliefs or spiritual practices, and my father is in that category. This makes me very sad for all the suffering and fear he and others endure around so many things. This teaching by Rabbi Akiva, is one that speaks to my core. I know that everything is being prepared for the banquet. One of my ways of serving the Divine is to try to prepare a banquet for folks now, to offer them beauty, delicious food, kindness, compassion and spaciousness. I do this because I want to help create a pathway, in all those I encounter, to remind them that Olam Ha Ba/ the World to Come is real. Our time here on this earth is an opportunity to practice our table manners for the glorious banquet on the other side of this life.

 

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The Banquet I prepared for the Shechinah, every Shabbat,  in Ireland when I was on my silent, solitary retreat.

 

Sharing Stories, Settling Down, Sorting, Sifting and Slowly Letting Go.

Morocco Street by Perla
Painting of Moroccan street scene by Perla Barchilon, mother of José, Arthur, Lili, Jacques and Maurice, my paternal grandmother. The colors here are not as bright and vibrant as the painting itself.

 

“I’m depressed, Nicole and I have many regrets.”

“Well, Papa, that’s understandable. You are slowly dying and your body is getting weaker every day. This is not easy or pleasant and your mind is completely aware of this slow degradation of your body. Your beloved wife died a few months ago; you have lots of reasons to be sad.  I think you are incredibly courageous to be navigating this time the way you are. I wish there was more I could do to help you feel better. Would talking about your regrets be helpful? I’m here if you want to share.”

And then my father started to tell me about his deepest regrets and how badly he feels and what a failure he was with certain people. He mentioned how he behaved towards his mother. This was his first statement of regret. My father has never said one nice word about his mother in the entire time I’ve been alive. Every story about her is negative and puts her in a bad light. So, for him to say, he felt badly about how he treated her, is pretty monumental. I feel waves of energy and spirits are moving through the space as my father shares. It’s a timeless and powerful moment. I also need to mention that my father regularly shares that I am like his mother, especially around how much food I prepare and eat, but unlike his mother I do not force him to eat anything.

I ask him about what he regrets in terms of his behavior towards his mother, my grandmother Perla. He says he wasn’t empathetic to her and didn’t have empathy towards her situation. I asked him if he’d ever apologized to her and he said he had and that  she had told him: “You never need to apologize to a mother.”

Perla Posing
Perla, age sixteen or seventeen, Morocco right around the time she married my Gran-papa, around the turn of the century.

This is the first remotely loving story my father has ever told me about his mother. I can see her dismissing my father’s apology with this statement in one way and also being very moved by it. My grandmother, Perla Barchilon y Cohen was an amazing woman, but she wasn’t the mother my father wanted or needed. Nevertheless, he has a portrait of her in a place of prominence that my mother did of her, when she came to Paris for my birth over 54 years ago.

We spoke more about his mother and I asked him if Perla had ever been empathetic or sensitive to him, if she had taught him how to be kind and empathetic? He said “No,” and I pointed out that he didn’t have any role models growing up about how to be the way he wishes he had been. I told him I was amazed at his empathy and how he was still growing and working on improving himself. We spoke about how Judy, May her memory be for a Blessing, was the person who finally taught him the empathy he wanted to have. She showed him how to be kinder and to think about the feelings of others more. He agreed with me about this and it made him sad to talk about Judy.  Perhaps we will revisit this mother regret, but I hope that he feels freer to let this one go now.

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Perla Barchilon, age seventeen probably.  At the age of sixteen, she was married to my grandfather Jaimé Cohen (Spanish version of  the Hebrew name Chaim). He was 20. She had five sons and was a wonderful painter in Morocco in the early part of the last century. She lived through World War II in Morocco and her artwork was celebrated and respected for over fifty years. She was a Jewish woman in a Muslim country and she was a painter. I remember her still painting when I was a little girl in Morocco. She was a very old woman at that point in her seventies, which now that I’m 54 doesn’t seem that old to me. She was born around 1898 and died in 1988.

I am in this very complex place of trying to comfort my father in any kind of way that works for him. I’m trying to balance my inclination to impart, share,  and perhaps somehow convince, through my touch and my heart and my presence, the tremendous relationship to Holiness and to Hope that is possible for my father. I don’t want him to be sad, depressed, afraid or certain that his end is an end. He has no belief in any spiritual system at all.

Whereas, I am walking into and out of Olam Ha Bah and the Angelic and Supernal Realms often. I feel these energies surrounding my father and I’m wanting him to feel the presence of the Divine and to know that he will be safe, at peace and not suffering after he dies. This is my need. My father is a devout Atheist. He maintains there is no such thing as a soul, so he doesn’t have one and there won’t be any Heaven for him.

In the Jewish tradition, we have a final confession as part of the dying process. We didn’t borrow this from the Catholics, they probably got the whole idea from us! Our confession is very different though. It is called a Viddui and is said by someone when they are on their deathbed. It is a general request for forgiveness for all wrongdoings in our lives and a listing of those wrongs. It also has a clause/caveat that states, we might not be dying, a miracle could happen and we might recover, but we still want to be clear now. I love the language of this, asking for forgiveness, stating our wrongs and then saying, we might get better, who knows? This might not be a final confession after all.

In addition to the final confession, there are daily, weekly, monthly and yearly cycles of self-scrutiny, correction, confession of wrongs to the person one has wronged, making amends and attending to the patterns that might be causing us to make these errors. We’re all about confession, it just doesn’t happen in a box with a priest and a screen.

I keep looking for opportunities for my papa and I to cross the bridge between my world and his. I don’t need him to change or believe, I just want him not to be in pain or distress, physical or emotional. If there is something I can offer to ease his suffering, than I want to do it. He appreciates my touch, my cooking, my massages and my taking care of his daily and nightly needs. He is grateful for my care and the care of my brother Paul and the caregivers we have working with us.

Since I’ve been living with him in his home in Denver, there have been many moments of storytelling and he has asked me to query him and volunteered to share whatever stories or ideas with me, with my brother, and with others who want to know more. How can I ever know all that he wants to share or even what questions to ask? I think I know my father pretty well and most of his life’s stories have been written down or lived together or shared. I think he is not a mystery to me. I am so wrong about that.

I ask my father about his dreams in the morning. I ask him about his sadness and if he wants to talk about anything, when he volunteers that he is sad.

I ask him what he wants for breakfast and how long I should wait before checking on him when he is in the bathroom. I ask him what number heat setting he wants on the heating pad and I ask him if there is anything I can do to make him more comfortable. His reply is usually, “Make me forty years younger and smile.”

His dream the other day, the one he remembered to tell me, went like this:

“I dreamed I was in the home of a very famous man, you will know who he is, Freud. I was rearranging the furniture in his house.” Another dream had been that he was in NY, and there was a starving, lonely cold child on the street and he was with Eloise (the famous NY storybook character who lives in a hotel). She was talking to someone about how much money should be given to this girl and my father and she agreed that it should be $100,000.00. What’s interesting about this dream is that he didn’t remember the name of Eloise, but he remembered that his niece Coco loved this character and so I suggested we call her and ask her if she remembered the name of the NY storybook character. Just as we reached Coco, Papa, said “Eloise!”

His mental acuity stuns me, and I truly feel at half his capacity. I can’t remember things from my childhood or my children’s childhoods, the way my father remembers his niece’s favorite storybook from over fifty years ago. His memory is a golden mine of treasures and I don’t think my brother and I will ever plumb its depths.

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For now, though, I am grateful for my technology that is allowing me to record his stories when he wants that done. Every tale he tells is a golden offering that will be of value to me and to all of our family.

I hope I have the presence of mind and the loving care and support my father has when I am leaving this world. We all deserve to be with those who love us and where we are comfortable, surrounded by our art and what makes us feel at home; to be safe and to suffer as little as possible.

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Portraits of Perla and my brother Paul Barchilon by my mother Helen Redman, hanging on the wall with paintings by Perla. Also, a Moroccan print of my brother’s in the bottom corner.

 

 

 

 

S.O.S (Surrendered Opened Serving)

Wyoming sky
Wyoming sky, from the car my husband is driving, on the way to Colorado, to take care of my father.

S.O.S Surrendered Opened Serving

Softening of Self

Serving over Self

Striving (to) Offer Selflessly

Surrendering of Self

Play with it how you will, it is all the same territory and damn tricky.

I wish this wasn’t the case. There are certainly times when I truly can “serve the Holy One with joy, ivdu et hashem b’simcha.” ~Psalm 90

Serving with joy feels good. Serving with resentment, fatigue, frustration, irritation, wondering if it will ever be over, trying hard but still making folks you care about feel bad, and other not so nice feelings, none of that feels good at all.

This is the territory I’m in. It’s the territory I’m in by choice. So, as I write these words, I have left my Bayside home and am now back in Colorado to be the primary care-giver for my father in his final journey. Since March of this year I’ve flown back and forth to Colorado more times than I can count. I’m done with the back and forth; I’ve finally surrendered.

I just need to be there, give up my life here, for a time, and serve the man who has served me, my brother, my children, his students and his wives so deeply. It’s his turn to just be the recipient. He’s asked for me, which is fairly radical, in the story of our family. He’s also surrendered and recognized that my care makes a difference and he wants what I have to offer.

Nicole and Dad
My dad and me, when he was healthy.

If my life was about achieving success, having a career or being perfectly sculpted, what would I have to bring to my father or anyone in their time of need? This is not a judgement of folks who strive for those things. I am commenting on our society’s over-valuing of these kinds of achievements. I don’t want or need accolades of any kind. That may seem specious, given that I’m writing about my process, my “selfless” process.

Perhaps, it will be seen that way. I share here, and wherever I find an audience, what is true for me. I know I am not alone in these feelings or experiences and that folks feel isolated way too often when they are care-giving.  I choose to be present for my parents, my mother-in-law, my children, my friends, my community and those who I have made covenants with. My spiritual and personal commitments are as real and binding to me as the ones that are linked to my biology, my blood, my ancestry.

This is lifetime work. It is not something I will ever complete or finish. Perhaps it will be lifetimes of work. I hope not. I’m tired. I am looking forward to the promise of singing with the Angels and not having to serve in a body ever again. When I cross over, if I get a choice, that’s the one I want. I have no desire to come back and do any more living over. I may feel differently when I’m 90, if I’m around then, you can be sure I’ll let you all know if this has changed.

My life has been so full and joyful. It’s also included extremely hard times and situations. I’m just like every other human, on our spinning planet, in this way.

The difficulties in my life aren’t comparable to the hardships of most folks’ lives. I live a life of privilege in many regards. Difficulty, is a relative thing though. If you string the events in my life up by the tragedies and failures or by the joys and wonders, you get different pictures. It’s often felt like a pendulum swinging wildly between the two poles.

I do not believe that you can create the life you want and that if you just attune and align with the perfect philosophy or diet or get things right personally all your problems, fears, complications and debts will go away, or the president you want will be in power, or folks will do what you want, and all will be perfect and polished. I am not interested in my life being polished or shiny or perfect. I’m not interested in weighing the right amount or looking the right way or doing things according to someone’s current ideal of what is fashionable or healthy.

I am interested in mastering, to whatever extent I can, what the Holy One sets before me, not what I set before me.

Shiviti
The Shiviti Prayer: I have set the Holy One Before Me Always

And, I fail every day, over and over. I fall down all the time and sometimes, even with all my personal padding, I am bruised all over. The reality of suffering is so damn intense, it’s not mild, it’s not pleasant, it’s not calm, quiet or easy. It’s a full-on completely body-slamming story.

I live it in my body. My empathic nature is not something I am dimming or turning the volume down on. I’ve already done a volume shift to walk around and look semi-normal my entire life. I’ve learned to have a boundary between myself and others. Sometimes, though, I will still be brought up short, if another person is having trouble breathing, I also will start choking. I’ve said this all before, and I’m restating it for the following reason. Being empathic and devoted to easing the suffering of others is a full-time experience.

It is not a seamless process. Sometimes what I experience is a tsunami, sometimes it’s a slow flow of energy, like air leaking from a balloon, and other times it’s just in the background. Sometimes, I feel as if the life is being sucked out of me, Other times I feel as if I am being gifted with tremendous energy and all the gears are working properly; I’m loving, I’m being loved and I’m serving with joy.

These are the moments I live for, when it all aligns and the warm honey liquid healing/Tikkun unfolds like a lotus opening. That’s what I want and it’s a palpable real experience that I have had and hopefully will have again.

It’s the true goal of my soul. S.O.S traditionally stands for Save Our Souls, and indeed, that’s what we are called upon to do, when we care for children, elderly parents, otherwise-abled children, family, friends or spouses. We are being asked to surrender our own time-frames, needs, and lives over to the care of another.

This is not something we do as a sacrifice. The word sacrifice is one I do not resonate with. In Hebrew, we make offerings. They are called Korbanot/Offerings. You can make a korban that is for wrongs you have done, or in gratitude or in praise, or for a holiday or special life event. A korban is brought forth willingly and given with intention.

If you have never surrendered yourself over to another person, then this will seem completely foreign to you. In our society, there are more opportunities to give than you can possibly imagine. And, when the world feels insane, there is no better feeling than knowing you have made a difference in the suffering quotient of another human being or the planet. When we offer willingly of our time, our hearts, our bodies, there is a return offering that comes our way and it is one that cannot be measured or calculated. It can feel like a river of life-blood, a continuous flow of manna, heavenly nourishment and goodness.

It may take some time to recognize this, due to the stress of continuously extending for another, but when you do feel the flow, it is a game-changer. Simply Offering Simply that’s my goal.

I’m not going to list the mistakes, the all too common ones, most folks and I have made when offering self. I do want to share four basic keys that make a difference for me and enable me to give myself over and over in this and other situations.

Shabbat over Serving: Make sure you take one or two days off a week, figure it out, find friends or others to give you a break. If you cannot manage a day, manage for as long as you can. Make your time off regular, same day, same times. This will mean your body and heart and mind will adjust and know they are getting a break and it will train the person you are caring for to not expect your presence at that time.

Self-Care on Start: Don’t try to take care of someone else if you aren’t attending to the care of yourself as well. Get regular massages, work-outs, walks, acupuncture or whatever it is that nourishes you. It is not optional or secondary, it needs to happen before you help others, if you can, and consistently.

Start out Slow: Take your time getting to know the rhythms of the person and place where you are. Folks who are sick or elderly are moving at a very different pace from the one that you are. It is more of a service to them for less to happen, than for everything to get done, and it’s impossible to get everything done, so give up on that.

Stay Engaged over Signing Out or Off: When things get edgy, with other family members or there is a problem or grumpiness from a care-giver or the person you are caring for, or anyone in the situation, don’t give up or resign. Just give it some space, take a break, a day or a few hours, and come back to the situation. It’s a given that there will be rough patches. Expect these moments and work to prevent them, but remember that if you stay centered and apply the other three suggestions here, a solution will be found.

On that note, of solutions to be found, I’ll close.

Dad Waving
My father in a moment of less pain in the new recliner/life chair I realized we needed to get him, in the middle of one particularly difficult night. He can sleep for two or three hours comfortably here, and it’s his favorite spot to be now.

Nicole Barchilon Frank writes to you, from her home in California, and in the future or the past, she writes to you from the home her heart calls her to—wherever that might be…

  • Originally published in the Mad River Union on December 13th, 2017.  Changes have been made in this online version.

 

 

Omar and the Bowls

Omar Bowls
Silver-rimmed Star of David bowls from Omar

Thinking about serving, serving the Divine, serving others, serving family, serving a meal, being served and encountering a servant. While I was in Morocco this last April, (April of 2014), I met Omar. Omar is my Uncle’s servant. There is no easy way to say that. The word itself is primed and full of meaning. It connotes both positive and negative things for me. My first encounters with servants were in Morocco as a child. My grandparents’ home had three full-time servants; Hassan, Sadia and Fatimah. Sadia and Fatimah did the cooking and the cleaning and my grandfather was tended to by Hassan.

Berber Woman
Berber Woman painting by Helen Redman

I vividly remember being surrounded by these large warm women, who smelled heavenly, unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before or after. The combination was something like sweat, cinnamon, heat, roses, musk and cumin, vanilla and linden flowers. If I could swim in this scent or be near these women again, I don’t think I would ever emerge. I can’t describe it properly, but their smell, their warm arms wrapping around me and carrying me around or chasing me around the kitchen is something I carry with me and which I long for. It is the smell of work, of service, of excellence, of laughter and care and anger and heat and heart and some mystery too. It is the opposite of contained or relaxed or mellow and so very not of this place here.

My whole trip back to Morocco has really been a trip back inside of myself and into myself. I find I am reluctant to land fully here in this country, because so much of who I am is actually embedded in where I have been and in these memories, but also in the work of service. It’s a very foreign concept in this country. We don’t have servants, or at least most folks don’t, and unless you are active in a religious community or other non-profit organization “serving” is not always viewed as positive. The idea of being an actual servant to someone is frowned upon and rightly so, for many, many reasons in most work situations. I am not trying to justify servitude to a flawed system, servitude to a wealthy unjust boss or factory here. This kind of service though is not the only kind of service. I see no use in hiding from what is true for me and what I know from my life and my experiences that are the positive side of service.

My own service to others is a primal choice on my part in many ways. It is something that gives me tremendous energy and is a kind of tuning or truing. There is a tuning fork in my soul and when I am following the call of the Holy One, the sound inside of me is so pure and so whole and so right that I can’t imagine it being otherwise. That feeling doesn’t always manifest, often if I am asked to be of service or find myself pulled into it, I am not happily singing inside. I can be resentful, tired, frustrated, worried and so many other things, all of which are human and okay for me to be. The difference between those feelings and the feeling of being in tune is an order of magnitude difference.

The proper alignment puts me in a groove and there is the touch of the infinite there. I could lift a car off a person, or have a conversation with a star as it is being born somewhere light years away or back here on earth I might find myself helping someone to cross over the river Jordan singing them to their next destination. It’s just not a common experience or a mundane one. I feel blessed and lucky and grateful whenever I find myself there, amazed and renewed, awed and lost and full of tears. It’s the feeling of being a true servant, of serving the Creator and of wanting to do it again and again and to do it well and joyfully and of being so glad I was asked to do it. There is trembling and awe and a deep shaking and rushing to find the core of the task and to rush to do it well. In the Jewish tradition there is a teaching that one should RUSH to do a Mitzvah, not hesitate or stand back, but rush and hurry to do what is being asked. We don’t do this for people we don’t love or beings we don’t revere. If you are in service to a tyrant, you might rush out of fear, but you would never rush out of joy to serve.

I’m not serving a tyrant, so my movements are ones of speed and force towards the hope of helping or healing or finding the right words or actions or moment to grow some love in the world. I am so not alone in this. And, I am so very far away from serving humbly and with grace. Which, brings me back to Omar.

Atlas Mountains
Oukmaiden, Atlas Mountains

When we arrived in Oukaimeden, where my Uncle lives, about 9,000 feet high in the Atlas mountains, there was snow on the ground. It is a ski-resort during the winter months and my 86 year old uncle BB still has a ski rental shop there along with his home. This is where Ethan and I came to spend our one night with him. Omar lives downstairs in the small cabin and my uncle lives upstairs. Omar has a wife and two married children in a village about twelve and a half miles away. He rides a large motorcycle and could be anywhere between forty and sixty. I couldn’t tell. He made the fire in the cabin when we first arrived. In Marrakesh we were burning up with heat and the temperature was in the 90s. In Oukaimeden we needed a fire. Omar prepared dinner, he served us dinner and then sat in the kitchen while we ate it, he cleared our plates and did all the cleaning up. He smiled at me, he smiled at Ethan. He speaks no French. I speak only a little Arabic. I said Shukran about fifty times. Shukran is “Thank You.” Omar just smiled.

After dinner we prepared for bed. My uncle gave Ethan and I his bed and he slept on the sofa near the fire, something he insisted he did regularly so he would be warm. Omar prepared the sofa and went downstairs. Ethan and I said goodnight to my uncle and climbed into the large and lumpy and cold bed that was graciously given to us. We read a little bit from The Crucible by Arthur Miller and then we tried to go to sleep. There are no street lights in Oukaimeden, most of the homes don’t have electricity.

It was VERY dark and very cold and just a little spooky. Ethan got up to use the bathroom which was a tiny room full of dusty, grimy, half-used bottles and looked like most bathrooms I’ve seen that belong to older folks or those who are otherwise-abled and who can’t see or get to the dirt. Ethan came running back into the bedroom and he was hyperventilating. He said that while he was peeing a giant spider the size of half his hand started to drop down from the ceiling towards him in his exposed state. He ran back into the bedroom.

Needless to say, I wasn’t too excited when it was time for me to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. There was one tiny light and everything looked creepy. I didn’t want to wake up my uncle so I was trying to be quiet but also doing the Nicole is tapping on the floorboards in a funny way dance. This was my “Spider if you are here, please do not come out, there’s a large person here and it’s better if you stay away” dance shuffle. I’m sure all spiders understand that this particular combination of footwork, shuffling, tapping, scooting, and slight jumping that I was doing is universal code for “do not disturb or emerge.” I tried to use the toilet, but was so terrified of the spider and unsure if my message had been properly translated or received. I made it through the event and quickly rushed back to the bedroom. I didn’t get much sleep, but at least I didn’t need to go into the bathroom until morning again and clearly, along with French and Spanish, I can now add Spider Language to my repertoire.

We had a lovely morning walking the area and then got ready to head back to Marrakesh, which was a three hour drive on twisty roads in the old blue 1976 Chevrolet with no air-conditioning being driven by my 86-year-old uncle who told me he needed a new glasses prescription, ummmm, that’s a whole other story. I wanted to buy some ceramics, small things, to bring home and my uncle said Omar would help us negotiate better prices and would accompany us part way down the mountains on our way back to Marrakesh. I was very happy to have the help. We had to drop something off at the only hotel in Oukaimeden and so I was sitting in the car with Ethan waiting. Several men came up to the car with their arms covered in necklaces and jewelery of every kind. I didn’t want to buy anything, so I tried to ignore them, but to no avail. All of a sudden Omar was there, he took off all the jewelry on one man’s arm and he picked through it and handed me ten necklaces. I tried to shake my head no, but Omar would have none of it.

No money was exchanged and I couldn’t communicate with any of these men. My uncle came back and I explained what had happened. He told me that this man owed Omar for something and now that debt was partially forgiven. I said, but I didn’t pay Omar and what is Omar getting from this? I asked my uncle if I could give Omar some money, but he said absolutely not and it would insult Omar. I arranged to give my uncle some money and asked him to do something extra for Omar or his family and then we went down the mountain looking for ceramics.

Omar stopped us at a roadside hill that had thousands of ceramic tagines and bowls and tiles in piles making up columns and columns and rows and rows of red clay, unpainted bowls stacked on top of each other which were entirely covering the hill leading into the factory. There was a tiny path with small steps through these columns into a large dark building. To my right, once my eyes adjusted, I saw a man who was kneading a large bunch of red brown clay with his feet; stepping in and out of the clay in a large square tub. As my eyes got more comfortable, I saw thousands of bowls and dishes leaning every which way in stacks of tens and twenties and more. It was a jumble of sizes, shapes and colors. I walked through trying to find something small I could safely pack in my bag and bring home. I found some beautiful white and blue bowls with a thin strip of silver lining on the bottoms and around the lip of each bowl. I asked the merchant the price and he said they were the most expensive ones and quoted me a price I didn’t want to pay. At that point I noticed some others that I also liked and they were smaller and didn’t have the silver. He told me those were made in this factory here, unlike the others I had previously selected. He quoted me a price and Omar nodded and I paid him.

On our way back to the car, Omar handed me the two other bowls, the expensive ones. He had bought them for me without my noticing. I couldn’t understand. I asked my uncle why and he told me Omar said I was family and he wanted me to have them and to have joy and that it made him happy to think of me with them. This man, who I only just met, was rushing to do something for me. He owns no home, he has worked for over twenty years or perhaps thirty for my Uncle, and he couldn’t stop trying to serve me, to offer to me. I didn’t and don’t know how to properly thank him. His gift was coming straight from his heart. He had the largest grin on his face, so happy with himself. This generosity and desire to please was radiating off of him. I told my uncle to thank him and tell him that I was so happy with the gift and that I would treasure these bowls and think of Omar always when I used them in my home in California.

I gave my uncle some more dirhams and asked him to pass them on however and whenever he could as he saw fit for Omar or his family. Even if I hadn’t had a penny to give, Omar would have been and done exactly as he did. He wanted to make me happy, he wanted me to smile, he wanted me to be served and he wanted to do the serving. He served me. He is serving me still, because I can’t get him out of my mind or heart. His simple kindness, his generosity, his humility, his smile, his strength. All these qualities and more dance around in me and beg me to pay attention.

Serving with joy, serving with kindness and with no thought of reward, serving out of a sense that the person before us is family or Holy or just deserving, this is the service I want to embody. How am I family to Omar? I am family to him because we are all family. My Omar bowls have a special place in my home and every time I see them or use them, Omar is with me. The jewels he gave me also connect me to the Moroccan soil, they come from the red earth and the mountain caves of the African continent, the birthplace of humanity. When I wear them, I feel myself connecting back to the Atlas mountains and to an ancient reality, to a warmth and strength and beauty and even to the large, prehistorically large spiders that come down in the night.

Nicole serves herself by writing to you from her home in Bayside, where she has a lot more to say about serving. Originally this piece was published here and elsewhere in March of 2014