L'Shanah Tovah to those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
I was at Johns Hopkins today. The infusion chairs are very close together, so I sat down in one next to a painfully thin African-American woman. As I sat and waited for my infusion, I couldn't help but notice that she was crying. I sat awkwardly for about 5 minutes and then just decided I'd risk intruding and being shut down by a person in obvious personal pain rather than ignore someone in obvious personal pain. I said, "I don't mean to be intrusive, but is there anything I can get for you? Can I do anything?" She said, "No, baby. I'm okay. It's just...they just told me that there is nothing else they can do for me."
All the air went out of my lungs. As convoluted as my medical dramas have been, I still did not know what to say to someone who just found out that she is going to die. All I could muster was, "I'm so sorry." I found my eyes filling with tears for this total stranger.
At this point one of the nurses came up and asked her what was going on, and she told her the same as she told me. Their exchange gave me a window into another faith that I'm glad I received on the eve of my own religious holiday. The nurse said, "Baby, it is not over for you, because your faith is in God, not in these doctors. You are not going to die until God tells you it's time to die. It's easy to put your faith in men when you know where you faith should be. God has his plan for you, and if it means you go on to Glory, then you do. But if it doesn't, then no amount of them telling you it's over is going to make a difference. You live by God's plan, not man's. But whatever the case, you know that there is a life after this one, so you have nothing to fear."
Wow. Because the nurse and the patient shared the same faith, she was able to truly comfort this woman in a way I could never have come close to, and in a way that would not at all have been my approach. She essentially said, "if you are going to die, then that's God's plan and you don't need to sweat that, because God knows more than you do." It was a statement that I wanted in my head to dispute and find fault with, but in my heart found comforting to consider.
People who are not religious eschew the "false" comfort of religion. But I can say, from my own perspective of losing my Dad, that having faith in things not seen offers a very real, very true comfort. Now seven months after my Dad's passing, the only time I really cry is when I say the Mourner's Kaddish. All other times I hold it together or don't really feel like I need to cry. But I barely get to the third word of that prayer without knowing that the release of grief is in the mail--fed ex. It offers me comfort in a way that allows me to cry, knowing that life goes on and that God remains good.
In her Christian way, that nurse was saying the same thing: there is a life after this one, and it's easy to get sucked into thinking that this is all there is.
On this new year, I think of the following amazing (to me) quote by Shmuel Sperber:
"Religion offers answers without obliterating the questions. The become blunted and will not attack you wiht the same ferocity. But without them the answer would dry up and wither away. The question is a great religious act; it helps you live great religious truth."
Call it "false" if you like, but to that poor woman today, it was as real as can be.
May this new year be a good one for all of us, whatever our religion.