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Most of us have been given many more blessings than we have received. We do not take time to be blessed or make the space for it. We may have filled our lives so full of other things that we have no room to receive our blessings. One of my patients once told me that she has an image of us all being circled by our blessings, sometimes for years, like airplanes in a holding pattern at an airport, stacked up with no place to land. Waiting for a moment of our time, our attention.
People with serious illness have often let go of a great deal; their illness has created an opening in their lives for the first time. They may discover ways to receive all the blessings they are given, even those that were given long ago. Such people have shown me how to receive my blessings.
Many years ago I cared for a woman called Mae Thomas. Mae had grown up in Georgia and while she had lived in Oakland, California, for many years, she had in some profound way never left the holy ground of her childhood. She had worked hard all her life, cleaning houses in order to raise seven children and more than a few grandchildren. By the time I met her, she had grown old and was riddled with cancer.
Mae celebrated life. Her laugh was a pure joy. It made you remember how to laugh yourself. All these years later, just thinking of her makes me smile. As she became sicker, I began to call her every few days to check in on her. She would always answer the phone in the same way. I would say "Mae, how ya doin'?" and she would chuckle and reply, "I'm blessed, Sister. I am blessed."
The night before she died, I called, and her family had brought the phone to her. "Mae," I said. "It's Rachel." I could hear her coughing and clearing her throat, looking to find breath enough to speak in a lung filled with cancer, willing herself past a fog of morphine to connect to my voice. Tears stung my eyes. "Mae," I said. "It's Rachel. How ya doin'?" There was a sound I could not identify, which slowly unwrapped itself into a deep chuckle. "I'm blessed, Rachel. I am blessed," she told me. Mae was one of those people. And so, perhaps, are we all.
Martin Buber reminds us that just to live is holy. Just to be is a blessing. If Buber is right, what keeps us from receiving life's blessings? It is not always so simple a thing as a lack of time. Often we may not recognize a blessing when it is given, or we may have ideas about life that keep us from experiencing what we already have. Sometimes we become frozen in the past or unaware of the potential in the present. We may even come to feel entitled to what has been given us by grace. Or we may become so caught up in what is missing in the world that we allow our hearts to break. There are many ways to feel empty in the midst of our blessings.
We can bless others only when we feel blessed ourselves. Blessing life may be more about learning how to celebrate life than learning how to fix life. It may require an appreciation of life as it is and an acceptance of much in life that we cannot understand. It may mean developing an eye for joy. It is not necessary to sit in judgment in order to move things forward, and our anger may not be the most potent tool for change. Most important, it requires the humility to know that we are not in this task of restoring the world alone.
Larry knew none of these things. He and his wife had been coming to see me as a couple for a few months. His wife came to their final appointment alone. "Where is Larry?" I asked her. "He got a call from Washington," she told me. "He was still on the phone when I left." "But didn't he promise to take Wednesdays off?" I asked. She looked at me and just smiled. "I'm leaving," she told me. "I thought if I could get him here, he might focus on me and the kids long enough for me to tell him."
My heart sank. I had met Larry ten years before when he was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was twenty-nine at the time, a young stockbroker with a promising future. Two words from a doctor had taken all that away. Larry and his wife had fought back. Deeply in love, they had supported each other through a year of brutal chemotherapy. Their children were small, and there was much to live for. But eight months after his chemotherapy was complete, the cancer returned. This time Larry had a bone marrow transplant. Back then one out of two people who underwent this procedure died. Larry took this chance because he loved life fiercely. And he was one of the lucky ones.
He emerged from this treatment a changed man. "There is more to life than making money," he had told me back then. Convinced that his life had been spared for a reason, he felt he had to use his time to make a difference. He left the world of business and began working in the new field of conservation.
Over the next ten years, conservation became a nationwide movement, and Larry became a man possessed. He began working a fifty-hour week. And then a sixty-hour week. Now he traveled almost constantly and, when he was at home, worked far into the night by fax and e-mail. He ate and slept irregularly. Months went by without his having a talk with his children, an evening with his wife, or any time for himself. He lived on the edge of burnout. But there was always something more to be done, another project, another cause. His wife and children had been lonely at first, but gradually they had built a life without him.
"Tell him that I would like to see him," I told his wife.
She nodded. "I'll tell him after I give him the news," she said.
Larry came in a few days later. He sat down wearily in the chair opposite. I was shocked at his appearance. "Carol said you wanted to talk with me."
"Yes," I said. "She told me she was leaving."
"Yes," he replied. "She told me, too."
He began to cry. "Ten years ago, I was losing my life," he told me. "I didn't lose it then, but I've lost it now."
"What was it like for you back then?" I asked him.
"Desperate," he said. "Life was slipping through my fingers. I felt that I was running out of time." He paused. "I still feel that way," he told me. "The world is dying. We may not have another chance."
We sat looking at each other in silence. My heart ached for this good man. "When was the last time that you ate with your family?" I asked him.
He shook his head. "I don't remember."
"Or the last time you went to sleep without setting an alarm clock?" He shook his head again. "Do you remember the last time that you played a game or read a story to your children?"
"I don't remember," he said softly.
"Larry, would you treat a spotted owl in this way?" He looked down at the floor and shook his head. I saw that he had begun to cry again.
"I don't think I can go on," he said.
I told him that I understood how important his work was. Silently he nodded. "Has serving life made you happy?"
He looked at me, confused. "How can serving life make you happy?" he asked me. "Service requires sacrifice."
But perhaps not. One of the fundamental principles of real service is taught many times a day aboard every airplane in the United States. Larry, who flies more than a million miles every year, had heard it hundreds of times without recognizing its relevance to him. It is the part just before takeoff when the stewardess says, "If the cabin loses pressure, the oxygen masks will fall from above. Put your own mask on first before you try to help the person next to you." Service is based on the premise that all life is worthy of our support and commitment. For Larry, this was true of every life except his own.
If I wished to defeat those who wanted to use their lives to make a difference, this is exactly the way in which I would go about it. Few such people would be tempted from their purpose by fame, or power, or even by wealth. But I could confuse them and stop them in just the same way Larry found himself stopped. I could use their own dedication against them, driving them to work until they became so depleted and empty that they could no longer go on. I would make certain that they never discovered that blessing life is about filling yourself up so that your blessings overflow onto others.
On Friday afternoons when I would arrive at my grandfather's house after school, the tea would already be set on the kitchen table. My grandfather had his own way of serving tea. There were no teacups and saucers or bowls of granulated sugar or honey. Instead, he would pour the tea directly from the silver samovar into a drinking glass. There had to be a teaspoon in the glass first, otherwise the glass, being thin, might break.
My grandfather did not drink his tea in the same way that the parents of my friends did either. He would put a cube of sugar between his teeth and then drink the hot tea straight from his glass. So would I. I much preferred drinking tea this way to the way I had to drink tea at home.
After we had finished our tea my grandfather would set two candles on the table and light them. Then he would have a word with God in Hebrew. Sometimes he would speak out loud, but often he would close his eyes and be quiet. I knew then that he was talking to God in his heart. I would sit and wait patiently because the best part of the week was coming.
When Grandpa finished talking to God, he would turn to me and say, "Come, Neshume-le." Then I would stand in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on the top of my head. He would begin by thanking God for me and for making him my grandpa. He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. Each week I would wait to find out what that was. If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I had failed, he would appreciate how hard I had tried. If I had taken even a short nap without my nightlight, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark. Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long-ago women I knew from his many storiesSarah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Leahto watch over me.
These few moments were the only time in my week when I felt completely safe and at rest. My family of physicians and health professionals were always struggling to learn more and to be more. It seemed there was always more to know. It was never enough. If I brought home a 98 on a test from school, my father would ask, "And what happened to the other two points?" I pursued those two points relentlessly throughout my childhood. But my grandfather did not care about such things. For him, I was already enough. And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so.
My grandfather died when I was seven years old. I had never lived in a world without him in it before, and it was hard for me. He had looked at me as no one else had and called me by a special name, "Neshume-le," which means "beloved little soul." There was no one left to call me this anymore. At first I was afraid that without him to see me and tell God who I was, I might disappear. But slowly over time I came to understand that in some mysterious way, I had learned to see myself through his eyes. And that once blessed, we are blessed forever.
Many years later when, in her extreme old age, my mother surprisingly began to light candles and talk to God herself, I told her about these blessings and what they had meant to me. She had smiled at me sadly. "I have blessed you every day of your life, Rachel," she told me. "I just never had the wisdom to do it out loud."