by Rita Lowenthal
Rita on her birthday
I’m not quite sure how this happened—why I decided to use my reflection time to celebrate my 85th birthday with you. It feels a little egocentric—my women friends are giving me a luncheon–the family is having two parties, so how much did I need?
I think it’s because I want to share with those that have been most important to me during my 80”s.
When I thought about what was unique and different about my 80’s—two things came to mind: Five years ago the diagnosis of dementia of my wonderful now 97-year-old husband Jerry—and the gift of my late middle and old age.
And my joining ICUJP. I forget what year that was, between the two of you, in these five years, I’ve read enough about healthy aging and dementia and spirituality to fill a book—but don’t despair I’m limiting my self to 10 minutes. I’m allowing myself this gift of a an extended reflection just because I think I am the oldest person in the room (not that that makes any sense)—but since when did everything have to make sense?—especially in a room with so many believers.
First, Jerry’s Alzheimer’s type dementia. We lucked out—he has what is known as euphoric dementia. He is, if not euphoric, absolutely content. I remember when we first got the diagnosis—five years ago when he was 92—he looked at me and said: ‘Don’t worry—I lived and loved the good times, nd what’s the big deal about forgetting the hard years.” Shortly after, when he lost his drivers license, his response was: “ I can’t drive—great—I hate driving in LA—now you’re stuck.”
When I got over the initial fears, sadness and outrage about the wastefulness of it all. What was going to happen now to this man who spent his life on intellectual and cultural pursuits—having an UNcurious brain? And how would I respond? I needed to do this right.
When you raise and love a drug child and go through a divorce you are never sure when you are doing exactly right. He has allowed me the opportunity to like myself more—than possible any other period. I think I’m doing this right,.
I suppose I quite quickly made a peace with the diagnosis because I was assured that the onset would be very gradual. And it was—his Dementia moved slowly and it has really only in the last six months that it has become difficult: inconvenient, annoying and boring. But not devastating, It’s like living with a good four-year old: all he really wants is ice-cream, Animal Planet National Geo on TV, and me.
I have learned to pretty much replace our outside life so I’m not too lonely for intellectual and collegely fun situations—and I bless him every time I go out and count on is saying says—have a good time—he never says, “Don’t leave me.” What a mench!
But hanging out with him in the same room too long sent me to a hypnotist to block out my impatience at his repeating–even though the repeating is five things that in some other time might be a gift: “Do you love me as much s I love you? Don’t you love our lives? Aren’t we lucky and do have enough money? And we need vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.”
Some times in what seems like machine gun rapidity it goes on and on and he must be answered.
Well, as everyone is this room knows–having a world view–knowing what others are experiencing makes it easier but not easy. Incidentally the hypnotist did help and remembering that he won’t remember no matter how often I say, “I’ll see you later, I’m going to going to take a nap” gets me out of whatever room he is in, but I rarely pass where he is sitting that we don’t touch.
Another of the gifts of my aging are the acceptance of “life happening.” I don’t feel our predicament is a tragedy. It is just “Life Happening” He is 97.
Plus understanding the boundaries of how much or little we can really do to save those we love is an enormous gift of psychological freedom and then, as most people who have lived through what they sense as real tragedy (for me the death our beloved boy)and survived, I’m just not afraid of the future. I got past that period of devastating mourning, and life is good. Some clichés are clichés for reasons. Time does heal.
Nothing negative seems very anxiety-provoking and I rarely sweat about the negative future. Being sad or angry is a pleasure compared with anxiety. Although thinking about the world—it feels like we are dancing in an earthquake– but I have you to share it with, plus a relatively new mantra for me, “one day at a time,” is not that difficult to remember,
A few years ago I wrote these two poems:
Why label him a disease?
Can’t he just be forgetful, fatulmult
Like old people used to be.
Where is it written he needs to know
The vice president’s name?
even this nice one.
Who says he should eat breakfast,
lunch and dinner at prescribed times.
He can eat whenever he damn well pleases.
Maybe short burst of anger are a functional release
like mini orgasms,
Must even passion be pathologized?
Maybe it’s not tragic to live long
And be forced to live in the present.
Surely the past was as difficult
as it was wonderful
Having lived it once should be enough.
Words. Words. Words.
Dementia—that’s what the say.
Sounds like demented.
Maybe a rose is a rose
But why not daft
Or a gentle madness
If he is daft or pixilated
There is room for laughter
But Alzheimer’s Type Dementia
No, that’s worth forgetting,
Rita Lowenthal 2009
I made a peace with aging
Accepting the inevitabilities
Aches, forgetting, and diminished fantasies
Exchanged for the gratefulness
Of every pain free day,
I wrote a pretty good poem
About all that
And now I want to renege.
I am exchanging an old
For a newer acceptance
Of this long life.
Now I know that the eighties
And nineties are new possibilities.
This may not be the last stage
Only the next one.
I can erase where I wrote
That I will grow old and infirm
And choose old and informed.
Boldness over acceptance.
Hmm, What’s next?
That’s were ICUJP came in, Just when I was ready to just hang it up on all religious institutions—they just make too much trouble (I’m not talking about my my Jewish and Zionist identity–they’re just too engrained—they are who I am, like my womanhood—but enough of organized religion)—so I joined the Jewish Humanist and Some Shalom Communities.
Then came ICUJP. I had never been active in interfaith work. You became my graduate course in another America—and I came to realize how ghettoized my life has been although it never felt that way—I have always had non-Jewish friends. neighbors and leftie local politics buddies, but Pasadena church-going religious leaders, Muslims and Aetheriens!?
As all limited people must come to know it is not enough to say—some of best friends are—I really fell in love you with you guys –and that makes the difference.
I believe we are a truly a unique group—it’s not just the values of peace and justice that we share—other groups claim the same. I think it’s the unique ways we have built, in an often cold room and a history of no coffee at 7 AM ,with people who often don’t see each other more than once a week for two hours and from different parts of LA—a closeness—that’s unusual.. And of course, there is our amazing leadership.
The members of this group have helped me get over my cynicism about organized religions (when it is organized on my side) and to once again not to be so over simplistic.
Another is that because I have so much respect for who and what goes on in this room—I have made a peace with my struggle with God. I m still attached to my former colleagues at Hebrew Union College and the Reform movement. But for the for the first time in my life, I have no particular congregational relationship I call my own. I am very committed to interfaith work and Jewish organizations with progressive political views. You are my spiritual homes,
We had on our book shelf a small maybe 3×5 framed quote of Gertrude Stein. It said: “There ain’t no answer. There never was an answer. There will never be an answer. And that’s the answer.”
A few months ago I realized that it was totally faded—it came with Jerry so it was probably 60 years old—and I replaced it with the ee cummings’ poem that my dear friend John Forney introduced me to:
“I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.”
It fits right in with quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that, for the Jews, the greatest of sins is despair.
That’s it. For my birthday I want you all to promise to stay well and grown older with me