Ear­li­er this week, NY Times best-sell­ing author Sara David­son wrote about she came to write her mem­oir The Decem­ber Project (Harper­One), which is based on her con­ver­sa­tions with Reb Zal­man Schachter-Shalo­mi about how get­ting up close with mor­tal­i­ty” quick­ens our abil­i­ty to rel­ish every dayShe will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

What should you do if your par­ent is close to dying but doesn’t want to talk about it?” I asked Reb Zal­man Schachter-Shalo­mi, founder of the Jew­ish Renew­al Movement. 

I’d recent­ly moved my 94-year-old moth­er to a care home for peo­ple with Alzheimer’s. She’d made funer­al arrange­ments years before, but she nev­er spoke about the ele­phant in the room — her approach­ing death. I want­ed to know what she was expe­ri­enc­ing. Was she in denial or at peace? What could I do to help her meet the inevitable with grace and love? I couldn’t just blurt, Mom, you’re dying. How does it feel?”

Reb Zal­man raised his hands as if to say, stop. You don’t have to tell her she’s dying. Just sit with her qui­et­ly and think about it. She’ll be going to a dif­fer­ent place and you’ll be miss­ing her. You want to make the part­ing good for her and good for you. The mes­sage will seep in. Not every­thing has to be verbal.”

We had this talk dur­ing one of what I called my Fri­days with Reb Zal­man,” when we met every week to dis­cuss The Decem­ber Project.” Reb Zal­man had writ­ten the book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, in his six­ties — the Sep­tem­ber of his years. Now, he said, it’s Decem­ber, and one of his pri­or­i­ties is to help peo­ple car­ing for elders under­stand what they’re going through and what they need. 

The most impor­tant thing to real­ize is: this is not about you. It’s their life, their pass­ing, and you need to find out how they want to do it, not how you think would be best,” he said. 

It’s also time to let them ful­fill their wish­es. If peo­ple want to eat a frank­furter and it has nitrates, so? It’s gonna kill them? If they want to cud­dle or have sex with some­one in the old age home, what’s the wor­ry? They’re going to get pregnant?”

If peo­ple aren’t able to express what they want, he sug­gest­ed giv­ing them some choic­es and fol­low­ing their cues.

His own father, he said, wouldn’t tell him what he want­ed done with his remains. When­ev­er Zal­man broached the sub­ject, his father would say, Nu, you can’t wait for me to die already?!” 

So Zal­man told him what he want­ed for him­self. At the time, he was con­sid­er­ing being cre­mat­ed and hav­ing his ash­es scat­tered at Auschwitz, to join the ash­es of his uncle and cousins who’d been burned at the camp, as an act of sol­i­dar­i­ty. His father react­ed instant­ly. That’s not good. You should do some­thing else.”

What have you got in mind?” Zal­man said.

His father told him he’d bought a plot in Israel and wants his remains buried there and maybe Zal­man should do the same. I had to flip him into telling me, by speak­ing first about my own wish­es and thoughts,” Zal­man said.

He took a dif­fer­ent tack when a friend was dying of can­cer. She was able to talk open­ly, and said she want­ed to go to Hawaii because she knew the can­cer was incur­able,” Zal­man said. Her chil­dren wouldn’t let her go because her doc­tor insist­ed that she do more chemother­a­py to pro­long her time.” That had made Reb Zal­man sad. He wished her chil­dren had con­sid­ered, How would I feel if I were in my mother’s place and I want­ed to go to a sun­ny island while I still could?”

The woman was in great pain dur­ing the final days and told Reb Zal­man she was afraid it would nev­er end. He said she would not feel pain after her tran­si­tion. You will not always be in that phys­i­cal body. You will slough it off and be free. Every­thing will be calm.” He said that peo­ple who’ve had near-death expe­ri­ences report that they felt enfold­ed in uncon­di­tion­al love — love that was stronger than any­thing they’d known, so strong that they didn’t want to come back to the liv­ing world.” For this woman, Reb Zal­man said, hear­ing that brought her comfort.”

I asked Reb Zal­man what he would want in his own final days. Ha! Remem­ber what Woody Allen said, I don’t mind dying as long as I don’t have to be there?’ I’m the oppo­site. I want to be awake and present. I want to watch the last breath going out and whis­per the She­ma.”

He’s asked his wife, Eve, who’s 24 years younger, to be with him because I’d like to feel a lov­ing touch,” but he told her, When it’s my time, I’d like you to please let me go.” 

She agreed, on one con­di­tion: that you take me with you as far as you can.” 

They have a deal. 

To read more about The Decem­ber Project, click here

In addi­tion to The Decem­ber Project, Sara David­son is the author of Leap!: What Will We Do with the Rest of Our Lives?, Loose Change: Three Women of the Six­ties, Cow­boy: A Nov­el, Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss, and Friend­ship with Joan Did­ion.

Relat­ed Content:

In 2009, Reb Zal­man Schachter-Shalo­mi asked N.Y. Times best-sell­ing author Sara David­son to talk with him about The Decem­ber Project.” He want­ed to help peo­ple not freak out about dying, and show how get­ting up close with mor­tal­i­ty” quick­ens our abil­i­ty to rel­ish every day. Davidson’s mem­oir of the two years they spent meet­ing every week, The Decem­ber Project, will be pub­lished March 25 by Harper­One. David­son is also the author of Loose Change, Leap! and Joan: Forty Years of Love, Loss and Friend­ship with Joan Did­ion. Read more about her here.

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