by Michael Hauptman, presented at July 22 Shabbat Service
After my grandmother died, I remember my mother asking me whether I believed in an afterlife; whether after you died, some part of your being remained and watched over the living. Being the self-absorbed, unsentimental twenty-one-year-old that I’m sure I was at that time, my response was honest and blunt: “No, I believe that when you’re dead, you’re dead”, never even letting it cross my mind that a less frank answer may have been more comforting to her. I dismissed her question as her characteristic tendency for the dramatic. I now regret that, at the time, I couldn’t see that a little less candor and a little more humility could have gone a long way in confirming her hopes that her mother could somehow remain present in her life despite her recent death.
As I got older, my basic thoughts about what happens to you when you die didn’t change very much. The dogma of stoic suffering on earth leading to rewards in an afterlife, or atoning for a lifetime of bad behavior just in time to assure yourself one of the good seats in Eternity seemed like something I could leave to other religions and other belief systems.
What I have come to fully embrace is the notion that we achieve immortality through the beliefs, values, experiences and stories that we pass on to our children; through the words and actions that we say and do with our families, our friends and our coworkers; and to the good work that we do throughout our lives that survives us and affects others long after we’re gone. That while we may not remain as hovering spirits or as souls dwelling forever in some version of heaven, we will always be part of the personalities of our children and part of what they pass on to their children and of the histories of our communities and of the institutions we’ve contributed to during our lifetimes. And I find a lot of satisfaction in that. I’ve also come to think of it, perhaps with a little Talmudic license, as a very Jewish attitude toward the concept of afterlife, and I find it to be a comfortable fit.
Not very long after my father died eleven years ago, my mother’s health began to deteriorate. Her heart valve, replaced some time before, had passed its expiration date and she had to choose, at age 85, between doing nothing and suffer an inevitable and slow decline, or having it replaced again and undergo a difficult and uncertain recovery. She chose to have more surgery, and afterward she was sent home with a full-time caregiver and a constrained lifestyle. As predicted, the recovery was rocky, and eventually, she wound up back in the hospital for a regimen of tests and adjustments to her meds.
Finally, on a Saturday morning, her doctor pronounced her back on track and told her to plan on being released to go home on Monday. Her nurse, coming into my mother’s room with the expectation of finding a happy patient, found her sitting in a chair crying.
“What’s wrong? The doctor just said that you’re fine and that you’re going home on Monday”.
“No, I’m not. I’m going to die.”
“Why are you saying that?”
“Because my husband is here to get me.”
And then she was gone. It was three years to the day after my father died.
As you might imagine, the moment of hearing this story from the nurse profoundly shook my seemingly solid and comfortably rational perspective on all things spiritual. Suddenly, after a lifetime of dismissing any beliefs that did not fall into a logical, cogent framework, I find myself open, perhaps just a little, to other inexplicable and less than secular concepts. And even after my brother and I concluded that it couldn’t possibly have been my father, because after 58 years married to my mother, three years of peace and quiet wasn’t nearly enough of a break for him to come back, I remain deeply moved by this experience. It has – to borrow a wonderful phrase newly crafted by our RS Visioning Task Force – “awakened my spirit to the possibilities within me”. And I am grateful to be part of a community that invites me to share them.