Recently, I spoke with Ottawa resident Darryl Sequeira about his near-death experience fifteen years ago.
In September 2005, Darryl was a 20-year-old university student in Saint John, New Brunswick.
He got drunk at a party one night and was passed out in the back seat of the car of a friend’s friend.
Unbeknownst to Darryl, the driver was also drunk and so, “It was the wrong car to fall asleep in.”
When the drunk driver crashed, the driver broke both his legs, the front seat passenger broke his right arm, the guy to Darryl’s left broke his left arm and the guy to Darryl’s right managed to get just a few cuts and bruises.
Because Darryl had been the only one asleep in the vehicle, he suffered the worst consequences. The car flipped over three times and he flew forward.
I didn’t know it at the time, but April 11th, 2015 marked my last visit with my last grandparent.
Joseph Achtman (Zaida) died two weeks later, and I am so grateful not only for my final visit with him, but also that I took the time to journal about our visit right after the fact.
Here is an excerpt from exactly what I wrote in April 2015.
This evening my aunt, who is a primary nurse at the Rockyview General Hospital, shared with me a bit about her experiences as a nurse both before and amidst the pandemic.
In particular, she told me about a program initiated in 2015 called No One Dies Alone. This project of Alberta Health Services is a effort to ensure that any patient, who is without family or friends to visit them as they approach death, is met with some form of intentional companionship.
My aunt told me that, throughout the entire pandemic, she does not think anyone has died alone at her hospital. Most have had family and friends who were able to visit and for those who did not, they were accompanied by volunteers or clergy.
Today is World Down Syndrome Day, and so this evening my friends and I were reflecting on the value of those with Down Syndrome in our lives.
My favourite story my friend shared was about a man named Peter for whom she cared for one year while working as a live-in assistant at a L’Arche community in Montreal.
Peter was in his 30s and his kidneys did not work well. He was on dialysis and, because he could not urinate properly, he also had a catheter that, in his case, was surgically changed every six months.
This evening I was having a chat with a friend who shared with me about growing up with parents who differ considerably in terms of their outlook on the risks of life.
My friend’s father is the social, energetic, and adventurous type. Whereas her mother has always been more cautious – even to the point of being afraid of flying, anxious in the passenger seat, and worried about safety.
“Maybe it comes from a good place,” my friend reflected, wanting to offer the most charitable interpretation. “Maybe it’s a matter of gratitude – knowing that you have a lot and simply wanting it to stay that way, not wanting to risk damage or disruption to that which you cherish so much.”
My friend told me that her mother’s fear of loss can be crippling but that, as a mother herself, she can also understand it to some extent.
On of my favourite sections of the book After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition by Hillel Halkin is about the proper measure of grief in our lives and our communities.
“The basic approach of the rabbis in Semahot [a rabbinic text on death and mourning] is to allow sufficient space for grief while channeling it into formulaic expressions and surrounding it with numerous prescriptions that make sure its desirable limits are not exceeded. Death is a blow that must not be faced alone; it requires the support of others; the emotions it arouses must be acknowledged and given voice to; yet they are best expressed in time-tested ways that never carry mourners past the point from which they can find their way back to normal functioning within a reasonable amount of time. Mourning is not just a private affair. It is the concern of the community, which is thrown off balance if one of its members fails to recover from a death quickly enough. Life has its rights, too. If a funeral and a wedding procession meets in the streets of the town, Semahot rules, the mourners must turn aside from the path of the bride, since ‘respect for the living precedes respect for the dead.’ Should you have to choose between paying a condolence call and attending a celebration for the birth of someone’s child, choose the celebration.”
Next, Halkin recounts this story from the same source about Rabbi Akiva when his son became seriously sick:
When my brother Brandon was born prematurely, my mother met at lot of other parents in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) who were all living on pins and needles with uncertainty over the future of their respective children.
One woman was continually writing letters to her child about what she was feeling and about what he was going through each day. Together, she and my mom went shopping for clothes at Build-A-Bear because the clothing for teddy bears was the right size for their premature children who were too small to fit any of the baby clothing they could find.
In a short essay, Gilbert Meilaender reflected on attending a workshop on “advance directives” at a nearby hospital. Throughout the workshop, participants expressed their intent not to be a burden on their family members at the end of life. But the more Meilaender thought about this, the more he determined that this was not his view. He reflected, “I don’t know how to make the point other than too crassly–other than by saying that I want to be a burden to my loved ones.”
He then goes on to discuss the various ways he cared for his children that “burdened” him but that he certainly does not resent – teaching sports, playing games, attending recitals, volunteering at school, negotiating dinner choices. While he does not begrudge these things, he does ask, “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other–and to find, almost miraculously that others are willing, even happy to carry such burdens?”
Some years ago, I dreamt that my mom began receiving emails from my grandfather. They arrived sporadically because they had been auto-scheduled by him to be delivered to us on different dates in the future after his death. For fun, he used a pseudonym formed from aspects of his early life. The electronic letters always included at least one of the humorously crass jokes he’d so delight in telling at the dinner table, especially when clergy were over for dinner. The letters mentioned each of us in turn; first, my mom, then me, then my brother, then my dad. Every time an email of this nature would arrive, my family would all gather around my mom’s computer to read it as if it were “news” for us. Even though the email letters always had the same style and structure – a few jokes, some affirmations of our respective courses in life, and a reminder of his love, receiving them as emails made them seem exciting; we had no idea how many epilogues there would be.
Today an article appeared in my newsfeed titled, “Rabbi Yehuda Dukes, 39, Inspired Thousands in Health and in Sickness.” In it, I learned that Rabbi Dukes, much-loved around the world and most especially by his wife and their six children, passed away from Covid.
What I found most striking was this interview the rabbi gave in August. Upon recovering from months in a coma, Rabbi Dukes spoke over a video call about his experiences and was honest about the excruciating physical pain he faced in addition to the anguish of being separated from his family.