Two Important Milestones
Well, the day has come. We are here, together, and I, for one, am so excited to
begin our year of engagement! When I first sat down to think about what I
wanted to say today, it was all about our coming year and all of the special things
we’ll do as a congregation. We are back to celebrating our holidays throughout
the year on their given dates, and there are special speakers coming in to talk
about family addiction and other subjects, and a songwriter of Jewish music and a
fellow cantor/composer coming in. We will have a klezmer band for Simchat
Torah and former child and adult B’nei Mitzvah returning to chant their Torah
portions. I have also been so heartened to see the outpouring of volunteers who
have signed up to help, and the people who have come forward to offer of
themselves to help me during this year as sole spiritual leader of our wonderful
congregation. Thank you. I am overwhelmed with excitement for what’s to come,
and hope you will be, too! But as the time neared for me to write this sermon,
there was one thing that kept crowding other thoughts out of my head, and that
is the realization that I was coming upon one year since I had my first stroke.
It’s odd. I didn’t know what to expect. Hitting a milestone such as this, and
knowing that you’re mostly healed one year later is cause to be grateful. But I
found myself feeling very fragile. It inhabited my thoughts in ways I didn’t expect.
Last week, when I attended my annual cantors conference, all I could think about
was when I’d attended the year before, seeing the same colleagues, taking
courses, not even thinking about my health, when just a few days later I found
myself in a shop at the mall, helpless, unable to talk to tell the clerk something’s
wrong and unable to pick up my bag because I’d lost the use of my right arm and
hand and unable to call 911 or call my husband, because I couldn’t hold or dial the
phone. I guess it didn’t help that so many of my colleagues, knowing what I’d
been through, continuously asked how I was, bringing back the memories to the
forefront of my mind. I am grateful for their care, but it shook me, and I wasn’t
prepared for that.
Yet, as the time of the anniversary grew near, and then the day arrived, I was able
to recognize the blessings that have come out of enduring this illness that
changed everything in an instant. For starters, I learned some practical things.
Might as well share them with you. I think I will be the first clergy person who will
ask you to take out your cell phones. Go ahead, take them out. When I was at the
store, the manager figured out something was wrong. She sat me down, asked a
clerk behind the desk to call 911, and then asked me to take out my phone and ID.
I was unable to pick up my purse because I’d lost the use of my right arm, and I
was having depth perception issues, which was my first sign earlier that
something was wrong. I had some picture frames laying on a piece of furniture
and I tried to pick one up, and I couldn’t. I must have tried over a dozen times.
The frame was right in front of me, and yet I grabbed only air. It freaked me out.
So, after sitting me down and finding my phone, she asked who she should call for
me. I couldn’t speak. I showed her my then brand-new wedding and engagement
band on my finger, she asked if he was listed under husband. You know, you
never think about these things. I couldn’t say Alan Davis. I couldn’t type. Well,
guess what? Now he’s listed under husband, and my mother is listed under
mother and my father under father. But back to your phones. I can show you a
way so you can skip the steps I’ve just mentioned. Now, if you have something
other than an iPhone, I can’t help you, but I imagine there is something like this
on your phones. For starters, go to the screen where you enter your passcode. On
the bottom left of that screen is the word “Emergency.” Press it. As you can see,
you or someone else can dial 911 without having to use your passcode. But you
will also see on the bottom left corner, in red, the words, “Medical ID.” Press that.
There, you, someone who is trying to help you, or a paramedic can look up all the
information that is important to help you and to notify your loved ones. If that
field is empty, then you have a job to do. After services, or I should say, after
Shabbat, find the app that comes with every iPhone that is white with a red heart
on it. Press it and fill out all the information needed for someone to help you
when you can’t help yourself. That is the information that will come up on the
screen when you press “Medical ID” in the future. Good trick? Good! Now put
your phones away!
Once I was home after my second occurrence, I had many weeks of home health
come in for speech and occupational therapy. When Alan first came into the
emergency room, I was still unable to speak, but I could already use my right arm
somewhat, although whenever it was at rest it curled up in a strange position. It
took five long days for it to feel like it was again a part of my body. But for all the
side-effects, the one that held on the longest was loss of memory and dysphasia,
my inability to get the words I wanted to say out of my mouth. Now, I know
you’re all thinking, “I do that all the time!”, but this is different. I didn’t know
what day of the week it was, or the date. I didn’t know the name of our president,
although I knew who it was. I would occasionally email or text someone, and I
thought I’d sent a perfectly clear and concise note, but it was rife with
misspellings and sometimes didn’t make any sense. And once I got home, I
couldn’t repeat three numbers given to me by the speech therapist. She would
ask me to name three animals, and I couldn’t do it. And it wasn’t getting any
better day after day, week after week. That’s when frustration and fear really set
in. But I did some research and learned a few things that settled me, somewhat.
After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist
Martin Seligman found that there are three P’s—personalization, pervasiveness,
and permanence—that are critical to how we bounce back from hardship. The
seeds of resilience are planted in the way we process the negative events in our
The first P is personalization—the belief that we are at fault. This is different from
taking responsibility, which you should always do. I wanted to know what I could
do to make sure this didn’t happen again, and I was desperate to learn how this
had happened. Did I eat the wrong things? Was I exercising too little? Too much, I
hope? When we learned it was likely caused by a medication I’d been taking long-
term, I felt it had been my fault because I ignored the potential for stroke when
taking it. But I’d been taking it for 35 years, and nothing happened until now. The
turmoil one can put oneself through hinders our ability to help ourselves move
forward. It doesn’t matter that I took the medication or that I ate the wrong
things or exercised too little. This is the lesson that not everything that happens
to us happens because of us.
The second P is pervasiveness—the belief that an event will affect all areas of
your life. There was no place to run or hide from my memory loss and dysphasia.
It was all still so new and it didn’t matter that all the doctors and therapists were
sure it would get better and maybe even go away in time. Every time I opened my
mouth and I couldn’t get the words out was a frustration and a sadness I can’t
describe. It inhabited my daily life almost every moment of every day.
The third P is permanence—the belief that the setbacks will last forever. For
months, no matter what I did, it felt like the setbacks from my stroke would
always be there. We often project our current feelings out indefinitely—and experience what I think of as the second derivative of those feelings. We feel
anxious—and then we feel anxious that we’re anxious. We feel sad—and then we
feel sad that we’re sad. Instead, we should accept our feelings—but recognize
that they will not last forever.
The three P’s are common emotional reactions to so many things that happen to
us—in our careers, our personal lives, and our relationships. You’re probably
feeling one of them right now about something in your life. But if you can
recognize you are falling into these traps, you can catch yourself. Just as our
bodies have a physiological immune system, our brains have a psychological
immune system—and there are steps you can take to help kick it into gear.
Finding gratitude is a way.
One day while still recuperating, someone suggested that I think about how much
worse things could be. This was completely counterintuitive; it seemed like the
way to recover was to try to find positive thoughts. “Worse?” I said. “Are you
kidding me? How could things be worse?” His answer cut straight through me:
“You could have lost the ability to sing.” Wow. The moment he said it, I was
overwhelmingly grateful that this illness didn’t keep me from doing what I love.
That gratitude overtook some of the sadness.
Finding gratitude and appreciation is key to resilience. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of
Facebook and a neighborhood childhood friend and fellow junior choir member at
our childhood temple in North Miami Beach, spoke of the death of her husband
during a commencement address at the University of California, Berkley. She said,
“Last month, eleven days before the anniversary of Dave’s death, I broke down
crying to a friend of mine. I said: “Eleven days. One year ago, he had eleven days
left. And we had no idea.” We looked at each other through tears, and asked how
we would live if we knew we had eleven days left, to live with the understanding
of how precious every single day would be. How precious every day actually is.”
She then writes of her mother, Adele, “A few years ago, my mom had to have her
hip replaced. When she was younger, she always walked without pain. But as her
hip disintegrated, each step became painful. Now, even years after her operation,
she is grateful for every step she takes without pain—something that never would
have occurred to her before.”
It is often the bad things that happen to us that create for us the biggest growth,
the biggest change in us.
So, I’m living with the awareness that I am walking without pain. Perhaps for the
first time, I am grateful for each breath in and out—grateful for the gift of life
itself. I used to go to sleep worrying about all the things I messed up that day—
and trust me that list was often quite long. Now I try really hard to focus on each
day’s moments of joy. Do I still have moments when I can’t find the words I want
to say? Of course. Perhaps I always will. But I’m mindful of all the gifts I have.
It is the greatest irony of my life that having two strokes helped me find deeper
gratitude—gratitude for the kindness of my friends, the love of my family. And it
also helped me to realize, it made me able to be here with you, right here right
now, in good health, able to be your sole spiritual leader for this year.
My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude—not just on the good days,
but on the hard ones, when you will really need it. I hope that you live your life—
each precious day of it—with joy and meaning. I hope that you walk without
pain—and that you are grateful for each step. And when the challenges come, I
hope you remember that anchored deep within you is the ability to learn and
grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can
build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who
you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself.
Build resilience in yourselves. When tragedy or disappointment strike, know that
you have the ability to get through absolutely anything. I promise you do. As the
saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger
than we ever imagined.
It is terrible but true that we learn more about life when our lives are threatened.
Of course, I wish I hadn’t suffered a stroke, but I am grateful for the perspective it
has given me.
At times I want to feel sorry for myself. At times I am angry that it happened to
me. But then I remember that I am in a much better place now. I wish that I had
obtained the clarity and perspective that I have now without my illness.
My advice to you: don’t wait for a life-threatening illness.
Appreciate what you have now.
Be thankful for at least one thing in your life every day.
Live like you have eleven days left.
And now I have a special song. It’s called We Live on Borrowed Time.