Guest Post from Rabbi John Rosove: As My Mother Disappears Before My Eyes

"Prague," by Joshua Barnett, via Flickr.com (Creative Commons License)

Editor’s Note: This blog post by Rabbi John Rosove is reposted from his blog with his permission.

As my mother nears her 98th birthday in June, the dementia that has consumed her brain is taking more and more of her away. It’s as if there’s been an invasion of a body snatcher.

My mother is, on the one hand, still there. She sounds, smells and feels the same. But increasingly, she has entered into oblivion.

Rabbi John Rosove

Rabbi John Rosove

In my last three visits, she didn’t know who I was – I, her son of 65 years.

In my visits these days, I try and discover where she is and what she thinks about and remembers. I’m no longer asking her if she knows who I am. She may indeed know, but I don’t think she easily remembers my name.

One of the tragedies of advancing dementia is the utter isolation that sufferers progressively experience as they move through the fog left by lost memory. It’s also difficult and painful for us who love them because we can’t help but grieve as we watch them disappear.

My mother’s world has become so very small. She had always lived an active and fully engaged life invigorated by family, friends, people, Jewish community, causes, and ideas. Then, she began to forget things. She couldn’t find the words that had once flowed so easily past her lips. She couldn’t recall the memories that made her who she was and defined her world. She didn’t know the names of the people she loved. And she couldn’t recognize anyone in the room.

My mother has always been exceptionally verbal, and though she still talks up a storm, her words are nearly impossible for me to understand, and I know her better than most people.

I’ve asked myself what is actually left, what remains of all that she was, learned and knew. Thankfully, certain things haven’t yet left her. She retains her essential sweetness, gentleness, kindness, generosity, and joy when she looks into my face and has some recognition that I’m an important and familiar person to her, but I wonder what the content of the familiarity is.

For those who suffer with dementia, it’s as if the life cycle has been reversed. They undergo a great unlearning, an unmaking of themselves, a reversion to a uncluttered brain – but this time, the mind is shutting down and not opening up.

Sometimes, nevertheless, my mother offers a pearl of wisdom. Last week she said, “We all have to love each other – for what else is there!?”

Because my mother can’t hear, can’t see and can’t walk, I sit very close to her when we interact, touch her constantly, look into her face from five or six inches away, and speak very loudly into her left ear, the better ear of the two. If I’m able to break through the fog of her confusion, she may know me, but most of the time I’m not sure that she does.

In being with people with dementia, it’s important for us to remember that when the mind goes our bodies carry powerful memories too that may remain. A mother never forgets the vibrations, smell and energy of her child, and I, her son, certainly have never forgotten my mother’s vibrations, smell and emotional presence.

After all the years, what’s left between her and me has come down to this – the purity of a love between a mother and a son. I cherish this and pray that she still does too.

Each time I leave her I kiss her and say directly into her ear: “Mom – I love you!”

“I love you too,” she always says.

I hope she knows that it’s ME who has spoken those words, and not just some stranger showing her love and kindness.

About Rabbi John Rosove
Rabbi John L. Rosove assumed his duties as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in November 1988. A native of Los Angeles, he earned a BA in Art History from UC Berkeley (1972), a Masters in Hebrew Letters from HUC-JIR, LA (1976), Rabbinic Ordination from HUC-JIR, NY (1979), and a Doctor of Divinity from HUC-JIR, LA (2004). His mission has been to build Jewish community and draw Jews and their families closer to God, the Torah, Jewish tradition, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel as a Jewish national home. He regards social justice work and high ethical practices as essential core Jewish religious values. He is a progressive Reform Zionist, is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic Cabinet of J Street, a pro-Israel pro-peace political and educational organization in Washington, D.C., on the board of the American Friends of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), the Advisory Committee of the Daniel Center of Tel Aviv, an International Vice-Chair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall (WOW), and a member of the Israel Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). He was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. He formed twin synagogue relationships between Temple Israel of Hollywood and Kehillat Mevasseret Zion, Israel, with Congregation Darchei Noam in Ramat Hasharon, Israel, with Kehillat Chodesh v’Chol in Holon, Israel, as well as with the Progressive Synagogues in Kiev and Kharkov, Ukraine. During his tenure Rabbi Rosove has overseen the rebirth of Temple Israel of Hollywood and spearheaded a number of new education and social action projects including the Temple’s Day School (celebrating its 25th Anniversary Year) and Big Sunday Weekend of Service that puts 50,000 Los Angelenos to work each year. He has been an advocate for liturgical change and stronger adult learning, and inspired Temple Israel’s participation in the Synagogue 2000 program. He oversaw the creation of the Temple’s High Holyday Machzor and its Shabbat and Festival Siddur. Between 2012 and 2014 the congregation renovated its entire facility, except the historic Nussbaum Sanctuary, with the design firm of Koning-Eizenberg Architects including a new modern Chapel and a state of the art theater and concert hall. John writes a regular blog that appears at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal (http://www.jewishjournal.com/rabbijohnrosovesblog), and he posts on both the Jewish Journal site and on this blog two or three times weekly (https://rabbijohnrosove.wordpress.com/). John has written a series of 8 Jewish Life Cycle Guides that are posted on the TIOH web-site (http://www.tioh.org). The Guide “Preparing for Jewish Burial and Mourning” also appears on the web-site of Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles. (http://hillsidememorial.org/jewish-lifecycle-guide/). John and his wife, Barbara, are the loving parents of two sons, Daniel (age 29) and David (age 24).

1 Comment

  1. Your words reflect so beautifully the precious gift you both own of “the purity of a love between a mother and a son.” Thank you so much for your thoughts and for sharing the depth of your feelings! This is an expression of genuine blessing acknowledged. You have developed the art of skillful writing which I enjoy reading. In this instance, you combined the elements of an open heart and a wise mind with an ample נשמה. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

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