Stones and Kisses

From Rachel’s Teach Give Inspire Fridays Talk

June 3, 2022

Thank you to Barbara and the Teach Give Inspire Friday’s team for inviting me to speak today. Grateful to all of you for coming to listen to me speak.

Spiritual disclaimer – in talking with many people, it seems that we all yearn for something bigger and higher than ourselves. A higher power. I am Jewish, so you may hear me use the word Gd or thank Gd as I speak to you today. When I do this, I hope you will understand my points and be able to apply them to your own lives in your own unique ways. Mahatma Gandhi has a beautiful quote “Each one prays to Gd according to his own light.”

I grew up in loving home, and really didn’t have to think much about difficulty until adulthood. It really didn’t dawn on me that there would be hard times and that I would have to survive and try to thrive during challenging times. I was thankful in my own, young way.

As I grew into adulthood, I was surprised and fascinated to find out that as adults we are required to have multiple and sometimes conflicting thoughts existing in our minds at the same time. The great Rabbi Simcha Bunim is credited with the idea that we should each walk around with a note in each pocket. One says “The world was created for me.” The other says “I am but dust and ashes.” This teaching really resonates with me – two beautiful beliefs, which are both true and exist simultaneously. Hope and humility.

It seems to me that emotional endurance (or maintaining our sparkle through our suffering) comes from being okay with conflicting feelings while maintaining faith, optimism, gratitude and curiosity.

I have been blessed to marry my beloved husband, Seth, and to have a beautiful marriage of 28 years. We were blessed with two loving and adorable boys, our older son Josh and our younger son Adam. We have also raised 4 golden retriever girls, who are as loving and precious as our children.

It became apparent that our Josh had some special needs as a little guy. He was very bright and curious, but it appeared that he learned differently. Josh was an auditory learner – he learned best by what he heard, not what he saw.

Dr. Edith Eva Eger, psychologist, Auschwitz survivor and author of the wonderful book The Choice teaches that we are speaking about a challenge, we should state the challenge and then use the word “AND” to add something for which we are thankful. So, I will say to you that I found parenting Josh to be challenging AND felt that I was so very blessed to be his parent. He was joyful, lively, funny, bright, insightful, musical AND he had trouble reading facial expressions, social cues and body language. Throughout his life I found that I would ask Gd for help and guidance AND thank Gd for each triumph.

Josh did not ride the typical school bus to school. He rode the short bus. My husband said “you have to own this and he will, too”. I started to learn to endure and so did Josh.

As Josh grew up, his challenges ebbed and flowed. Middle school and early high school were easier than elementary school. During the second half of high school, his mental health declined and we entered into a 5-year struggle for Josh’s health and wellbeing, and that of our family. I continued to exist and endure daily with conflicting thoughts – I love him so much and want what is best for him AND parenting is the hardest thing I have ever done. He is such a lovely, kind person with so much to offer AND we can’t really see this side of him right now. Parenting is so difficult AND I am so grateful we were chosen to be his parents.

I also learned to tune into what I needed to survive and to try to thrive and be present for my family. I developed my toolbox – how to eat, socialize, seek therapy, pray, love Seth and Adam and our doggies, love and care for Josh, and how to set limits. I learned that I can be kind AND I can set boundaries sometimes. I can have joy at Adam’s senior prom AND handle an emergency medical situation for Josh.

It is so profoundly painful to tell you that we lost our beloved Josh to his illness 2 ½ years ago. We all did the best we could to help Josh have the best life he could, including Josh AND he was sick. Josh was an accomplished student, musician, wonderful friend, loyal son, proud Jew AND he passed away. How does one find the endurance to survive the death of a child?

Shortly after Josh passed, I found myself virtually on my knees in humility. Who was I to think that I could save my son or cure my son? I am a mere mortal, I remember thinking. It was the most humbling moment of my life. How could I have possibly thought that Seth and I would have the power to do something that is really in Gd’s hands? I am but dust and ashes.

Again, how does one find the endurance to survive the death of a child? How would I do it?

It seems that Gd (or fate or whatever your higher power is) intervenes in the most amazing ways and when we need Him most. Strangely, a few months into our grief, Covid happened and our country went into lockdown. This meant that our younger son, Adam, was home from University of Maryland and could help us raise our new, crazy pandemic puppy, Marlee. It also meant that we could all keep an eye on each other, be with each other and just love each other. Each in our own way and at our own pace. I am so grateful that we had that time together as a family. I am utterly heartbroken without Josh AND I am so thankful for our loving, loyal, hilarious, hardworking, clever Adam!

The pandemic also meant that events were moving to Zoom. I decided to try an online holiday cooking class with Devorah Buxbaum from the LEV Experience, where we learned how to make a beautiful dairy meal. The next evening, I decided that I would set the table in a beautiful way to prepare for the holiday. I can’t tell you how thankful I am that this happened because as I was putting the candlesticks on the table, I received a call from the cemetery where Josh was buried telling me that it was time to start thinking about the type of grave stone I would like for him… I would like his gravestone to be similar to my dad’s AND I’m putting my candles on the table to sanctify the holiday. I would like the font to be 2 inches tall AND I’m using my parents’ china for our meal. I would like to use the words beloved, cherished son AND I’m using my grandma’s silver. Our hearts are breaking AND we give praise and exalt Gd’s holy name.

I went on to study with Devorah and when we discussed the prayer thanking the Almighty for our soul, I began to cry. It was the first time that I really thought about my soul and what truly makes me Rachel in a very long time. I was really struggling with a couple of questions – first, where did Josh’s soul go? And second, who is Rachel without Josh?

We tackled the soul question first and I learned about the journey of the soul after our body ends its time on earth. That we have a body, but we are a soul. That the soul can continue its journey upward by the mitzvot (loosely translated as good deeds or commandments) we do here on earth to in its memory. How absolutely comforting to me. I learned that I can no longer parent Josh on this earth AND I can still parent his soul and help it to soar. Conflicting, simultaneous concepts that I have to endure and honor.

I’m still ADAM’s MOM and he needs me, too! Burst of joy when I think about Adam. Being present and joyful for Adam who is HERE while trying to remember Josh, who isn’t.

Now, onto who is Rachel without Josh? We talked about the mitzvah of marriage – two souls coming together to complete each other. I thought of my soul mate, Seth. Completing each other – thoughts, strengths, friendship, kindness, humor, Judaism. We have truly grown up together through so many life experiences. Birth, death, faith, careers, finding meaning in life. There can be the joy of marriage AND the death of a child. We grieve together AND we grieve differently.

Now onto my strengths and frailties – not to humble, not too arrogant. What do I bring to this world that is uniquely Rachel? Could it be that my soul is on its unique mission in this world? Could it be that I needed to go through certain experiences for my soul to reach its full potential? This has really required tremendous digging and analyzing. Who am I and what do I need to do to fulfill my mission and, frankly, survive each day as I do it? How do I endure?

Well, I really enjoy connecting with people of all ages and I really enjoy being creative. I mentioned that I was thinking of beginning a mini video series on Fridays with a few minutes of inspiration as we get ready for Shabbat, called “Sparkles of Shabbat”. Devorah encouraged me to give it a try and do it now! Maybe the world was made for me.

A year of Sparkles later, I am doing my weekly videos and getting such nice feedback from those who watch them. At first, I thought it was because people were being nice and wanted to support me through my grief. I received lots of encouraging comments. “Thinking of you”, “My heart is with you” “Sending hugs and love”. Then some of the comments changed – “I’m learning so much from you”, “You inspire me to endure difficult things and keep going” and “You are a light to us all.” Wow, I really didn’t expect these. I was just trying to be Rachel. I feel so heartbroken AND maybe my soul is on a unique mission in this world. I miss Josh so much AND it’s okay to feel the joy of connection and encouragement.

Ladies, you too can endure pain and experience joy, and both at the same time.
World-famous author, psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, says in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that everything can be taken from us except one thing – “the freedom to choose our own attitude in any given set of circumstances and to choose our own way.” We can survive our pain and even thrive because we are human beings, each with a spark of the divine in us. We have an amazing and infinite capacity to love, to appreciate beauty, to think, to rejoice, to find humor and to endure.

When I think about surviving and thriving, it makes me think about holding stones in one hand and Hershey’s kisses in the other. The stones represent the difficulties we have in life and the chocolate kisses represent the joy. And I think our thriving comes in the reality which is that space between the painful stones and the kisses of joy. Letting them both exist at the same time and embracing both.

I must say to you that I had hoped that Josh and I would one day be able to give talks together. I planned that I might write a book one day called “The Short Bus to Ivy” because Josh began his journey in special education and finished his education as an Ivy League student at Columbia University. What an amazing, persistent, loving, resilient and hard-working boy he was. And through he did survive and thrive and endure, he was not able to be here with me today. So, it seems that the second book I may write in his memory might be called “The Ivy Grows to Heaven”. May I endure to write these books or to speak on these topics one day.

For now, I endure and survive, I thrive and feel joy, and usually all in the same day if not hour. I thank Gd and plead with Gd. Sometimes I use the tools I have and sometimes I just curl up and take a nap. I cry and I laugh. I pray that we will each have the strength, insight and endurance to remember that we are but dust and ashes AND the world was made for us. And may we lovingly dwell between stones AND kisses.

I thank you, ladies, for being with me on this most precious and humbling journey.