While contemplating my next blog, I couldn’t escape the feeling that there was more to write about my earlier post on emunah/faith. The examples I used were of high-profile people, and all of them were world-class athletes. As àpropos as those examples are, especially considering the Olympics that are in full swing, it is important to me to highlight a different kind of success story. Today it is too easy to define and confine success to the spectacular, the wealthy, the athlete. In reality, few of us will achieve such notoriety. For most of us, having emunah does not imply that we will experience praise and medals or worldly honors for having “kept the faith.” While that does happen, and while I do not minimize the success of those who do achieve such recognition, and while those stories do inspire, the most profound expressions of emunah are those stories which touch us personally.
Years ago, I had the privilege of working exclusively with people who were chronically and/or terminally ill. It was my job to offer counsel, support, encouragement and guidance as they each navigated their way through the emotional and physical challenges of staying alive, or preparing to die. Each person in my care was a blessing. Each was my teacher. I was both honored and humbled to walk with them at that time in their respective journeys. I want to share with you a couple of stories about what my “clients” taught me about emunah. (Names were changed to protect their identities.)
Barb was a petite, cute “girlish” woman about 25 years old when I met her. She had grown up in an extremely dysfunctional home and was placed in foster care many times in many places. Physically and sexually abused by her own family members and while in foster care, Barb turned to drugs to numb her feelings. It didn’t take long for Barb to begin the revolving door of entering jail, then rehab, released to the street, only to be sent back to jail again. Finally, during her last stint in jail, Barb collapsed while being taken from her holding cell to the courthouse for arraignment. So instead of ending up in yet another courtroom, Barb was rushed to the hospital. Tests were run, and soon thereafter Barb was informed that she had full-blown AIDS. Devastated by the news, Barb, even though in a drug induced stupor, vowed to spend the rest of her days, whether few or many, living a better life than she had known to this point. She still had jail time to do, but she would use that time to turn her life around.
I met Barb at this juncture in her life. Barb knew that she would die of AIDS related problems, she just didn’t know how long that would be. The first thing Barb did was join a Narcotics Anonymous 12 step program. She then began working with me to begin establishing functional personal boundaries. Affirmations, prayer, and renewed spiritual connection with G-d soon followed. She tired easily, typical of people with AIDS because of the harsh cocktail of drugs they have to take many times a day, every day for the rest of their lives. But Barb never quit. This was her last chance at life and she knew it. Barb made such good use of her prison time that she was paroled after only one year.
Barb continued to see me for counseling after her release from jail. Once out of prison, Barb secured a job at a local hardware store. She began as a stock girl, going in late at night and stocking shelves, doing inventory, etc. Even though she was in a weakened state and tired easily, she never missed a day of work. Barb also remained active in a 12 step program once out of prison. She became a leader, and an inspirational speaker in her group. She was oftentimes asked to speak to others in nearby communities, and was always encouraging young women who found themselves addicted and in trouble.
Barb eventually met and married a man who loved her and treated her with the respect and devotion she had never experienced before. One thing Barb told me over and over, something I will never ever forget as long as I live, “Annie, finding out that I am infected with HIV and that I had full blown AIDS is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Many of us find that hard to believe. It is difficult to understand how someone can be thankful for a disease that will end their life sooner than later. When Barb would say those words, she would choke up a little, and she would talk about how different her life had become because of having been infected. Her’s was not an easy journey. In fact, by most standards Barb had lived a hellish nightmare. However, with the diagnosis, Barb was finally able to turn her life around. Barb knew that to have continued in her earlier life style, she would have been dead long before I met her, probably due to an overdose in some alley, or on some dirty crack house floor. Now, however, she had a responsible job, a loving husband, and most of all, purpose for living and helping others. Barb was one of the most grateful people I have ever met in my life. No matter how tired, or how much pain, or whatever the setback, Barb thanked G-d for the disease, thanked me for my presence, thanked the prison personnel for their jobs which allowed her to survive….on and on and on. Always, “thank you.”
I lost track of Barb after I married and moved to another state. I don’t know if she is still living, or what she is doing. But I thank her for what she taught me about emunah, gratitude, and the privilege of living.
Another person I worked with, a man in his thirties, Ted, taught me a lesson of hope. Ted was a loner, estranged from his tight-knit very religious family. Ted, too, had been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS long before I met him. Ted was fun to be around. He had held some of the most interesting jobs imaginable, from wildlife photographer, to circus clown, to male fashion model. However, those jobs kept Ted moving from place to place, community to community. Ted was always restless, always seeking adventure, trying new careers. But, without the nurture and security of his family, Ted fell in with other “misfits” and began participating in self-destructive behavior: drugs, alcohol, illicit sex, misdemeanor crimes. During some of our sessions, Ted would bring a photo album filled with stunning photographs depicting his various endeavors. But now Ted was sick, alone, and most of all, homesick. His family had disowned him years before because of his behavior which had caused them enormous grief. Now Ted had come home to die, but “home” had shut its door to him.
Many of Ted’s and my sessions took place in a nearby park, or at the zoo. He craved being out doors and being in the sunlight, so that is where we met. He talked of wanting to see his parents and siblings one more time before he died. He, too, renewed his connection with G-d during these, his last days. Privately, I began to pray that there would be some way for Ted to reconnect with his family, that they would forgive each other. I met with Ted for about four months, and prayed for him most of that time, too.
One day Ted called to tell me there had to be a change of venue for our session together. He gave me an address and asked me to meet him there, he was too weak to come outside. I agreed, but with the stipulation that if anything appeared inappropriate I would leave immediately. Having worked in this field with numerous drug addicts, I learned early on that no matter how much I wanted to help a client, I had to be steadfast about my boundaries. I arrived at the address he had given me. The house was modest, but well-kept. I walked to the door, past children’s toys and tricycles, rang the door bell, and was greeted by a young pre-teen girl. She was grinning from ear to ear and immediately invited me in. What I quickly discovered was that this was Ted’s “home,” his sister’s home to be precise. Crowded into the living room were sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, parents and a grandparent. There was laughter and tears. Ted wanted me to meet him there so that I could meet the wonderful family he loved so much, yet had been estranged from for too long. What a blessing. I tear up even now as I think of Ted and this encounter.
Soon thereafter, Ted entered the hospital for the last time. Upon admission, he was placed in the hospice unit. I talked with Ted by phone a few times, but once he reunited with his family, it became apparent that he no longer needed my services. And I was fine with that. Although I never found out what triggered the family reunion, I was joyful for Ted. I made an appointment to meet with Ted one last time, to bring closure to our relationship. I arrived at the hospital, and as I walked down the hallway of his unit I saw people clustered near his doorway. At first I couldn’t tell who they were because they had their backs to me, but as I approached I realized that this was Ted’s family. When I reached them, they each tearfully embraced me and thanked me for befriending Ted during his final days, and informed me that Ted had died less than an hour before I arrived. Despite his pain, the last weeks of Ted’s life were filled with joy. Ted was able to come home and be with his family. They were able to embrace and love their wayward son, brother, and uncle. Ted never gave up hope, and had even developed a prayer life during his estrangement. I did nothing but listen and pray…and be witness to the power of tefillah/prayer, emunah/faith and tikvah/hope.
Gratitude, hope, and prayer are all integral to developing emunah. When I witness one who can express deep gratitude for a deadly disease, or another who never gives up hope when in a seemingly hopeless situation, I realize the futility of despair over lost dreams and missed opportunities in my life. When I read stories of the noble heights people reach when they have failed in their endeavors and are thus forced down a different road in life, I am compelled to embrace my failures as doorways leading to a more authentic and fulfilled life. My deepest prayer is that we are each able to inspire and be inspired, hope and give hope, pray and grow in emunah.
My parting questions: Who has inspired you? What lessons have you learned from their examples? How has your life changed as a result of someone else’s encouragement? What is your deepest struggle, and what do you need in order to move past it? What is your prayer?