Sunday, July 30, 2023

Gathered to Our People

Abraham had a most interesting life.  It was, without question, an archetypal and mythic existence in the Joseph Campbell sense of those concepts.  His story provides the foundation for a worldview that currently defines meaning for half of the global population, 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.4 billion Christians, and the 16 million or so Jewish souls who carry on that mother faith.

At the end of those stories of his life is the story of his aging and passing.

As the twenty-fifth chapter Genesis/Beresheet tells it, Abraham lived to the ripe old age of one hundred and seventy five, to a "good old age", a b'sayvah tovah zaqen.  That age ended with him being, as most translations put in, "gathered to his people."  The word that is translated "gathered", or 'acaph, implies every form of gathering.  It can mean harvesting, or bringing in, or taking, or being brought together.  It can mean to assemble with others.

To be gathered in to one's people is, I would suggest, a marker of a life well lived.  For those of us who use Torah as a touchstone for our moral purpose, that connectedness to those around us is a defining feature of a life lived in covenant.  It is our hope in aging, because aging ain't easy, and not a one of us wants to do it on their own.  

What's striking about this scriptural concept is just how far we are from it as a culture.  Age and dying are kept at a remove from us, both materially and as part of our defining narrative.  The stories that the old have to tell aren't relevant, aren't relevant to a new generation doing new things.  Aging is best forgotten or ignored.

But covenant, like any form of deep relationship, requires more of us.  It's a defining commitment, a commitment that frames our self interest in terms of our connection to another.  Covenant is what builds community and connection.  It gathers us in, all together, an abundant harvest of grace.

It is the antidote to our culture of isolation, to the shattering of community and the blight of loneliness.  Like all commitments, it requires effort on our part.  

As I write this, I sit next to Dad as he drifts in and out of sleep.  Dad's always loved the beach, and summer visits to the seashore have been a part of my life for as far back as I can remember.  We're on the screen porch of the Delaware beach house we've rented for the last eight years.  Cool breezes come off of the Atlantic, after a night of fierce storms cleared off the heat of the summer.  The sound of the waves can be heard over the dunes.  The cry of seagulls fills the air, their brassy song softened by association with seasons of pleasure.  Fire Island.  Mombasa and Malindi.  Fripp Island.  Brighton and Margate.  And Bethany Beach, for the majority of my lifetime.

It was harder this year.  Getting him here required effort.  A packed minivan full of wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, and an oxygen concentrator.  A panoply of medications, neatly sorted for a week away, which we managed to forget in the hurly burly of getting him into the van for the trip.  Nothing an eight hour round trip drive back home that first night couldn't cure.

His CHF has worsened as the summer has progressed, his calves now morbidly plump and taut with excess fluid, his dependence on oxygen complete.  His breathing is not labored absent the aforementioned oxygen, but any effort at all is difficult.  He can no longer stand on his own, not even with a walker.  He sleeps most of the day.

The house that was fine for him when we first started renting it years ago is now something he can't access on his own.  Doors are too small for wheelchairs to pass.  The bedroom he and my mother consider theirs is on the main floor of the house, but the most homes near the up on pylons.   Three grown men were needed to get him up that flight of stairs.  It was a production.

But the beach house is where his children and grandchildren are, where there are sounds of life and laughter.  He can tell his stories, and see loved ones around him.  Having him here means he is part of us, and the extra effort required is simply what this stage of life demands.  It is not, as I consider it, any different from the years we arrived at the beach with newborns.  It's not an imposition.  It's simply what must be done.

He isn't separated out, or discarded, or warehoused away.  He's valued.  He is gathered into his people.