I left the room, pausing in the hallway to watch what the residents would do. They stared at the front of the room for a good ten minutes.....By Sheryl Lynn
Eleanor, my mother, was the only Jewish resident at the Alzheimer's assisted living facility when the high holidays rolled around last autumn.
The high holidays are the holiest days of the year for Jewish people. We first commemorate our new year, Rosh Hashonah. Ten days later, we observe our day of atonement, Yom Kippur. Five days after that, we rejoice at the fall harvest festival, Sukkot.
Eleanor was recovering from two more head injuries; she'd been placed on a stretcher and taken in the ambulance twice in ten days to get the back and front of her head stitched up. She wasn't recovered enough to go to temple so soon after her falls, even if going to temple had been a feasible option for her, so I decided to bring temple to her.
I was ordained as a non-denominational minister several years ago and decided to conduct holiday services just for her. Then I thought, "Why don't I conduct a service for everyone at her facility?" She'd gone to the Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist services that are offered in the community center. I thought it was time to invite everyone to participate in her tradition.
The activities people were enthusiastic about offering something different, so I scheduled two services, one for the New Year and one for Sukkot. I didn't attend the rabbinical seminary, so I don't call myself Rabbi or ask others to call me Rabbi. However, since the word "rabbi" means teacher, I'd happily accept the compliment if someone wanted to call me Rabbi.
I visited on Sunday mornings to check out what the other ministers were doing before preparing my services, and I decided to go long on traditional foods and short on sermons. I went to the kosher stores for honey cake and challah bread. I went to the grocery for Gala apples and honey and grape juice. I prepared my short sermons and purchased a prayer book and some children's books to help me explain our traditions with the least amount of words. I practiced chanting the Hebrew prayers.
I was raised Reformed back in the days when learning Hebrew wasn't considered to be the most important part of religious training, so my spoken Hebrew falls more into the Sid Caesar tradition than the rabbinic tradition. The good news was that my mother would be the only person there who knew any Hebrew, and her spoken Hebrew was even worse than mine. I wasn't worried about making mistakes.
I was pleasantly surprised to see about three dozen people take their seats at the Rosh Hashonah service. I'd dressed in grown-up clothes: low heels, flowing jacket, high-necked top, modest skirt. As I applied my makeup, I was surprised to see someone looking somewhat rabbinic staring back at me from the mirror. No one at the facility had seen me dress like a grown-up, and the residents and staff all looked at me differently. I was a little nervous conducting my first service, but I knew God would get me through.
The activities people brought me an electric candle so I could say the prayers. The candle wouldn't light and it wouldn't light. I twisted the plastic flame a little, and it lit up. That was cool. I felt like God had given me permission to play Rabbi.
Two caregivers brought my mother into the room just before the service began. She didn't understand what I was doing at the front of the room, why I was dressed up, why I couldn't sit with her. My eyes filled with tears. I remembered so many holidays going to synagogue with my family. Except for my mother and my aunt, who also has dementia and also lives in an assisted living facility, everyone in my immediate family has died. And now my mother and I are in an Alzheimer's assisted living facility, celebrating what might be her last holidays. Would I be able to do this without sobbing?
I took some deep breaths and composed myself. I chanted the prayer over the wine, and the staff and I passed out little cups of grape juice. We then distributed the holiday foods from silver platters they'd had in storage, I chanted the prayers, only stumbling a little, I gave my short sermon, I even blew a child's plastic shofar in the traditional sequence of blasts. I wished everyone L'Shana Tovah, the traditional New Year's greeting, and I asked everyone to say it with me. It went well.
The residents went for seconds and thirds on the honey cake and challah bread, but we couldn't move more than a few slices of the apples and honey. Oh well. One of the residents acted up throughout most of the service, but the caregivers finally found a way to calm her. I was happy that everyone did well.
I was given a spontaneous round of applause after it was over. Throughout the service, my mother stared up at me like I'd won the Nobel Prize. She believed I was a Rabbi. The remembrance of that feeling will stay with me for the rest of my life
I conducted the Sukkot service several weeks later. We had a full house for that one; I'd estimate there were sixty people in the room. More of the caregivers stayed to see what the service was like. Several spouses escorted their husbands and wives. I brought more food, I'd prepared a brief sermon that referenced my remembering dancing Rabbis celebrating the Pittsburgh Pirates winning the 1960 World Series at an Orthodox synagogue on the last day of Sukkot, and I felt more confident.
Everything went well, and then the service ended.
I realized that no one had spoken, had fidgeted, had cried out, had gone to the bathroom during the brief service. I'd never seen that happen in that room.
Everyone stared in my direction. No one spoke. I stared at them. They stared at me. I'd never seen so many of the residents so peaceful before. The woman who'd acted up the last time was in her usual spot at the end of the first row. She was smiling. My mother was looking up at me with great love shining from her eyes.
I was certain it wasn't about me. What happened in that room?
I don't know, but here's my best guess:
Reiki is popular these days, so I'll use Reiki as my example. Practitioners of Reiki receive a series of attunements, or energy transfers, from their teachers in order to help themselves and others.
I came pretty close to dying in 1998 and turned to spirituality to heal my life. Since going on the spiritual path, I have been twice attuned as an angelic healing master. I have received the energy of the angels through my teachers in order to help myself and others.
I am a Master/Instructor of Integrated Energy Therapy, and I am a Master/Instructor of Igili. I don't tell most people about this. I don't have to. I just watch what happens when I meet them. Small children's eyes open wide; they haven't yet been taught to stop seeing spirits.
Adults who do see spirits tell me how many angels are around me. It's interesting how many people start talking about angels when they meet me. I'm not talking about woo-woo people. I'm talking about everyday people.
I believe the people in that room that day saw angels. Lots of them.
I've heard dementia defined as crossing dimensions. I believe the people in that room entered into a dimension that allowed them to see the angels that surround us all each day.
It was a sacred moment.
The activities coordinator whispered to me, "Let's let them stay like this."
I left the room, pausing in the hallway to watch what the residents would do.
They stared at the front of the room for a good ten minutes.
No one moved.
No one spoke.
I see energy.
"There is only God. There is only Love." Tom Sawyer
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Sheryl Lynn is the author of the upcoming book "The Light Is A Thank You," which chronicles the spiritual journey through dementia she has taken with her mother, Eleanor. She is the host of "Glow With The Flow Radio Show," currently on hiatus.
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