Why We Live
Those of us with relatively good health take feeling well for granted. When we get sick, no matter how minor the illness, all that changes. When we're sick, life becomes difficult. It's as if we enter a netherworld, a parallel reality, where even minor tasks become a challenge. Worst of all, we must rely on others to help us function. It takes a strong person to allow themselves to give up control of certain facets of their lives and accept assistance.
Add to that the difficulty of perception. For example, I don’t look sick. I look like I should be functioning as usual. I can do just about everything I normally do—shower, dress, go grocery shopping—but I have no energy. I feel lousy. I’ve been lying around for the last few days with some sort of infection that may or may not be connected to the throbbing pain in my thumb.
My one consolation is that I can tell people how I feel. I can explain what hurts. I can ask for assistance. I believe that “part of healthy independence includes a healthy interdependence on people who care about you—where you help others and they help you.”* We are on a perpetual see-saw, and when we’re up, it’s our turn to give; when we’re down, to receive. It is impossible to do everything alone.
In two days, my Mom is coming to visit for Passover. I pray I have regained my strength by then so that I can guide her and assist her even when she is incapable of asking for help. That’s the curse of Alzheimer’s: not only do you not know how to ask for help, but your self-esteem also kicks in and demands that you do not accept help. Alzheimer’s patients are notorious at pushing away the people they care about most over some perceived slight.
It is traditional to wish a sick individual a speedy recovery. Get well soon, we say. In Hebrew, we use the term refuah shlayma, or full health. The word shlayma can also mean whole or complete. A friend recently told me that she no longer wishes people refuah shlayma. Instead, she wishes them shleymut, wholeness. They should be as whole as they can be in their current situation, she suggests, because health is unpredictable.
Which brings me to a conversation I had with my 17-year-old son today. “What’s the meaning to life?” he asked. “What are we living for?”
I recounted with tears in my eyes the strong, positive memories that drive me forward—that moment of falling in love; the birth of my three children; singing with my grandfather; or sitting at the Seder table with four generations of our family.
“So we live our lives for a few memorable moments?” he asked. “I don’t think most people are happy, and they don’t live happy lives. Why should we live?”
I actually started to get angry. This is not a morose, depressed teenager I was talking to. This is a healthy, privileged kid with a full circle of friends, a positive outlook, and an enchantment with religion. What was he asking me? What was he asking himself?
“What’s the alternative,” I challenged, “suicide? We can’t always be happy. You’re missing nuance in your question. It’s not 'why should we live' but how can we strive to make our lives meaningful.”
And, yes, I continued, it’s those memories that we cherish and build upon that make life meaningful; it’s treating others with kindness; it’s finding our creativity and using it to beautify the world; it’s dreaming big about the future; and it’s holding my mom’s hand and guiding her to fleeting moments of happiness, not for her, because she won’t remember them, but for me, because that’s what I’ve chosen to do..
Be as healthy and as whole as you can be wherever you are.
Another way to be happy is to bake! My dad craves my Passover chocolate brownies, but when I’m in a lighter mood, I make this airy chocolate chip cake from Tamar Ansh’s Pesach—Anything’s Possible!**
Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Cake
Light yet satisfying, and definitely more-ish.
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup sugar
1 cup oil
3 tsp vanilla
1 cup potato starch
3 tsp baking powder
¾ cup ground almonds
1 cup chocolate chips
Whisk together egg and oil, sugar and vanilla. Add potato starch, baking powder and almonds. Mix in chips. Pour batter into greased (or lined) baking pan and bake at 350° for 40 minutes.
**Tamar Ansh, Pesach—Anything’s Possible!, Targum Press, Michigan, 2009, pp. 240, “Pesach Blondies.”