Where Does Our Responsibility Begin and End?

Rabbi Irwin Wiener, D.D.

“You shall stand before those who are old and show respect for those who are old.” (Leviticus 19:32)

One of the most daunting prospects in human existence involves growing old and the feeling of abandonment. Sometimes we have visions that we will become helpless and a burden to those who know and care about us. The thought of not being able to dress ourselves or complete routine acts such as bathing or maneuvering independently can leave us depressed.

A large segment of the senior population gravitates to retirement communities that offer the comfort of sameness. There is a feeling of togetherness and the ability to commiserate with stories of ailments and reminisces of days long gone. There is the joy of visits from children and grandchildren. They come, they go, which is one of the benefits of being a grandparent.

However, when the dust settles and the car has left the driveway, there is a feeling of loneliness accompanied by a feeling of despair. We open the door, enter our home, and find room after room filled with pictures of yesterday. Where has the time gone? Where there used to be laughter and tumult, there are echoes of silence.

Then we suddenly cannot remember a name or an event, and fright sets in. In a lucid moment, we realize that we are forgetting more than we remember. A puzzled look settles on our face. Who are we? What are we? Why are we here? Our life flashes before us and, with it, the dreams of yesterday and perhaps the reality of today.

We cannot forget, even though at times it seems that we cannot remember. We should not forget our neighbors, our friends, our families, and our history. We repeat the stories, because to understand the present and look forward to the future, we need to remember how we got here. We need to remember who brought us to this moment in time. Even in sorrow, we acknowledge with gratitude the One who gave us the ability to survive, regardless of the suffering we experience.

An essay I read, I believe, speaks to this most eloquently. The author is unknown.

The Rain

It was a busy morning, about 8:30, when an elderly man in his 80s arrived to have stitches removed from his thumb. He said he was in a hurry, as he had an appointment at 9 a.m.

I took his vital signs and had him take a seat, knowing it would be over an hour before someone would be able to see him. I saw him looking at his watch and decided, since I was not busy with another patient, I would evaluate his wound. On exam, it was well healed, so I talked to one of the doctors, got the needed supplies to remove his sutures and redress his wound.

While taking care of his wound, I asked him if he had another doctor’s appointment this morning, as he was in such a hurry.

The man told me no, that he needed to go to the nursing home to eat breakfast with his wife. I inquired as to her health.

He told me that she had been there for a while, and she was a victim of Alzheimer’s disease.

As we talked, I asked if she would be upset if he was a bit late. He replied that she no longer knew who he was, that she had not recognized him in five years now.

I was surprised, and asked him, “And you still go every morning, even though she doesn’t know who you are?”

He smiled as he patted my hand and said, “She doesn’t know me. But I still know who she is.”

I had to hold back tears as he left. I had goosebumps on my arm and thought, “That is the kind of love I want in my life.”

True love is neither physical, nor romantic. True love is an acceptance of all that is, has been, will be, and will not be. Life is not about how to survive the storm, but how to dance in the rain.

We still need each other, and others surely need us.