September 4, 2003
Letting Go of Marlene
Four years ago, Marlene Adler Marks called me to ask for advice. At the time we had known each other for several years, but we were not close friends.
After she called me, we embarked on one of the most profound journeys: I shared from my experiences in life and she shared her Judaism. (I had come to my Jewish study late in life.) We often debated. We laughed a lot. We both worked hard with the notion of acceptance. We spent a great deal of time discussing the nature of a power greater than ourselves. I call this power God. We talked about God both in and out of Jewish tradition. Although for me, and I suspect for Marlene, there was no "out" of Jewish tradition.
In December 2000, when she was diagnosed with cancer, it seemed to throw all the things we discussed into a weirdly ominous perspective. As the disease took over, I became one of the honored friends there with her through the living-close-to-death process. When I held Marlene's hand and the hand of her close friends in a circle as she took her last breath, it was one of the most powerful moments in my life.
I have missed Marlene this year. I missed her when we -- her friends and family -- gathered in her sukkah. I missed being able to rant about all the drinking on Purim. I missed her Passover seder.
I have missed talking to Marlene. I have missed our discussions on Saturday morning walking to and from Torah study at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. Although, I must admit, I still talk as I walk. I miss our discussions about the Torah portions. I miss being able to share my Jewish learning with her. I took Hebrew classes with the b'nai mitzvah class at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I was just doing it to learn Hebrew. She probably would have argued with me for not going through the whole process.
I miss that I couldn't talk to her about my participation in a Sabbath with Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, who is well known for his work with addiction. That was my first Orthodox Sabbath, walking among several synagogues for services, meals and lectures in the La Brea and Beverly area on Friday evening and all day Saturday. (It was retreat sponsored by Young Israel of Venice and Young Israel of Hancock Park.) It was very far out of my realm of experience.
I missed being able to discuss my neurotic anguish over receiving a volunteer award from Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. I understand the "rewards" of volunteering not the "awards." I know Marlene would have had a good laugh over that one.
I would have loved to talk to her about how I have, in a sense, started to collect rabbis, much in the way that she did; in my case it's women rabbis. I suppose I'm still working out my relationships with those strong authority figures in my life -- my mother, Sylvia, and her sisters, Aunt Helen and Aunt Rose (see Marlene's column "We're Talking Chopped Liver," from May 23, 1997). They're all gone now, and I have replaced them with three wise women -- Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Sheryl Lewart and Rabbi Karen Fox. I'm not going to share which is my mother and which is my aunt, but I would have with Marlene.
I had never thought it was correct Judaism to participate at more than one synagogue, that it was somehow disloyal. But Marlene taught me to push my narrow vision of the Jewish envelope.
And, of course, I miss discussing politics. We would have had discussions about the Middle East, Israel, the war in Iraq, the nature of the Bush presidency and now our zany, troubling gubernatorial recall.
We are in the month of Elul, and I'm taking inventory of my year. Much of the year for me was about how I dealt with my grief; it was about the process of letting go. I was powerless over Marlene's death. Yet I do believe that there is a power greater than I, and I've made a decision to let God help me with my grief.
Two days before Marlene died, I stayed at her house. The disease at that point was causing her a great deal of discomfort. When we spoke in the morning (a Monday), she was trying to decide if she was up to writing her column. She wanted to write a Rosh Hashanah column. I suggested that it would still be Rosh Hashanah the following week and maybe she could take the week off. It turned out she was too uncomfortable to write, and by Wednesday morning she walked into the hospital only to live another 35 hours.
The night before Marlene died, I was holding her hand at 3 a.m. She was unconscious. I was trying to sleep in the hospital chair. Suddenly, I felt this energy from her surge through my hand into my body. I was jolted awake. I felt energized, and not knowing what else to do I took out my sketchbook and began to draw a picture of Marlene.
This month, a year after Marlene's death, her energy is still ever-present. For me, this process of looking at the past year and cleaning house has somehow opened my heart up to idea of letting go. And now I feel that the energy from somebody I came to love is not lost.
There is no question in my mind that this is how God works.
Rona Frances is an artist/architectural space planner living in West Los Angeles.