Last week, the NBC “Today” show ran a special series – “Do You Believe” examining interfaith issues between generations, across cultures and within the same family. Matt Lauer’s studio interview with senior Rabbi Angela Buchdahl and Cardinal Patrick Dolan struck me as particularly powerful because it focused on the choice of faith, the act of love, and especially poignant because it hit home.
“Do you believe” as a personal question, has been a thorny, touchy subject between my New York next-door neighbor Phyllis and me for many years before I married and moved to Cambridge, MA. Phyllis is ethnically Jewish but not religious, and I am a Christian seeking stronger faith and deeper enlightenment.
At age 90, Phyllis remains one of the most feisty, gutsy women I’ve ever known. She’s also become one of my closest friends, confidants, and “surrogate mother” by her choice since day one when I moved into my apartment – adjacent to hers – fifteen years ago. Phyllis is a widow with three sons and nine grandchildren, she’s always wanted a daughter.
In the first few years of our friendship, the topic of faith and religion would creep up periodically in a casual way. For example when she noted that I was going to church on Sunday, she would remark that she occasionally goes to the Synagogue on Saturday but she doesn’t believe in God. However, she likes to be part of the Jewish family. As time went on, the topic of belief and God would come up more often whenever I went to visit her in her apartment. Interestingly, almost every time, she was the one who brought it up. The context was invariably related to her having just read or watched the news on TV about conflicts or violence in the name of religion, crime and injustice in the world against the young, the innocent, the poor and the needy. All of these stories became instant fuel that set Phyllis off. As a former schoolteacher with a didactic voice, she often makes her points with fire in the belly as if she were still lecturing 5th graders with a stick in her hand.
How did I react? Admittedly, I wasn’t always a good student sitting still and taking it all in.
But over time, I’d learned to first let her blow off some steam before probing the roots of her own problem with belief and God. Our discourse wasn’t always cordial, especially when it’s digressed into the broader realm of wars, terrorism, sex scandals, corruption committed by celebrities or public figures with a professed “faith.”
But no matter how strongly we felt about our different views and experiences, we always ended our chat with hugs and kisses.
The truth is, what bound us together – between an elderly widow and a single woman living in New York all those years – has been mutual love and respect. We share a wall, I hear her opening the closet, shutting the door, and sometimes shouting on the phone while speaking to her children. And she takes care of me as if I were her daughter.
Several years ago when I had to undergo a major surgery, I came home with stitches in my belly and a ton of pain. She cooked and cleaned for me. She even sat quietly patiently on my bed outside my bathroom when I took a shower for the first time in a week following the operation. She feared I would slip in the tub.
“I want to be there to catch you if you fall.” I still remember her soothing words.
On April Fool’s day last week, she called me out of the blue and startled me initially.
“Uh…uh…uh….MABLE!” Phyllis, who’s hard of hearing, was yelling on the other end.
“Phyllis? Phyllis? Are you alright?” I yelled back, fearing the worst.
“Yes…I’m calling to wish you and Ken a happy Easter.”
“Oh…thank you Phyllis. Happy holiday to you too! Passover is coming up.”
“I miss you so much. I wish you were here next to me. But I hope things are well up in Cambridge.”
“Yes, Phyllis. I miss you too.”
Over the past year, Phyllis has been showing signs of distress and frailty. She has talked about “not being herself”, visited all kinds of doctors from internist, neurologist, ophthalmologist to cardiologist and gerontologist – all of whom found nothing “clinically” wrong with her. She’s repeated her gratitude for “having lived a good life, and her catchphrase that she is “ready to go.” She’s also asked me over and over again if I still have her family emergency contacts list in a handy place.
I reassured her that I do.
I also reminded her that since last summer when I took her to the ER room after she caught pneumonia and went into a state of panic, I have added my name to her family list.
“Don’t forget me Phyllis, you’re my surrogate mom.”
Even though Phyllis and I have made different choices about our beliefs, we bond in love. There may be many paths in our spiritual journey, but we belong in one human race. As I write, “We’re the World” (Michael Jackson’s USA for Africa campaign song) pops into my head. “ We all are a part of God’s great big family And the truth, you know, Love is all we need.”
Do you believe?