My family and I continue to comfort my mom who, as many of you know, lost her boyfriend, Chuck, to a sudden and massive heart attack last week. This is a huge loss for her. She and Chuck were a cute couple. They knew how lucky they were that they found each other and got another chance at love. They had many plans as they looked forward to their future together.
About 13 years ago, my parents divorced after 40 years of marriage. About nine years ago, Chuck entered the scene. He too was divorced and, like my mom, the parent of two adult children. I admit, I was cautious about my mom’s relationship with Chuck. I knew he treated her well and made her happy. While ultimately that’s all that mattered, I’ve seen firsthand just how complicated relationships like theirs can be. When you already have a family, grown children and, in my mom’s case, grandchildren, commingling lives and families can get tricky and, often, messy. Commingling assets, properties, bank accounts – this can be a recipe for disaster. In the past, I shared my concerns about the dangers of commingling with my mom. It took a lot of chutzpah on my part and I was grateful that she heard me out.
Mom and Chuck didn’t commingle their lives. While my nagging might have played a very small role in this, ultimately, the decision was theirs to make and they chose to keep their lives separate and distinct – most likely to protect each of their children and, in my mom’s case, her grandchildren. And, until last week, I was very grateful for this.
When Chuck was rushed to the hospital and into emergency surgery, it was largely because they didn’t commingle their lives that I had to watch my mom’s relationship with Chuck begin to slip away from her.
While Chuck had made my mom his healthcare proxy, Chuck fell ill in Las Vegas where he maintained a home and had a career. My mom was at home in Orlando. Chuck’s children immediately flew to the hospital and took over – as they should have. Being the next of kin, they rightfully, ran the show and did so responsibly. The nurses at the hospital discouraged my mom from traveling to Las Vegas to be with Chuck. They explained to her that visitation in the ICU was limited to immediate family members. She was “just” the girlfriend. So, she stayed in Orlando, relying on text messages from Chuck’s children to keep her posted on his status. At one point, Chuck’s son put the phone up to his dad’s ear so my mom could speak to him. While Chuck couldn’t speak, he apparently gave her the thumbs up.
In last week’s Torah portion (see Leviticus 21), God speaks to Moses, telling him to speak to the kohanim, the Jewish priests, and say: “You shall not marry a woman who is divorced from her husband for he [the kohen] is holy to his God.” The Torah portion goes on to explain that the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest shall only marry a woman who has never been in a relationship with a man – making even the widow off limits.
While the teachings contained in the Torah often inspire me, there are times when the teachings just hurt. Last week, as I read Torah and comforted my mom, these words broke my heart.
The priests were obsessed with the purity of the familial line. In the priestly culture, it was imperative that there be no question as to who the parents of a child were. Because the male child of a priest became a priest himself, if there was any confusion as to who the child’s parents were, well, it could mess with the priesthood and, therefore, the holy rituals of Judaism. And so, strict rules were put into place as to who the priests could marry.
That was then, this is now. For so many of us – you, your parent, your child, yourselves, my mom – second marriages, second relationships, another chance at love – they’re a beautiful reality. While our tradition accepts that divorce is a part of life and has established rituals that end a marriage, these verses in the Torah that limit a priest from entering into a sacred relationship with certain women – as ancient as this practice is (it is still observed in traditional communities), as much as these restrictions only applied to the priestly community – these verses still have the power to tarnish the idea of marrying someone who has had a previous relationship.
My mom didn’t marry Chuck. And, to be honest, for the reasons I already shared, I didn’t want her to. But as soon as he fell ill last week, I began to wish that she had married him – or at least had more rights than a health care proxy stuck in Orlando. As the girlfriend, mom had no rights. And as two adults who loved each other for nine years, she and Chuck deserved to have some rights as Chuck’s life came to an end in Las Vegas.
Also in last week’s Torah portion (see Leviticus 21):
“And God said to Moses: Speak to the kohanim, the priests, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile yourself for a dead person except for his relative who is close to him.”
From this verse, we learn that the priests were not permitted to be around the dead. They were to separate themselves from death altogether unless they lost an immediate family member. To this day, it is the custom for kohanim to be buried on the edge of cemeteries, so families can visit the graves of their loved ones without coming too close to death. This verse and others in the Torah make death something that is taboo – except when you lose someone who is considered to be immediate family.
Once again, as I read Torah and comforted my mom, these words broke my heart.
Once Chuck died, mom’s girlfriend status pushed her further to the sidelines – not because Chuck’s children were uncaring. They were mourning the loss of their dad. My mom was, despite a nine-year committed relationship, not an immediate family member. She was, sadly, an outsider. This isn’t what Chuck would have wanted. But, it was what it was. And, yet again, for so many of you, your parent, your child, yourselves, my mom – we don’t want to be separated from the death of a loved one. We want to be there, included and connected. We don’t want to be the taboo when death comes just because our title or label keeps us from being immediate family.
I share these words because my mom’s situation is not unique. And our tradition doesn’t speak up for those who have entered into relationships that can easily fall apart when these relationships are more important than ever.
There are some things that can be done legally to protect significant others and other special people. I’m not a lawyer, but people in these situations should seriously think about their rights and do something about legally codifying these rights to the best of their abilities. The LGBTQ community has struggled with these issues for years and, thankfully, things are beginning change. But, my experience with mom reminds me how easily couples, regardless of sexual orientation, can be pulled apart at the moments when they need to be brought together.
We should all appreciate the challenges involved with relationships that don’t fit neatly within the legal parameters of our society. We might be involved in such a relationship. We might find ourselves caring for a family member or friend involved in such a relationship. While the Torah doesn’t really address these relationships, we can.
As the Song of Songs teaches: Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li – I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. Judaism acknowledges that the bonds of love are what draw us close and keep us connected to those special to us. I prefer this beautiful verse of poetry to the verses from last week’s Torah portion. This poetry captures what my mom and Chuck had. This being said, last week’s Torah portion, is an important reminder that in our society today not all relationships are legally protected simply by the bonds of love. If we want to ensure that my beloved is forever mine, we need to take steps today to protect the ties that bind us.