I can’t help it. I’d like to write about something else, but I can’t. I wish I could just share your basic, run of the mill inspirational Torah commentary this week, but my heart isn’t in it. I don’t really want to burden you with my own personal sorrow, but I have to talk about Erika, because ever since she died last Thursday, I have hardly thought of anything else.
Her death was a remarkable, touching, and beautiful one, which sounds like a cruel oxymoron when speaking about the death of a young newly-wed who would have been 32 years old this Wednesday. But then given the inevitability of her death, at least it happened just the way she wanted – at home, surrounded by those she loved most.
Her amazing mother Susan who, as my wife Didi has said, created miracles of medical care for Erika on an “as need” basis for the past year birthed her into the world as an infant and with unbelievable courage birthed her out of the world as well. Late last Thursday morning as Erika lay in a seemingly agitated semi-conscious state, Susan lay down next to her and quietly whispered into her ear, “It’s OK Erika, your mother is here to help you. You can calm down, relax your breathing and let this body go now.” And she immediately did calm down and her breathing became slower, quieter, more gentle and deliberate.
So Susan called Erika’s father, Wendell and husband Sandy into the room along with Sandy’s mother who had come down from Canada to share in the family loss and pain. They all laid down on the bed with Erika, put their hands on her gently and gave her permission to let go of this life. Her breathing got slower and slower, shallower and shallower, and embraced in their hugs and kisses and enormous self-less love, she took her last breath and shuffled off this mortal house of the spirit so her soul could soar free at last.
Within a few minutes of her death, Didi and I were there as well – lying beside our beloved friends, sharing our own hugs, tears and prayers of goodbye with our sweet, sweet Erika. Though I have been witness to a number of deaths before in my life and work, this moment with Erika was a heart-rending experience like no other in my life.
“I’ll never have another Mother’s Day,” cried Susan through her tears. “I told her she could go and that I would be OK, but I lied! I’ll never be OK again.”
And what could I say? I was immersed in my own grief, feeling my own loss and I knew all too well the wisdom of the Talmud when it says, “Do not comfort the bereaved when their dead lie before them.” At that moment words are irrelevant – the only thing that matters is the heart that is broken.
So yesterday afternoon hundreds of family and friends came to the synagogue for a memorial service. Along with a moving video about her life, person after person got up to share how she had touched and changed their lives forever. Along with the expected family and friends, there were doctors and nurses from two different hospitals who were so inspired and moved by Erika’s incredible soul that they couldn’t stay away. There were even strangers who had never met her but who had been touched by the remarkable saga of her last year that Susan had been sharing via email – they just had to come to experience the radiance of Erika’s spirit up close.
It was two and a half-hours of music and memories, laughter and tears and love that left us all exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. It was a reminder of what one person can accomplish in life just by the willingness to courageously confront life in all its pain and sorrow with tenderness and love.
Erika had been very concerned about her legacy – “I’m so young,” she recently said, “and I haven’t accomplished anything yet.” Fortunately while she was still alive and fully conscious she had received so many letters, cards, emails and conversations with people throughout the world who had been touched by her that before she died she was able to see how much she mattered to so many.
In fact shortly before she died, Erika Whitmore Godwin, that sweet beloved young woman taught me a lesson more poignant and powerful than any sermon that I have ever given. It was simple and direct and memorable, and was the meaning she was able to pluck from the cauldron of this year of pain and struggle. One day not too long ago when speaking about what this experience had taught her about the meaning of life, this is what she said: “Remember that life is precious, love is all that really matters, and who we are in the end – and how we’ve touched the lives of others – is the legacy we leave behind.”
The last thing in this week’s Torah portion is the commandment to attach fringes to the corner of our garments so that we might look at them and be reminded to observe all of God’s commandments and be holy. Our ancestors were smart enough to realize how easy it is to forget the things that matter in life and how important it is to have something to remind us of who we are.
Erika understood that loving and being loved is ultimately what matters most of all in life and that every single person we know and every person we meet can be a reminder like the Torah portion’s fringe. I decided the best way that I can honor her legacy every day, is simply to love the people in my life and let them be that reminder to me every single day that it is ultimately through giving love to others that we discover our true holiness.