Nancy, Sarah, and Martin Buber

by David Hawkinson

Several weeks ago, my wife’s sister passed away—my sister too, since I don’t understand how designating our relation as “in-laws” makes any difference in the depth of love or grief. I loved her. Nancy was 56 years old. She was my sister. That’s that! She was amazing, a person of many dimensions, expressing the whole range of feelings and curiosity; she was feisty, stubborn, full of life and presence. Her eyes sparkled deep blue, especially when she smiled. I would like to reflect upon Nancy and her faith, as part of my own grieving. And, if you know my writing, this will require a biblical text and some Martin Buber. Can’t help it. Reflection and dialogue with text and others are essential for me to find words, organize my thoughts, root memories, and come to orient myself again in a life context since Nancy—so huge in our family story—is missing. The world has changed.

The first text that comes to mind concerns Sarah, wife of Abraham—our mother and father in the epic story of biblical faith. She enters the narrative in Genesis 11. 29: Avram (Abraham before the name change) and Nahor (his brother) took themselves wives; The name of Avram’s wife was Sarai ( Sarah before her name change)…

Now Sarai was barren, she had no child.

That Sarai was barren and that she had no child seems redundant. Since she was barren she had no children. Since she had no children, she was barren. This doubling however is very important and a common style of biblical poetry—for we are reading a poetic epic when we read Genesis. The doubling is used for emphasis so that there is no doubt about her condition. Sarai does not have children, not because she didn’t want them, but because she couldn’t have them—she was barren. This is the first designation we have of her. No other description about her character, looks, personality—there is just one dominating statement, “barren and without children”—that we can take into the story as it flows onward.

My mind turns to Nancy. In May of 1970, she and other friends were driving on a Nebraska highway when they were hit from behind by a drunk driver. They were all thrown from the car. Had it not been for a woman named Rose, Nancy would have been left behind when the ambulance arrived since she had been thrown the farthest, into the tall grass. Her injuries were not only life threatening, but, even if she survived, it was clear that these wounds would be live changing. She did survive, perhaps by sheer determination and life force, but the brain trauma and injury left her in a wheel chair for the rest of her life.

Now Sarah was barren, she had no child.

Now Nancy was in a wheel chair, she couldn’t walk.

These short phrases should never become the focus of our understanding of the person. Both Sarah and Nancy were far beyond the narrow categories these phrases indicate. Sarah was more than childless and Nancy was more than a person in a wheelchair.

And yet, let us be honest with ourselves. We often look upon these conditions as the principal lens by which we think we know someone. The list is endless—black, white, fat, skinny, old, young, disabled, rich, poor, beautiful or not, homosexual or straight, enemy, stranger. These are labels by which we categorize others, transforming persons into objects. I suppose we do this in part because we are afraid of the condition we see or it protects us from really getting to know the whole person, difficult enough to do anyway, requiring patience and openness and vulnerability.

So, Sarai is childless and Nancy spent 35 years in a wheel chair. We will need to take into account the condition of their lives. It is not irrelevant. Neither, however, should it keep us from understanding the whole person.

It is at this point that Martin Buber comes to mind. In the last chapter in The Way of Man, a remarkable little book on the way of wholeness from the teachings of Hasidism, Buber speaks about living from the “place where one stands.” He tells the story of Rabbi Eizik, son of Yekel of Cracow, who dreams that a treasure lies under a bridge at Prague. The Rabbi hastens there but only finds a gentile soldier who laughs at the stupidity of following a dream and so with ridicule he says to the old Jew, “As for having faith in dreams, if I had had it, I should have had to get going when a dream once told me to go to Cracow and dig for treasure under the stove in the room of a Jew—Eizik, son of Yekel!” (Buber 1951, pp. 37-40).

Of course, Eizek races home and digs under his own stove and discovers the treasure. This leads Buber to an acute awareness:

There is something that can only be found in one place. It is a great treasure, which may be called the fulfillment of existence. The place where this treasure can be found is the place on which one stands. The environment which I feel to be the natural one, the situation which has been assigned to me as my fate, the things that happen to me day after day, the things that claim me day after day—these contain my essential task and such fulfillment of existence is open to me.

Whatever our situation, bareness or wheelchair, the essential task remains close at hand—to live the authentic life. To be ourselves! In the place where we stand! It seems to me that certain conditions should facilitate this process toward wholeness. Circumstances such as health, wealth, genetics, inherent skills, opportunity, birth into the favored class or race or gender, these would seem to help us become whole—to live a life of fulfillment. But we know that this is not often the case. More often, it is the wounded, the broken, the poor, and the marginalized—who know this mystery of the treasure because it requires an acceptance of life that is not based on a particular condition—not upon what we want or how we thought our lives should flow. Even with difficulty, we hope for a “happy ever after” ending. Kafka makes the simple point, that to be truly human “is to be born into a world not made of our own hopes and desires.”

The biblical text reveals this about life. Sarai cannot have children. She is barren. Her world demands that without children she cannot be a whole person. In the beginning of chapter 12, verse 6, YHWH appears to address both her condition as well as landless Avram, her husband: “YHWH was seen by Avram and said: I give this land to your seed!”

Land and babies! The blessing comes as promise to a barren woman and a landless nomad. Things are going to change. We wait with expectation.

Nancy was determined to walk, soon after the accident. She wanted her life back. Les, Nancy’s father, built parallel bars and hired people to come in and help. Nancy worked hard, sweated and suffered much pain and for a while she made progress, so much so that she walked, with help, down the center isle at our wedding as one of Susan’s bridesmaids.

But the years pass and the promise of change does not occur. Sarai has no babies. Nancy settles back into the chair under the pressing reality that the damage is just too great to get her stability and strength back.

So, how do these women live out of the “place where they stand” when the promise and hope that conditions would change fades into the dim past. What happens to faith? What does Sarai do? Well, life goes on. She wanders with the family, oversees the packing and unpacking of the drifting clan; she cooks and tends the household and performs the rituals of nomadic life. Does she discover in these moments, as Buber suggest, that even if “we had the power over the ends of the earth, it would not give us that fulfillment of existence which a quiet devoted relationship to nearby life can give us?” I must imagine she does. Does Sarai also brood and stamp her feet, kicking up the dust from the earth weary of waiting for things to be different until finally she lets go of that promise—she wearing the wrinkles and dry skin, sagging breasts and tired feet of an old woman. In this resignation and impatience with YHWH, she adapts, giving Hagar, her handmaid, to her old husband so that there will at least be an heir (see chapter 16). This is too is faith. It is an act leaning toward the future.

Nancy stamped her feet I can tell you. Her anger was powerful—lashing out and driving many away. Acceptance is not always gentle and easy. Sometimes our way of coping is through a fierce struggle with the world that has promised us a life in which we can live out our full potential but then, without warning and explanation, rips it away. For some, acceptance is once and for all. For others, living the authentic life from “the place where one stands” requires honest expressions of frustration and sadness which continue throughout. All these responses are expressions of faith. There is no one way to respond to life. There is only the struggle to be who we are in the place where we stand—“in the world as it is and not otherwise” (Buber 1956, introduction).

Here is the truth about Nancy’s faith. However angry and stubborn she could be, she stayed in the game, giving nothing away to her condition. She loved reading, listening to music, watching a good movie, adorning herself with hats and jewelry, writing poetry. She was witty and laugh-out loud funny. She loved good food and wine. She loved to smoke with her friend Georgia. But if you had sat with all of Nancy’s family during her memorial service, you would have understood something else—something about living the authentic life in the place where you are. The old pietist preacher, Ralph Sturdy, led the service. The room was full to the walls with friends of Doris and Les, Steve and Susan—but also most of the residents and as much of the staff as could be spared from QLI, Nancy’s home. This was her world, the place where she stood. Not the chair, but a community of residents and caregivers who helped each other along the way. Their presence at the service was evidence that Nancy’s life was full and bold and that it made a difference for everyone who lived there. We listened to stories that made us roll on the floor in laughter and stories that filled us with admiration and moist eyes. She comforted the lonely, encouraged the faint of heart, and humored the sad. She participated in the full life of the community. As one of her care-givers said to us, “everyone here knew Nancy—everyone here loved Nancy.” To be known that well and to be loved that much bears witness to a life fully lived.

I like to think of her out of that chair now, her body renewed with the “strength of eagles, running and not getting faint” as Isaiah sings of it. But if we learn anything about faith through the lives of our matriarchs like Sarah, surely Nancy has also taught us about the grittiness and glory of the full life. This is the life of faith. Peace to her memory. Grace and peace for those of us who miss her so.

Buber, M. (1951). The way of man according to the teachings of Hasidism. Chicago, Wilcox & Follett Co.

Buber, M. (1956). Tales of the Hasidim. London, Thames and Hudson.