A homage to those aging with faith

A report published earlier this year by the Population Reference Bureau found that the U.S. population is “older today than it has ever been.” It found that the 65-and-older age group’s “share of the total population is projected to rise from 17% to 23%” by 2050. Given this fact, it is only natural for Americans to escape into books about what is becoming a reality for millions of adults: caring for aging loved ones.

Rebecca Sugar’s just-published debut novel Everything is a Little Broken examines the sadness, frustration and humor involved in tending to elderly relatives.

The book focuses on Mira Cayne, a 40-something Jewish New Yorker who must carefully navigate the dynamics between her brother and mother while watching over her 79-year-old father Matt Frank. She shares a close bond with Matt as he physically deteriorates. While Mira’s selfless devotion to him takes up much of the story, the novel also concentrates on the critical role played by faith. This faith shaped a generation that will soon give way to the growing number of Americans who claim no religious identity.

Mira struggles with embracing her father’s spiritual engagement. This spirituality is echoed by the fiery and lovable Mae, a 94-year-old Pentecostal Christian. She worked for the Franks from the time Matt was 12 until her retirement. Like many of their generation, Matt and Mae are the devotional giants guiding a family towards faith and religious observance.

Matt’s physical decline leaves him unable to attend Saturday services without a wheelchair. With a sturdy pride, he confines himself to studying the weekly Torah portion in a seasoned lounger that was once his father’s. To Mira’s annoyance, this is a piece of his past with which he refuses to part. But Mira sees that when her father is absorbed in Torah learning, he projects the “paternal strength” that she fears is slowly ebbing. The elder Frank is also committed to passing on Jewish rituals. For example, he insists that his son Daniel recite the Kiddush at Shabbat dinner.

Like her former Jewish employer, Mae’s determination to live a life guided by spiritual convictions—highlighted by repeated intonations of “Praise the Lord!”—injects some levity into her confrontation with declining health. Mae’s faith remains uncorrupted despite the tragic loss of a child and, as Mira admits, spending more time tending to the needs of the Franks than those of her own family.

This underscores Mae’s resilience and grit. Matt and Mae share a connection impenetrable to others because of the emphasis they place on religion and sanctity. As the book states, Matt’s “greatest source of strength was an even older woman, for whom recovery was no longer an option. The memories he shared with her appeared to have a restorative power.”

Mae’s life is marked by a simplicity and humility uncommon to most Upper East Side Manhattanites. Yet somehow, it has seeped into the ethos of Mira and her family. Behind the glossy facade of frequenting New York City’s finest salons, Mira maintains a quiet modesty, a virtue reflected in the time she takes to help Mae.

Unlike American Jews who try to alter Jewish practice to suit their liberal values, Mira knows the responsibility for her spiritual slippage is entirely her own. Rather than brand Judaism as rigid and outdated, Mira finds Matt and Mae’s faithful formalities inspiring, albeit personally unattainable for her. She recognizes that her father’s learning contains “the same kind of intensity and personal encounter she saw in Mae when her Bible was in her hands. They each seemed to put different energies into their Bibles and received the same kind of energy from them in return.”

Matt’s physical limitations, which prevent him from climbing the stairs to a walk-up apartment to see Mae, lead to the book’s more humorous moments. The two elders who find solace in their sages and not modern technology resort to fumbling with the imperfections that often sour an older adult’s experience with video conferencing.

For Mira, her relationships with those with whom she interacts the least are disproportionately emotional. As in many families with aging loved ones, trepidations and resentments regarding other relatives often surface. Mira’s connection to her mother Dana is more detached than strained. It is tentative due to years of a comfortable rhythm of emotional distancing.

Still, Mira discreetly admires Dana, whose playful and artistic energy comes out in the presence of Lilly, Mira’s sweet-natured daughter, and Mira’s amiable husband Aaron. It is Lilly who suggests, on a weekend home from college, that the family attend Shabbat services. This is a delightful surprise to both parents and shows that religious revivals can have the unlikeliest origins.

Another familiar theme of the book is the outsize impact an absent sibling can have on those left caring for a frail relative. Despite Mira’s disappointment with her brother Daniel’s notable absence, she decides not to confront him. Instead, she punctuates their conversations with flickers of irritation at Daniel’s inability to grasp the extent of her sacrifice, which includes foregoing a move to Florida.

Today’s cultural openness and technological sophistication fuel an ethos far removed from Matt and Mae’s religious devotion. Whether the wisdom of a lifetime dedicated to spiritual sustenance is passed on to the next generation depends on the path chosen by people like Mira and her family. This unknown trajectory feels like a fitting subject for a sequel.

Source: JNS