When the rabbi asked the senior citizens gathered at Judson Retirement Community’s annual High Holiday service during the month of Tishrei what, exactly, God wants us to do at this time of year, my mother, folding her napkin into perfect eighths, called out: “To swim.”

I was elated. After all, my mother understood that someone was asking a question (he didn’t say it was a rhetorical one), and she replied with a comprehensible infinitive. A visitor could have taken her for a senior with an attitude or a senior with a wicked sense of humor, rather than a senior with Alzheimer’s disease who lives on the closed Reinberger Ward at Judson.

During the service, provided by Cleveland’s Jewish Community Federation’s Chaplaincy Volunteer Corps, my mother fingered her way through the honey cake, challah, apples, honey, rugelach and prayer book. She mouthed the words both for the congregation and the rabbi when we did responsive readings. Her eyes lit up when we sang the Shema, as if greeting an old friend, the same way they light up when she sings “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Side by Side.” She was cheerful, even when the grape juice spilled.

She was not cheerful the first day of my visit … and for good reason. For two years I had not come to Cleveland to see her. Somewhere in her plaqued brain, she knew this was not the behavior of a dutiful daughter. “Where have you been?” she said to me coldly when I stood opposite her in the Reinberger living room. Then she continued to mouth the words of an article in The Plain Dealer about a sex offender.

“I’ve been in Israel,” I said, “where I live.” She read out loud about the sex offender like a first-grader practicing reading.

What kind of daughter does not visit her aging mother for two years?

One whose mother has Alzheimer’s disease. One who was in mourning for the lost mother. One who could not bear the pain of talking to her mother on the phone. One whose superego is pliable and whose brother and sister in America never dished out guilt.

“Where’s that?” my mother asked when I mentioned Israel.

She did not want a hug or a kiss from her remiss daughter. I understood.

By the third day of visits, my mom waved to me when I entered the living room. When I sat down next to her during her senior sit-down exercises, she could not kiss me enough. “Ain’t We Sweet,” she sang, while everyone else in the group tapped their toes. She knew I was special, though she did not know my name or my relationship to her. “Now just who is your mommy?” she asked me at lunch.

During the two years I didn’t visit, in addition to mourning the mother I once had, I walked in the annual Melabev “Don’t Forget Us Walk-a-thon.” Melabev is a wonderful non-profit organization in Jerusalem that runs eight day-care centers for “the frail elderly.” I figured if my mother had lived in Jerusalem, she would have gone to the English-speaking center. I also figured my supporting Melabev was a good investment in my own future. I would walk from Metulla (in the north) to Eilat (in the south) if I knew it would help find a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Having mourned her for two years, I can now handle visiting my mother. We watercolor together; we sing, dance, laugh, hug, kiss. Our shmoozing sounds like two Americans speaking Hungarian with English intonations. She deconstructs words and asks me gibberish questions. I reply with a serious “yes” or “no.” Our banter is a good exercise in empathy.

My visit is almost over, but I know I will be back within the year. I am grateful to the wonderful staff at Reinberger who sing with their charges every day, do crafts with them, paint their nails, get their hair cut, make sure they’re dressed nicely, put on their bibs, help them shower, give them their meds, allowing me to live in Israel.

Putting my mother on a closed ward was a painful process, but it had its laughs. During the first week, I sat with my mom at the 5 o’clock song time. The aide led the group in “Jesus Loves Me.” I cringed and explained that my mother might not sing this because she is Jewish. The aide apologized, saying she didn’t know. Then we both cracked up as Mom read and sang all the words.

Alzheimer’s breaks down barriers among people. Priorities shift. The most important things in life become to sing, to hug, to kiss. In such a world, it is even plausible that what God wants of us, not only during Tishrei, but always, is, indeed, “to swim.”

Judy Labensohn, writer, mentor, teacher, is the daughter of Rita Stonehill and the late Neil Stonehill.

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