Project lets dying mothers pass on stories, wisdom

It is every mother's greatest fear: not living long enough to raise her children.

San Francisco resident Lori Beckerman is facing that fear head on.

Almost four years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It quickly metastasized, invading her entire body.

Beckerman has outlived everyone's prognosis — everyone's but her own. Nonetheless, she is trying to prepare a legacy for her children, Sam, almost 10, and Daniel, 5, both students at Brandeis Hillel Day School.

Often, Beckerman, who turned 40 in January, will place items in resealable bags with notes explaining the objects and their significance. However, the larger memoir is her manuscript from the Mothers Living Story Project.

Linda Blachman, a Berkeley psychotherapist and a specialist in maternal and child health, created the Mothers Living Story Project as a way of providing support for mothers with breast cancer. Her mission is to act as a witness to their stories, enabling the mothers to leave their own histories for their children.

The project is available to women of all religious and cultural backgrounds. However, Blachman believes the process is inherently Jewish.

"This is based in the Hebrew tradition of an ethical will," Blachman said. "It was prominent in medieval times. Parents wrote letters of their life stories along with spiritual and ethical teachings they wanted to pass on. It is more than bequeathing possessions. It is the wisdom of recognizing we are going to die and the responsibility to prepare the next generation."

Unlike other women battling against breast cancer, mothers of young children have different concerns, Blachman said. However, most support groups are ill-equipped to deal with them.

Almost three years ago Blachman led a series of focus groups to determine exactly what these mothers needed.

"They said if they talked about having young children [in the support groups], everyone just started to cry and then they changed the subject," Blachman said. "This raises primal issues of separation, of the most primal bond of mother and child. To have that bond ended so prematurely brings up our deepest fears.

"They wanted to talk about cancer and family responsibility. They are terrified about leaving their children. The fear of not being remembered. The guilt of leaving their children," she said. "These mothers are looking for validation and witnesses [to their stories] and for specific help about how to communicate with their children."

Blachman's answer was to create a program helping mothers preserve their stories.

"Everyone has a story," she said. "It might not be for the tabloids. But it is the most precious gift — for the children and grandchildren and the generations."

Blachman, 54, began thinking of these issues only after suffering her own debilitating illness five years ago. Lifting the Torah at her synagogue, Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, she felt discomfort in her back.

"When I sat down, I could barely get up," she recalled. "I had blown two discs."

With the help of doctors, therapists and Rabbis Nancy Flam and Amy Eilberg — both formerly of Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and both now serving on the story project's advisory committee — Blachman healed herself. And then she began what she calls her own tikkun olam (repairing the world).

"I felt if I was healed, I would devote myself to bringing healing to others," she explained. "I spent almost three years on disability but was [ultimately] both physically and psychically healed. I learned how to quiet myself and how to find blessings in every moment. When you are ill you are forced to live in the present."

With a modest stipend from the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, and cooperation from Mount Zion Health Systems, she began her project. To date, four histories have been completed. Until she finds further funding, she is unable to do any more.

Blachman begins with an outline of questions and topics for discussion. The mother responds to her questions on audiotape and Blachman transcribes the notes, creating a 100-page manuscript. The mother then edits the manuscript and receives a finished book and a computer disk — to add or edit as she sees fit.

Mothers speak of a variety of things. In her own transcript, Beckerman took a practical approach, speaking about dating, sex, drugs, education and college. She also spoke of her relationship with her husband as well as her personal ethics and religious values.

Other mothers have spoken about favorite teachers or best memories. One mother made videotapes of herself talking to her children and even bought her son's bar mitzvah gift. She died late last year.

Beckerman has not yet decided how she will present her history to her children.

"I'm inclined to put it on the shelf, so to speak, and let my husband deal with it. I'm really not sure," she said. "I'm happy with the manuscript the way it is.

"I thought I might break it down in age-related parcels, but I can't really imagine at what age my children will be ready to receive certain information. I'll have someone else do that."

Beckerman paused and added, "I think the idea of getting it back in disk form says `I'll go on and have this other 20 years of life to write about.' For me personally, this is a closed chapter, but not a closed book."