PLEASE DAVEN FOR ESTHER MALKA BAS SARAH
I’m at the Emergency Room. I look around. Everyone should come here, I think, to remember how insignificant the imperatives of life can become in the blink of an eye. In that respect, it’s always a tsunami here.
But, incongruously, with the consciousness of vulnerability comes a vague and undeniable sense of well-being. Relative to the patients here, I feel, thank G-d, healthy and strong and young. It’s not just well-being, I’m feeling, I realize – it’s a somehat perverse feeling of superiority. I’m upright – I feel tall – and I’m dressed well, and they are in various stages of undignified undress, flimsy hospital gowns riding up to expose unhealthy, slack, bruised, ancient flesh, splayed out on gurneys, lining the halls because the rooms are full. I try to avert my eyes and discipline my thoughts.
I am here because my grandmother, Esther Malka bas Sarah, is here. She’s been intibated. Her eyes are closed. Standing just outside the door to her room, the doctor has just finished explaining kindly, but clinically, that she’s going to need gall bladder surgery, but that systemic problems, including pneumonia, make her very high risk during the surgery itself and, should that be successful, during recovery, as well.
The news is hard to hear.
My grandmother was one of the most vibrant people I’ve ever known until Alzheimer’s took most of her away from us a few years ago. Since then, it’s been painful to see her. I haven’t gone as often as I should. I’ve rationalized it many different ways, but the bottom line was that I couldn’t stand being there and watching her hoping for the faint signs of recognition that we teased out of her. I couldn’t stand seeing the evidence of her helplessness, her physical deterioration from the perfectly coiffed and manicured lady I knew my whole life.
It’s the first thing I notice in the hospital room. It’s more unexpected and unsettling to me than the tubes and wires and machines: she has gray roots and her eyebrows are turning gray. I’ve never seen her that way; no matter how bad it got, the wonderful woman who lives with her and takes care of her at least makes sure she has her hair done.
Even now, I stand a little off to one side. It’s my wife Rochelle who’s holding my grandmother’s hand. On the way over, talking about everything besides this, Rochelle said to me. “It’s going to be hard for you, isn’t it, to see your grandmother like that? Are you sure you want to go in?” She knows.
But I’m here now and I’m watching my mother stroke her mother’s brow, with aching tenderness softly saying, praying, “Mommy, everything’s going to be okay. Mommy, everything’s going to be okay.” It hasn’t been okay for a long time. How is it going to be okay?
My mother is crying as she comforts her mother. It’s okay, her voice is sweet and my grandmother doesn’t see the tears. Does she hear the voice? Does she feel Rochelle holding her hand?
I walk out of the room. The smell in the hallway has become almost unbearable. Opposite the doorway, on a gurney in a hospital robe is a lady. A grandmother, she looks like. She’s one of the unfortunates lining the walls. But she’s smiling. A beautiful, cheerful smile. Confusing in the circumstances. And she calls me over. My first thought is that she’s seen my yarmulke and has called me to act as a rabbi – she has a question she wants to ask, she wants to seek council, receive a prayer, be comforted and reassured. It happens when I’m in hospitals.
But I’m wrong. She motions me to come close. I try to focus on her face. I don’t want to see what’s wrong with her. I don’t want to see what brought her here because I’m afraid of seeing something personal and embarrassing. So I look at her smile. It’s sunny and perfect and I still can’t reconcile it with her being on a gurney. She’s surrounded by two of her own friends and family. They step aside for me. “I saw you talking to that doctor,” she says. “He was my surgeon, too, a couple of years ago, and my friend’s.” She points to a smiling woman at my shoulder. “He’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Please don’t worry, he’s the best and he’ll take care of her.”
For the first time, tears rush to my eyes. I don’t want to distress her. I don’t want her to misinterpret my gratitude for pain. Trying to smile, I blink a few times, take a deep breath and thank her, mumbling something incoherent about her feeling better.
I want to ask her name, but don’t trust myself for the moment. Instead, I stare straight ahead and walk out the double doors, threading my way through the patients as quickly as I can.
Outside, I cry.
When I go back, she’s gone.