All Things with their Deficiencies
By Sarah Shapiro
This article first appeared in the English-language Mishpacha in Nissan, 5764. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
In Chaya Rivkah's hospital room in Jerusalem , my awkwardness as I stood waiting for her was bringing back memories.
My sister was massaging my mother's feet in a Los Angeles hospital room, and I…I wasn't really doing anything. Should I fluff my mother's pillow? Fold down the sheet? Smooth the blanket? My big sister had already done all that. Still the baby of the family but well into middle-age, I stood there like an idiot, ineffectual and embarrassed, wishing I could do something important. Crank the bed up? Or maybe Mommy needed it down? And was I concerned about all this for her sake, or for my self-image? How could I be self-absorbed at a time like this!
Chaya Rivkah appeared, pushing slowly before her the intravenous machine. Then she paused. I stepped nervously to the side, making room for her to pass, and began saying, “Can I do anything?” when I noticed her lips moving. She was reciting “Asher yatzar.” the blessing after using the bathroom.
After a moment she resumed the journey.
“Is there anything I can do?” I said, as she made her way across the small room. The dinner tray, with its unappetizing, overcooked fare, appeared to have gotten cold. It looked untouched. “Would you like something to eat? Some fresh fruit, maybe?”
What she probably needs most, I chided myself harshly, is calm companionship. Not these anxious questions.
“Well, first…” Her voice was so faint, I strained to hear. “I just have to get into this bed. If you can help me find a good --” The words faded.
“Oh, of course!”
I pushed aside the twisted-up sheets and blankets, helped her to lower herself to a sitting position on the edge of the bed, then crouched down to take off first the right slipper, then the left. Her bare feet hung limply, just touching the floor. I lifted up one frail leg and stretched it out, then the other, telling myself, to no avail, Relax!
“Such pretty ankles,” I commented inanely. Indeed they were, but compliments of this sort were obviously not what she needed now, or wanted.
“Yeah,” she said weakly, with a grin. “Slender ankles. I always liked them.” Oh, Chaya Rivkah! Is this really you? I still couldn't believe that the jaunty, joking, smiling Chaya Rivkah, the one who was always working on herself minute by minute, the irrepressibly joyous, incessantly creative Chayah Rivkah had been…transformed…
Working together, we arranged her thin self upon the mattress, though there was no successful way to do that. If she lay this way, it was painful that way. That way, and it was painful this way. She wanted to give lying on her back a try, but it made her wince. So, back to lying on her side, the position she'd been in for the last few hours.
“Good,” she declared decisively, when her head was in place upon the two pillows. “Thank God.” She closed her eyes.
She looked utterly worn out. The trip to the bathroom and back had been too much for her. I didn't know whether to speak. Several minutes went by.
Her eyes opened. My heart jumped up like a puppy.
“You know,” she said, “you were saying about fruit.” I leaned in close to catch what she was saying. “A matter of fact, I really…would like a banana.”
Off I rushed, out to the nurse's station. No one was there. I trespassed back into the nurses' private area and called out, “Hello?” No one replied. “Hello?” A young American nurse's aide appeared. I told her that the woman in Room 615 hadn't been able to eat anything at all but says she'd like a banana.
“We don't have any up here but they usually have some in the cafeteria. Oh, but it's probably closed. Maybe try the kitchen, on Minus 2.”
A child desperate for a mission, down I sailed into the bowels of the hospital. The elevator doors opened to the sight of a long, empty hallway extending in darkness to the left and to the right. Which way? Way down at the end, to the left, there was an open door, and light spilling out. I ran. My heels echoed.
A few minutes later I was back upstairs on 7, the bouquet of over-ripe bananas in hand.
But when I victoriously entered Room 715, she was in what looked like an uneasy, shallow slumber. Her breathing was too fast.
* * *
There was another hour left on my shift. It was almost ten. All the visitors on the ward seemed to have gone home.
I wanted to go home, too. I knew from previous experience that Chani, the young woman who arranged hospital visitation shifts for all the seminary girls, would come to relieve me on the dot at eleven. Wandering out to the waiting room, whom did I find, sitting over to the side by herself, but a friend from my neighborhood. “What are you doing here?” I exclaimed. I was so glad to see her.
“My mother's been here for a while.”
“Yes. She's very ill.”
I remembered her mother well. A sweet-faced woman. Gentle, and soft.
“Yes. Very ill.” Chava had an expression of tense uncertainty. She told me how she'd been at the hospital pretty much around the clock for two weeks, coming here directly right after work, staying for a while before rushing home to make dinner and see what was happening with the kids, trying to take care of things before rushing back. I felt a strange kind of jealousy, even for her tension, and the rushing, even for the uncertainty. Her mother was here. Between life and death but here, present. On this side. Alive! And Chava was still able to do things for her, and lose sleep over her, and worry about her, and rush around between hospital and home for her. What mitzvah can compare to that, when you're doing something useful for your mother? The feeling you get from it must be one of the most solid good feelings possible in this world.
My mother's bare feet came to mind. What could have possibly kept me from massaging them for her? My ridiculous insecurities, about my sister doing it better? How could I not have seized that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?
I told Chava that I missed keenly the time of life that she was in right now, and wished I'd done a better job when it had been my turn. I'd have to live with that regret for the rest of my days. The times I boiled her eggs too hard, and gave them to her anyway. And the way I'd sit reading, when she was too weak to hold a book. I could have read aloud to her. What in the world could have made me so lazy? So inexplicably blind. If I could have her here again for just ten minutes…Even five! If I could just be with her for one minute.
“Well, it's hard to know how you're doing when you're in the middle of it,” she said. “I know. I always feel I should be doing more.”
“I don't know what stopped me, though. If only I had the opportunity now.”
“It's hard to be objective. We think we could have been different, but how do we know? If we did have another chance, how do we know we wouldn't do just the same?”
She told me a story she'd just read that Shobbos:
Every year before Succos, a certain Jew sold esrogim, a fruit which is one of the four species upon which one is required to say a blessing during the festival. One of his old customers was a real nudnik. Rarely satisfied, always spotting the blemishes and the flaws, always wanting to get something better, he'd search for an esrog from the time the stall was set up until the last day before the holiday, examining every last esrog again and again. Some years he'd go away without buying. It was annoying.
When the week before Succos arrived, that customer didn't show up. The esrog salesman asked around and someone told him that the man had died.
Over the next few days, the salesman asked himself why he'd always been so irritated by that man. Why had he never made a secret of his impatience? Why had he always been so gruff? Why hadn't he ever expressed appreciation for the man's religious devotion? His remorse grew keen and intensified. If only he had been more kind!
The day before Succos, to the enormous shock of the salesman, the old customer appeared, took a seat, and began checking the esrogim as usual.
“Where have you been?” asked the salesman, concealing his astonishment.
So, it had just been a mistaken rumor.
The man remained there going through the esrogim, one after another, meticulously. As one hour passed, and another, the salesman's irritation increased. By the time the man finally came to a decision, the esrog salesman was beside himself.
* * *
Back in Room 715, Chaya Rivkah was sitting up in bed. Two banana skins were on the tray. I felt like leaping happily into the air and started to say, “You finished the-- ”
Smiling and nodding, she held up one finger for me to wait a moment.
“Boruch Atoh…” Her gaze was cast down.. “ Hashem Elokeinu, Melech HaOlam…” Her head was moving back and forth slightly in concentration as she pronounced the after-blessing over fruit, articulating each word distinctly, deliberately, with a raised voice. “…Borei nefashos rabos…” Who creates numerous living things, “ vehasronan,” with their deficiencies…. “ Boruch chai ha Olamim.” Blessed is He, the life of the worlds.
“I think that's the first time I ever really heard that blessing , ” I said.
“I do what I can.”
“It's as if I never heard the words before.”
She gave a pert little dip of the chin as if to say Yup.
“Chaya Rivkah, maybe you'd… Would you like it if I gave you a foot massage?”
“Oh! I'd love one. Yes.” She lay back and closed her eyes.
Mine closed too, for a moment.
Her toes were cool to the touch. Oh, Mommy.
Let this be for you.