“Every sunrise ends in sunset”
Tu B’Shvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month Shvat, is a pleasant agricultural holiday, a time to set a seder table and join in blessing the beautiful bounty of fruits produced in the Land of Israel in celebration of the New Year for the trees. Yet there I was, on Har HaMenuchot, climbing steep rows of cracked stone steps that ascend to the highest level of the monumental Jerusalem cemetery. Moving slowly, one step, and then another, holding on to the peeling painted black metal handrail, holding on for dear life.
Nearly two months had already raced by, and with each step I thought about Yael Zegen’s article “Time of Death” published on aish.com. Winter sunshine warmed my outer garments, yet I shuddered thinking about the final moments Yael spent with a woman who died alone, without parting from family or friends, abandoned by loved ones, lying in a hospital bed, terrified of imminent death. My admiration for Dr. Zegen, who acted in place of the woman’s family, increased with every step.
I had seen it. I had witnessed patients in Hadassah Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit being provided with medical expertise, but without a single family member. No friend, neighbor, colleague or coworker entered their rooms while they suffered severe illness and received treatment. Only dedicated hospital staff tended to them; only strangers, doctors and nurses appeared concerned for them.
My husband woke me after midnight on a Sunday before Chanukah, trembling, his fever rising rapidly, pleading that I call Hatzalah immediately. In a panic, I phoned for an ambulance that delivered us to the emergency room at Hadassah Ein Karem where they tested blood, x-rayed, and started a full workup for diagnosis. Yet suddenly the shaking spasms and severe trembling ceased, and my husband of fifty-seven years lay immobile, his eyes wide open, frozen, in a deadly state. I motioned frantically to the staff who immediately surrounded him and administered CPR. Some thirty minutes later the doctor on duty emerged and notified my son and myself that my husband had been resuscitated, yet he apologized for not having asked permission to connect him to a respirator. Once a patient is hooked to a respirator, it may not be removed.
The medical staff in the special IC unit, created specifically for patients on respirators, trusted that my husband, Sholom, would wake. They had witnessed so many miracles. They believed this would be another, and encouraged us to talk and sing to him, to use the radio or CDs, anything to activate my husband’s brain during our visits. And we did. All of us, our children and adult grandchildren, exerted our energies every moment that we were allowed into the unit. Two weeks of vigil, trying to wake him from the coma he was steeped in. Two weeks of intensive care in that special unit totally dedicated to reviving patients. It bordered on the spiritual, especially the morning he opened his eyes and was seemingly attracted to the sound that filled the room, a recording of a Baal Tefillah chanting morning prayers.
After nearly three weeks, the miracle we had hoped for faded. We understood that if he woke from the coma, he would be severely disabled. Nevertheless, Sholom was admitted to one of the internal medicine departments for continued dedicated care.
Sholom was a kidney transplant patient. Sixteen years earlier, our son had given him a kidney. Sixteen relatively good “quality of life” years, despite diabetes, and a diagnosis of lymphoma that he suffered as a result of anti-rejection drugs; despite a heart attack, knee surgery, a minor stroke, and bladder cancer that he was treated for. He made it through all of these challenges, he fought tirelessly, and he wanted to live. He wasn’t ready for the next world. He was still shopping for sweets and specialty food items for the grandchildren on Friday morning. Yet a violent streptococcus bug entered his bloodstream and he collapsed into a coma from which he never woke.
As a baal tefillah, davening for congregations since the age of 16, Sholom’s first official Yamim Noraim position was obtained nearly 66 years earlier, in 1952, in Silver Spring, Maryland, as “Cantor” for a new young community of religious scientists. But his future role as baal tefillah was initiated far earlier, at the age of nine, chanting kaddish daily for his mother who had suddenly passed away. At his bar mitzvah, he was the shaliach tzibur for the congregation and also read the weekly Torah portion.
Sholom’s final days in the hospital were spent with family and friends in round-the-clock prayers for him. On that final day, Monday morning, January 1, 2018, the doctors advised that he had about an hour or two before he would leave us.
Emergency messaging made the WhatsApp rounds. Slowly the room filled with sons and daughters, in-law children, grandchildren, a sister, a nephew, and even a great niece. Nursing staff never disturbed us or asked that we tone it down. They checked the patient every half hour. They were respectful of our wish to be with our loved one until the end, and they performed their dedicated work with the utmost sensitivity.
Gam ki elech …“Though I walk in the valley overshadowed by death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me….”
David HaMelech’s beautiful Psalm 23 that we sang together every Shabbat afternoon at Seudat Shlishi was part of Sholom’s medley of Shabbat tunes. We sang all his tefillot and zmirot Shabbat at his bedside. His recording of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tefillot filled the air. We said the viduy prayer for him and, after an emotional spiritually-saturated afternoon, the sun began to set below the fiery mountains at Hadassah.
“We will daven Maariv now, every single word, out loud, so that Abba can hear us, and then we will leave,” I suggested calmly to our clan.
The room was packed as we started the final evening service with compelling intent meant for the gates of heaven to open to our prayers. I knew that Sholom’s neshama would never leave me. So I left him, with our sons and daughters, who remained with their father until his neshama returned to his Creator before the sun rose again early Tuesday morning.
The last days and hours were a small exercise in kindness, the kindness we had seen him perform so often for so many others: for my grandfather, for my father, for my mother, and, most of all, for Sholom’s father. Those hours at his bedside were hours of heightened spirituality summoning and accompanying his neshama to the next world, knowing he was not alone.
Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for the trees. The day we liken man to trees in the field. Sholom was like the trunk of a fruit tree, thick long roots and fragrant flowers budding on branches. I depended on his quiet strength that tended to all our needs, to our sustenance, to guests whom he brought home to share to our table.
One final step up and I turned to walk along the pebble-strewn path. The Talmud teaches that the righteous need no monuments … their words and acts are their shrines. Sholom requested that the words on his matzeiva be kept “to a minimum, only what is relevant.”
Varied shades of cold, white, and partly blackened stone overlook a panoramic view of Yerushalayim shel mata, earthly Jerusalem, and the busy thoroughfare leading up and into the blossoming entrance of our Capital city.
I stood in silence at the foot of the fresh white monument on which each word was chosen as carefully as each step up the mountain.
Yehi Zichro Baruch!