As I’ve noted in recent weeks, appreciation is a lost concept in our society. Even when we are blessed by the many kindnesses of G-d, we tend to take them for granted and delude ourselves into thinking we are responsible for them all. In vain did our Torah warn us not to fall into the trap of “my strength and the power of my own hand accomplished this.”
But while we are quick to take credit for our successes, we are even quicker to blame G-d for our failures, our sufferings, our illnesses. “Where is G-d?” we cry. “How could He do this to us?” The hypocrisy of this never occurs to us.
I feel privileged to share with you my beloved husband’s attitude during the most painful and trying moments of his terminal illness. I recall when my husband had his first surgical procedure at New York University Hospital. That he constantly thanked his doctors and nurses goes without saying. Even in the recovery room, while still heavily sedated, he never forgot this imperative.
I was standing outside the recovery room anxiously waiting to be admitted to see him when Mrs. L passed by.
“Rebbetzin, what are you doing here?” she asked. “Who is sick?”
“My husband just underwent surgery,” I told her.
“Is he in recovery yet?”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. She must have felt my pain and fears because she immediately said, “Come, I’ll take you in to see him.”
Mrs. L is in charge of bikur cholim in many New York hospitals. The Talmud teaches that visiting the sick is a precept that is so important that while reward for its performance is given in this world, the principal remains intact in the world to come. From time immemorial Jewish communities have had bikur cholim societies dedicated to helping patients and assisting their family members. Mrs. L and her staff of volunteers bring homemade lunches and dinners to patients, help those who have financial difficulties, and in general try to make the ordeal of illness a bit more tolerable and dignified.
“Come,” she said to me now in her effervescent manner. “Let’s put on surgical gowns and we’ll go in to see the rabbi.” And with that, she pressed the buzzer.
When the nurse came to the door, Mrs. L explained that we were there to see Rabbi Jungreis, and though it was obvious from the nurse’s expression that she didn’t approve, she escorted us to my husband’s bedside. Mrs. L commanded respect in the hospital.
My husband appeared to be sleeping, but he must have sensed our presence because he opened his eyes and when he saw us his face immediately lit up with his beautiful smile.
Mrs. L walked away to give us some privacy.
“Call her back,” my husband whispered. “I have to thank her for bringing you in.”
“I thanked her already,” I assured him.
“But I didn’t,” he responded.
Not only did he thank her, but he mustered his strength to bless her as well.
In his final days of illness at Memorial Sloan Kettering, my husband desperately wanted to breathe some fresh air, to feel the wind on his face, to see the skies and the birds flying by. But for the patients’ protection the windows at the hospital could not be opened, so we asked permission to wheel him out to the street for a few minutes. It was an especially cold, snowy January day, but we were determined to grant my husband’s wish. I brought his long heavy coat, a sweater and a hat, and when the nurse dressed him I had to turn away because I couldn’t hold back my tears. He had lost so much weight, his hat and coat just hung on him.
Slowly my sons wheeled him to the front entrance of the hospital. It looked as if it was going to start to snow again but to my husband the sky was beautiful. Gratefully he breathed in the cold air and thanked us profusely for having made it possible for him to see G-d’s wondrous world one more time.
Saying “thank you” came naturally to my husband, but for many of us these two little words are very difficult to articulate. This may appear paradoxical, but even though gratitude would render us much happier people, we fight it.