There are two days in my life I’ll always remember in exhaustively great detail.
They’re both about intense pain.
My grandfather was centre stage for both.
They were both shades of blue. One so dark and full of sapphire and hidden green shadows. The other flowing, with wisps of resilient, life affirming gold, even though, the flow was waning.
The earlier one was made of frantic heartbeats instead of seconds, of eyes glued open with terror instead of sleep, with shaking up the depths of pain, instead of letting them emulsify into troubled rest.
It was on the second one I said Shema Yisrael as a broken farewell.
Because that’s how Jews recognise each other.
If a Jew wandered from Mainz to Troyes and was somehow not yet trusted, “Shema Yisrael” would be his reassurance, his password, his darcon.
Perhaps Morano’s whispered this to each other by means of comfort.
Maybe soldiers on opposite sides of the line during WWI recited it together as they died in a foxhole. One last chance to die with a sense of togetherness.
Because Shema is how we reach out, is how we know there is someone there, that we are not alone, and for a moment, we have purpose.
Because it’s how we say “Hello, achi, brother, my kin. We are here. Alive. With one purpose.”
It’s also how we say goodbye. Death is nothing, but if it must be something, let it pass in the wake of one affirmation.
The God of Israel is One.
It’s never like in the movies.
There’s always a sad score in movies. The person looks pretty vibrant and alight under their oxygen mask.
There’s a hitch in the heart monitor. That’s how they always do it. Then a few seconds later-
That’s not how it happens.
That’s almost never how it happens.
The one thing the movie does get right is the pull out armchair bed they have in palliative care rooms.
I felt every inch of mine that night because I wasn’t really asleep.
I was somewhere in a half sleep, dazed from the craziness of earlier.
It had been Purim, and I had managed to get to my a-ok grandmother across town to deliver mishloach manot, get back to the hospital and join my parents in listening to the hospital’s Rabbi read megillah, go home and make a small seudah while a care worker sat with my grandfather, and then…
Unease settled in.
Zaidy had only been in palliative care for a few days. For months, my mother had been by his side, and I had been there with her for much of it.
When they moved him to palliative care he went into a drug induced asleep. He’d been sleeping more but this was constant. They gave him heavy pain killers one evening and kept injecting it into his IV every time he threatened to wake.
That Purim day my mom cried behind the laminated megillah handed to her by a staffer.
She needed to sleep.
So we hired a caregiver to sit there with him, so we could all…essentially…sleep.
But I couldn’t.
How would it seem, if he woke up and we weren’t there?
What would the nurses think? Would they pay less attention to him, because look that family doesn’t even care?
My parents didn’t want me to go. I cooked the seudah. I went to Bubby and wished her happy purim and lied to her as to why I couldn’t stay, playing the part they asked me to.
I needed sleep too.
But I couldn’t.
That room, unlike the one on Oncology 8 which had been our home for three months, was big.
Cold, uninviting, almost like a hollow incubator.
I packed a bag. Cabbed it. By the time I got there it was evening.
Thank God, I remember feeling. At least now it’s pretending to be warm. At least now it isn’t blue.
Zaidy didn’t wake up that night, but I lay twitching on that armchair bed thinking that he might.
Hoping he would, even though I knew where I was and why.
I was too tired to think, but instead of falling into the deep sleep that the fatigue of the last three months had induced, my body was ultra aware, almost vibrating, willing me to be watchful.
The night nurse came on her round and I remember cocking my head up and seeing her cautious procession towards the machines.
She took down his vitals and pinched his catheter bag and I hung frozen, trailing her outline in the darkness. She stuck the pen through her short cropped curly hair.
The machine made a beep.
And then I noticed something else that had been punching through the air.
Zaidy was breathing steadily, but each inhale and exhale was raspy, loud, unreal.
The curly head acknowledged mine, lifted mid air off the arch of the armchair, waiting in the darkness.
Could she see my frozen anxiety? Say something to my scared eyes.
It wasn’t a nod she gave me, but it somehow felt like a promise.
Rest your head for now. You can sleep.
I tried, remembering the anchoring heat of the coffee cup I handed to the care worker as I thanked her and told her to go home.
I tried to look at Zaidy’s face, remembering the words of the woman from the consolation committee as she stepped in before I went to bed.
“I can tell he was a character.”
Oy ya, how? He was, but how can you tell? “Oh, he was.”
“I can see his face, even now. He must have been handsome.”
“He was. Very handsome.”
I tried to look, but it was so dark, and the only light came from the reflection of a desk light seeping in through the window. Palliative care faced another column of the hospital building. It was a moratoreum, swaddled in shadows, blue in the morning, black at night.
So we could all sleep.
It was as blue as a Vegas fish tank when I woke up.
Nuzzled against the side of the building meant, even at 6:00 AM, we were experiencing a prolonged dawn. The beginning part. Blue, so much blue.
The silence was surreal and wavy as I got up. The only thing interrupting it was the rickety whirr of the machine measuring Zaidy’s vitals.
I anxiously looked over at him, thinking I was being overdramatic as usual. He wasn’t going to die on my watch. He wasn’t going to die, ever. If anyone could cheat death, if anyone dared demand immortality, it would be him.
I sighed as I saw him give a raspy breath. The same kind from last night. It looked effortful, difficult. His handsome face, which he always masked in Vitamin E in place of moisturiser, looked papery and dry. I’d find a way to put it on him later, maybe. It had been a few days since he had applied it.
Putting a skirt and my lumberjack jacket over my PJ’s, I went out into the family area, terrified of the isolation of that blue waiting room.
I took my siddur with me, not feeling particularly inclined to pray but finding I needed the distraction.
When I went back in, his raspy breathing greeted me.
He didn’t wake up. A new shift of nurses would arrive in half an hour.
So without getting dressed or putting on makeup I made my way to the recently opened cafeteria. I stood there, forcing myself to grab food even though I had no appetite. Normal motions were good. It was light there. Not sunlit or softly glowing like an eco bulb in your home bathroom. It was overexposed, florescent, hospital white.
I stood amongst a line of doctors, holding two slices of toast and a packet of butter with no intention of eating them.
My phone rang.
“How is he?”
“Ma, he’s fine. I mean, I think he’s the same. I can’t tell if he’s in a deep sleep or in some sort of coma. The nurse hasn’t said anything.” My tone sounded harsh and flippant. I cringed, hearing the way I said “coma.”
“I’m just going to drink something warm, take a shower and I’ll be there.”
“Ok. I’m going back up to him now.”
My memory isn’t clear here. I can’t be sure if we said goodbye the way we usually do. Ok mamsheyne, she’d say, then follow it with an, I love you. Always. Every time. Love you too, I’d say back. Every time.
Except I can’t remember if we did.
That stupid basin blue, the kind that sinks to the bottom of the ocean and tricks you into sleep.
It’s the colour and aura of that blue that made me pad slowly into his room with my cardboard takeaway box of brown toast.
It’s what made me realise that the noise was interrupted, that his rasping was gone, had been replaced by something else, that he was blending into the room.
I put the box down, thinking again, that I was being my usual over dramatic self.
Except, this time, he did breathe.
After five minutes of total silence. He breathed, a desperate catch of air as if he was being pushed under water by a nefarious hand. He was struggling for breath, his whole neck shrugging upwards, that handsome face barely moving.
One of his eyes was open.
Was he waking up? Would he tell me to stop being a silly writer and go do something scientific, in his well meaning way? Would he say his usual “Hi Bubby!” jokingly after I said “Hi Zaidy!” with relief?
Would he open both eyes and say, “der mame ot gi ‘kumen?”
But then the struggle got worse and the shallow in his neck seemed to move less and less and the minutes between each gasp grew longer.
I picked up the phone.
“Mommy, something’s wrong.”
“With his breathing, something’s wrong.”
“Well got get the nurse!”
“Ok, ok, but something’s wrong.”
“I’m almost on my way. GO CALL THE NURSE.”
For some reason everything in that pall of blue seemed slower, like it flowed calmly even though the worst was happening faster than man can calculate.
“Yes?” Came the nurses voice through the speaker on the wall.
“Er…something’s wrong. I think, with my grandfather’s breathing.”
“Well, what is it?”
I stumbled. Why aren’t you running here? Like in the movies? Why? Because it’s palliative care? Because this blue is a slow slip into sleep? WHY AREN’T YOU RUNNING TO US?
“I don’t know. It’s his breathing. Could you come?”
She came. Each gasp was getting worst, more strangled and beaten, though I could sense his resilient spirit in the way he jerked is neck, willing his trachea to listen to him.
He would not die. For his family that did, he would need to go on living. Forever.
After making a show of checking his vitals she looked up at me in my silly neon PJ’s and baggy skirt, and the face that looked like a pulpy mess one one side and a crater on the other.
“It’s happening. Do you have any family that needs to be here?”
“My mom..er-his daughter. She, she needs to be here.”
“Get her here if you can.”
So some things are like the movies.
My sister picked up this time. The one who wouldn’t be able to handle this.
“Is he ok? He’s not dying, tell me he’s not dying.”
Her shaky voice made me afraid, my eyes watchful on the faint but adamant tremble of his trachea.
“Are you lying?”
“Riv, just put Mommy on the phone. Now.”
“Omg, is he? Is he-”
My dad got to the phone first.
“Why aren’t you here yet?”
“Mommy’s just finished getting ready.”
I calculated it. It was ten minutes on foot for a good walker like me, in the summer. Twenty in this harsh winter we were having. Without a car at home my parents needed to cab it.
“Daddy, it’s happening. She needs to get here now.”
“Shema Yisrael!” My dad said gravely, the honest’s man’s way of saying “shit!”
“We’re on our way.”
I turned to my grandfather, helpless. Rivkie couldn’t deal with death, couldn’t deal with pain, but that wasn’t the point. She voiced what all my siblings and first cousins felt.
Zaidy was invincible.
He lived through the Holocaust.
He had lost everything.
The brother the fruit trader, the other with an Uhlan uniform, the sister with the beautiful blonde hair and four sweet children.
His past, his origins had no memoriam, no one to prize those lives, those streams of existence but him.
He needed to live.
Because to us he was indestructible.
I wasn’t sure he could hear me. Surely he could, only a few days ago he was conscious, and still flinging sharp comebacks at us from under his grumpy growl.
I was panicking. What could I do for him now? What could I do?
“I’m…I’m here Zaidy.”
I felt stupid saying it, but what could I do for him, except that? If he could hear me…maybe I seemed far away, as if we were both under water, and all he wanted to do was scream? Or know someone was reaching under that water to get him?
I had perused one of those horrendous pamphlets they hand out when a loved one is transferred to palliative care. They say something about touching them, that they can feel us.
I hesitated. Zaidy hated people touching his hands.
He gave wonderful hugs, soul sandwich kind of hugs to make you feel prized.
But he never shook hands. Even with our neighbour of twenty odd years who I’m sure he esteemed. Not with the menschlich chabadniks who stopped him in the street and asked him why he didn’t come to minyan anymore.
He used to say something about germs. It always made me imagine that maybe he lost some family members to the Spanish influenza.
I cautiously put my hand over his.
The breaths were becoming frightening now, like a last crescendo before the orchestral finale.
“Zaidy? It’s Gila. I’m here. I’m not leaving you.” Guilt rose up in me, as I recalled all those nights he gave us the silent treatment, angry that we could be so heartless as to make our way home when visiting hours ended at 8:00 PM.
“I’m not leaving you.” Not this time. I had no idea what I was saying or where the platitudes were coming from. They felt syrupy and stupid but I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t know if he wanted me there, and that the one person I needed, he needed the most too. And for the first time that morning, I was afraid she wouldn’t arrive in time.
I think I finally starting crying when I looked at him properly. His face was wrong. He couldn’t see me, with that one open eye.
Six minutes passed before he breathed shallowly again, that pulse in his neck collapsing slowly.
I started rambling, stroking his hand, hoping it made some sort of difference.
“Please wait, Zaidy. Wait for mommy. Mame ot gi kumen. Please. She’s coming right now. Please wait.”
I was hoping it would work, because deep down, maybe I believe that if you beg, pray or will something it can happen, it can be granted. It wasn’t a crazed, forceful supplication. It was simple. Soft. Please, please wait.
“Please wait Zaidy. Fayge ot gi kumen. Fayge. Fayge is coming soon.”
I kept repeating the Yiddish phrase, remembering how he spoke it to me, knowing I was saying it incorrectly but hoping that the sound of his mother tongue would reel him back to this world.
Fayge is coming. Fayge.
I kept saying her name. Both his daughter’s and his mother’s.
My face hurt. It was wet and aching. I never cry in the moment. I’m the type to put a pin in it until a good few minutes after any catastrophe and then let it out. Unless a word sets me off.
“Fayge. She’s coming. Please. Please wait.”
I rambled on.
“We all love you. Sonya.” His wife, my late grandmother. In my mind if I kept saying their names I could anchor him to that blue room and make him wait for her.
“And Peretz. And Fayge. And…” I said all my cousins’ names and my siblings’ names.
When the longest stretch happened and he gave the shallowest breath yet, I knew.
The crying intensified. I forgot to stroke his hand.
Two PABS walked in, too early for their jobs to commence. They saw me, a mess, curled over the bar of the bed, loosely entwining my hand with his.
They saw their mistake.
“Es-ce-que tu besoin quelque chose?” Do you need something?
I don’t know why I answered the way I did. “Il besoin rien maintenant,” he needs nothing right now.
He was still there, I could see his trachea moving and as they left, looking awkward and uncertain, I knew what I had to do.
And then suddenly I couldn’t breathe. My windpipe was knocked out with such a whack of inner pain. I’d never felt anything like it. The burden of saying goodbye, keeping a soul safe, taking someone’s pain.
“Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu…” It was too hard, my voice was so hard to get out through the tears and the closed up throat.
“Adonai Echad.” It came out as a stage whisper, as did the Baruch Shem that came after it.
I stopped counting the minutes between each breath and focused on the tremor in his trachea.
Numbness made the tears stop, and the blue seeped in and I watched his throat and wished my mother would walk in.
I heard her footsteps rushing down that unnaturally silent hospital wing a minute or two after the last twitch of his indignant, proud throat.
The tears started again after the punch that impacted my rib cage when I heard her wail “Oh Daddy!” and begin to cry.
When she hugged me I realised that maybe it is like the movies.
Maybe you are the only one that gets to say goodbye.
Today it was melancholy in Jerusalem.
The wind was so forceful and it yowled through the streets, lifting dust into angry swirls and tearing flags off poles.
It almost had the power to push me down a hill.
If the weather had moods like the human mind does, or if it had emotions like the human heart, it picked a good day to mirror them.
Yom Hazikaron L’ashoah Ul’gevurah. The day is not only commemorating the millions who were murdered in the Holocaust, but the bravery of the survivors who moved on and built and lived.
April 23 is the day the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. Many believe this day was chosen by the first leaders of the Israeli State to commemorate the Holocaust because it was a day when Jews rose up to fight for their freedom. Or at least, for their ability to die with dignity.
If you watch the national ceremony that usually takes place at Yad Vashem, survivors are called upon to light six candles in honour of the six million who perished. Each lighter has a story to tell and once it is told, they light the candle. Famous poems of heartrending humanity and hope are read, mementos left behind by wartime children who had been living in hiding.
We all had school assemblies mimicking this ceremony. I contributed to mine several times.
Each gathering is an act of memory, and in memory we hope to give life to those people. They lived.
And those who survived were not victims.
Zaidy certainly never acted like one.
Zaidy didn’t have a number on his arm.
He didn’t waste away in a Ghetto.
He did suffer the fear of total elimination.
His whole universe.
Gone up in smoke.
And if you ever saw him, back ramrod straight, indefatigably arguing his strong opinions, suit pristine, manner impeccable, you’d know that he was invincible.
They tried to take away his humanity.
He wouldn’t let them.
They tried to take away his dignity. He defied them by living with incredible dignity.
I don’t know what he would say, if he saw this. He hated pictures being taken of him. He hated any fuss being made.
But I think I had to let my mother know.
Even if I already told her how it happened.
I needed to reassure those worried about his Jewish soul that I did try to protect it.
I said the Shema, even though he couldn’t.
I said goodbye.