Short Story by Dafna Feldman
The “Tiferet Avot” nursing home was chosen owing to the glittering crystal chandelier at the entrance and the fact that it did not smell of death and stinking diapers. It later turned out that the workers would throw the diapers from the windows of the building into the yard and nearby houses of the neighbors, carrying the stench with them. Since I was not working at the time, I took on the role of Reisel’s caretaker. I visited her daily, trudging on foot to Tiferet Avot, passing the shimmering crystal chandelier. In the huge lobby, the occupants of the place gather around an accordion player and veteran songs. The elevator ascends, passes the floor of the mentally debilitated, goes up to the floor of the invalids. I get out on the last floor, invalids and mentally debilitated. On the floor above us, God. Here reside the terminal patients. Here Reisel lay. Since I was prevented from showering or swaddling her, I spent time with her sitting on the porch, painting her nails with a glittery polish and massaging her dead feet. The skin fell from them onto my lap like flakes from the bottom of a potato chips bag.
Sometimes I had to help with lunch. On one of these occasions, I was sent to fetch the dentures that were in a jar by her bed. When she put the teeth in her mouth she began to complain that they were not hers. She took them out and kept insisting, despite my pleas that she put them back in her mouth. Embarrassed by the noisy grumbling of the demented old woman, who showed no signs of giving up or adapting, I looked at the jar only to discover that it had “Sarah Maman” written on it. The old woman was right
“Who is Sarah Maman?” I called out in the hall. “I have your teeth.”
A nurse pointed to Sarah Maman, a dark, wrinkled old woman who was already in the middle of chewing her lunch.
“There has been a mistake, terribly sorry.”
I showed her the teeth with one hand and placed the other hand under her chin. She spat out Reisel’s dentures, full of food scraps, into my palm, and with the other hand hurriedly put her teeth in her mouth. I returned to Reisel with the false teeth in my palm, intending to confirm the identity of the dentures and disinfect them. But she quickly took them and shoved them in her mouth, nodding approval of their ownership.
After a week she fainted and was sent to the hospital. That’s where I was first exposed to the biggest fear of paraplegics, bed sores. The cursed dependence of the paralyzed on the minimum wage earner to grudgingly rotate the ‘shish kebab’ from side to side from time to time is a proven recipe for the decay of the body while the soul is still inside it. The holes through which the bone was discovered, surrounded by black and green flesh, and that familiar stench that rises in the nose when passing by a run-over cat. The nurses in the ward did not utter the words “criminal negligence” but ruled emphatically that she would not be returning there. We waited for a vacancy in a nursing hospital. The first body bag came from Ward Seven at Hillel Harofe. A bed became available for Reisel.
It was her new home. I did not yet know that this was the final stop. Naively, I thought they would treat the festering wounds that had spread on her body and I would be able to take her home.
I went out to tour the new place (here there was no crystal chandelier, and the smell of urine was noticeable). A long corridor and a dining-visiting-TV room. The residents of Ward Seven were on the floor between the mentally debilitated and God–the floor I did not think existed until this moment. Near the nurses’ station, in a room under close supervision, I saw her. A young woman, her eyes open, her body cupped between pillows. Pictures of a family and children’s drawings indicated she had been there for a long time. Beside her stood a dark-skinned young man, bearded and thin, plastic flip-flops, short sweatpants and a thick gold ring on his little finger. I was curious but did not know if it would be appropriate for me to approach him. The nurses refused to provide me with information, so I waited for an opportunity.
In places where murky fates unite, the smoking area is a place that breaks silence and boundaries. After several days in which everyone held a lonely smoke-blowing ceremony, I asked for a light, perhaps a cigarette.
For Boaz, it’s all numbers: 5 years of friendship, 3 months of marriage, 27 meters deep at the time of drowning, 2 years of her being a vegetable, 200 times imagining her funeral and obituary. Simultaneously, he was full of love mixed with anger. He visited every day, sometimes accompanied by a family member, always with the laptop, trying to get some work done. He shared with me lots of ideas; all the projects he was trying to promote. But how much can you move forward, when you are imprisoned in limbo together with your new wife?
Here I met Yemima Kopolowitz, who later turned out to be Simona. That’s what the staff called her, so I did too. To her I was “like Reisel’s daughter.” Yemima was present at every cigarette break in a yard laden with ashtrays and wheelchairs. She staggered in her wheelchair, dragging herself from place to place with one foot; the second one, sometimes bandaged, sometimes bare, revealing a foot which was distorted and rotten. Just like this place. The last frontier, the place where broken humans lay or rolled. Turning back and forth, shouting for some relief.
Thick fleshed, clad in a filthy hospital gown and oversized pants, which fell every time she got up, leaving her buttocks exposed to all. She spent most of the day in that yard, begging family members who came to visit the ward’s “nearly dead” for cigarettes. If she was unlucky, she would gather and chew cigarette filters from the ashtrays scattered around. Her teeth were brown and her tongue yellow, her scattered and disheveled hair a faded yellow color. Her lips, fleshy and cracked, would protrude as she burst into a stream of meaningless words. Sometimes she made sense, most of the time not. She liked it when I came, and I liked coming and talking to her. She knew she would get a cigarette and an attentive ear to the great love stories she had, there in America, and how much gold and how many diamonds were showered upon her. One day, I asked to surprise her with a pair of new plastic flip-flops that would replace the torn ones that were on her feet. Yemima was insulted and shouted that she had closets full of new and beautiful gold slippers at home. “She’s only here temporarily and is leaving soon. She just needs her leg to heal and she’s outa here.” I was embarrassed and threw the golden flip-flops in the nearby garbage can. Yemima muttered a curse and went back inside. The next day they were on her feet.
Every day, I drag Reisel into the yard, usually to the courtyard entrance, between Yemima and Boaz, to the ashtrays and wheelchairs. I try to come around lunchtime. The nurses ask me to convince her to eat. The wounds do not heal and food is critical. So at home I prepare ground lasagna, chicken soup, meatballs, put them in plastic containers and bring them to her. She refuses to eat and I stop cooking. Instead I transfer the repulsive hospital blend into my home containers, claiming it to be my home cooking. We sit in the yard, I continue to massage her feet and paint her nails with flashy red nail polish. She speaks Romanian to me and looks at me through hollow eyes. I’ve decided to stop speaking to her. Instead I play her songs in Romanian on YouTube and remain silent. Boaz joins us in the yard. Yemima, on the side, joins in when there is something to say and chews filters feverishly. We’ve made time a sacred ceremony, a time-dependent relationship. Not mine or his, but of those whose time has almost run out, or stopped altogether.
“And if she wakes up? You know her mind is blank,” I insist on confronting him with a possible reality.
“She will have to learn to walk, talk, eat.”
“I know. I’ll teach her.”
“She will not know who you are,” I say.
“I will teach her to fall in love with me again.”
How much I loved him at that moment, and I wondered how long he could keep coming to her, lying with her eyes open and a hollow look. There is nothing behind the eyes; the brain was completely erased in the blue water, at a depth of 27 meters. Did she see coral and fish glowing before the last oxygen molecule vanished?
The nurses say she feels my presence already at the entrance to the ward. She would call out my name in the hall before I entered, and when I would leave she would shout, “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me here, take me with you.” I would cry, my stomach turning every time. Malka, the head nurse, tried to comfort me that Reisel was in the only place that could help her. I could not bear it anymore. It seemed to me that she was continuing her horrific life only for me. So I stopped coming, allowing us both a breather. Three days later I returned. Malka hurried to call out to me: “It’s good you came, we were waiting for you. Come to my office.” I rush to Reisel first, her condition has indeed deteriorated. She no longer moves, just opens eyes whose tear ducts have already dried up from too much use.
I went into the nurse’s room.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” she says and surprises me by sticking a glass of water in my hand.
“We have to decide and get your approval. You see, we have no way of helping her anymore. She refuses to eat. Her daughter signed a Form 9-26 (Do not force feed.) She is suffering terribly. We did everything we could. Now I ask your consent to give her morphine, to alleviate the suffering.” She hurriedly pushes the glass of water into my hand and sits down in front of me. I think about how many times she has already sat with families, reciting this text. Her white uniform turns into a black robe, and the pen she is waving around as she speaks is the scythe.
“Why me?” I ask. “I’m not her daughter.”
“Yes,” she replies in a soft but assertive and purposeful voice. “But you’re the person closest to her. She sees you as the caregiver she is attached to, and that’s how we see you. You have to decide whether to continue her suffering or help her end it.”
Perhaps in a parallel universe I would have insisted on preserving her, refusing to send her to her death, believing that she could still be saved.
“Put her on morphine, her suffering should end.”
Nurse Malka gives a slight smile. She continues talking and telling me about the difficult cases, the grief and the pain, congratulating me on my decision. I stop hearing her. Her mouth moves, but I hear her voice as if coming from the depths of a well, or maybe it’s me in the depths of the well and the voices come from the opening. Now I understand, I’m signing her death warrant. I did not return to Reisel’s room that day.
The next morning, I showed up with acetone and cotton wool. I did not know when the moment would come, but I wanted her to be ready. Save the Hevra Kadisha from having to do it. She got up once, stared at me with torn eyes and plunged into the nirvana dripping from the infusion bag. I asked her to call me when it was time to end, as I had accompanied her husband years before, when he released his last breath. I removed the red nail polish thoroughly. Preparing for a funeral or a mikveh is the same, I thought, and went out into the smoky courtyard, to the usual bench, to Boaz and Yemima.
“I’ll get out of here first,” I said suddenly “Who will be second to leave?”
Boaz looked at me and at Yemima. “She will leave second,” and fell silent.
“You want to leave here. Do you know how?”
“I hope so too.”
That night she called for me. Three times she woke me up with a big breath that burst out of me and asked me to come to her. I was so tired and went to sleep. In the morning, Nurse Malka called.
A few family members gathered in the courtyard that was once our kingdom–Boaz’s, Yemima’s and mine. I went in to help the nurses clear the bed. The nurse was frantically searching for her dentures. It turns out that the dead are buried together with their dentures. How ridiculous, I thought to myself. They’re like silicone and intrauterine devices–they never decompose. But at the same time I performed the task and closed the zipper on the woman who had once been my mother-in-law.
I went out into the yard. Yemima, with her back to me, sat at the end of the yard between the wheelchairs, concentrated on rummaging through an ashtray. Boaz was nowhere to be seen, as if he had existed only up to Reisel’s moment in time. I looked one last time at Yemima, at the scattered wheelchairs and the ashtrays full of cigarettes.
“You went out first,” she said and turned her head towards me.
I nodded in silence.
And immediately she turned around and continued rummaging in the ashtray.
I turned my gaze and got up to accompany the bag on the stretcher.
I left Boaz and Simona in a place where time has its own rhythm, better suited to the pulse of those who live there. The void left by Reisel’s death was filled with dozens of tasks, and although I promised to come visit, I fell into a time-bound routine. I wanted to go back to the battered benches, to the crowded ashtrays, to the wheelchairs. I missed the one whose time would soon be over and who was “only temporarily here,” and the one whose time stopped 2 years and 27 meters ago, in God’s quietest corner. I miss the island of time.
Sometimes I miss Reisel too.