It was right after I made Havdalah on Saturday night May 10 that I turned on my smartphone to a voice mail from my mother’s aide.
“Hi Judd, this is Pearl. I know that you cannot answer your phone. I am rushing back to the emergency room with your mom. She is not doing well. I just want to let you know, okay? Bye.”
This was the beginning of the end of my mother’s long life. She had experienced difficulty breathing that Shabbos and was rushed from Care One, the rehab facility where she ultimately had been admitted after having fallen and broken her pelvis just before Purim, down the block to Holy Name Hospital. Upon admission she was non-responsive to commands, intubated, sedated and admitted into the ICU unit where, as it would turn out, she would live the last two weeks of her life.
Her admission to the ICU began a life experience which I would come to describe as “sad but inspiring”. Sad – for all the obvious reasons; my mother’s final illness and her passing. Inspirational – because of how she died and the amazing people with whom we came in contact.
Several days after her admission to the ICU we were told that she had lost all kidney function. Dialysis was a possibility though not a solution. If it did not, her days would be severely numbered. The intensive care doctors and the nephrologist explained to my brother and me the options but did not encourage dialysis. Her age, over 90, her greatly deteriorated and frail condition did not bode well even if dialysis would give her a temporary reprieve. They expressed their views but were very respectful of our need to obtain an halachic ruling. This began a nearly daily dialogue with our rabbinic authority as we tried to navigate through complicated and difficult end of life issues with strict compliance to the requirements of halacha and with the utmost compassion and respect for my mother. While knowing that we would ultimately follow the halachic decisions of the rabbi made our personal decision making process “easier”, more “black and white”, it was nonetheless an exhausting and at times confusing effort that pitted American society and the medical profession’s “quality of life” and compassion paradigm against the Torah’s view of the meaning of life and the sacred quality of every single moment of life granted to a person by the Almighty. I gained a new respect for the responsibility of a rabbi who is called upon time and time again to make life and death decisions for others. How thankful I am that I am just a lawyer. In the end, we were able to see clearly that following the dictates of halacha was the reason why my mother lived to experience one more Shabbos, one more candle lighting, one more Kiddush before returning to her Maker.
On Friday night May 16 we were informed that the dialysis was unsuccessful. While no one could tell us when, we were told it would be a matter of days as my mother had virtually no kidney function. This began what would turn out to be a weeklong vigil in the ICU for myself, my wife, my brother and my sister in law. We camped out in the ICU from day to night and one night my brother and I split sleeping in the ICU. It was obvious and natural to us all – our mother was not going to make this last voyage alone. We would put our lives on hold and accompany her on her final journey.
Our vigil in the ICU introduced us to some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. Every ICU nurse, technician and orderly was amazing. They work three days a week and twelve hour shifts. Every moment of every day they are care for those most in need of care. And each individual with whom we came in contact was inspiring. They are dedicated beyond description, respectful of every patient, caring in a way that is super human. I asked one nurse, Rachel, how she does her job day in and day out. “I look at every patient as if they are my parent or my sibling. Some days I just go home and cry. Some days we have victories”. In the world in which we are literally inundated with news of evil, of terrorists, of crime, and OF all that is bad with our society, it is so important to know that there are many who literally dedicate their lives to helping others. Spending an intense week in the company of such people, forced me to look at ymy own life and to ask myself “Do I, can I measure up to these ordinary – but in truth – extraordinary people?”
Sunday turned into Monday, Monday turned into Tuesday and my mother waged her personal battle against the malach hamaves, the angel of death. She was clearly going to give him a run for his money. Tuesday turned into Wednesday. Wednesday afternoon her blood pressure dropped precipitously and Rachel her (frum) ICU nurse that day indicated to us in her own gentle way that this was not good. My brother and I split that night in the ICU – all for naught – as mom rallied yet again. The angel of death had met his match.
Wednesday turned into Thursday and my mother was stable. My pediatric surgeon son in law in Saint Louis, who was my medical “interpreter” all through this process, could not understand how my mother was defying medical reality. Indeed, no one could. On Friday it all became clear.
Friday morning my mother was so stable that my wife and I left the hospital late morning to run a few errands and to take a break. We had come up the week before and never left. Our lives were on hold.
In the early afternoon we returned to the ICU. About an hour later we watched the monitor to which my mother had been hooked up for two weeks and saw that her blood pressure was dropping precipitously low. John, my mother’s soft spoken Jamaican ICU nurse that day, asked if we wanted him to call the rabbi. It was his way of preparing us for what was now happening. I called my brother told him to come and with our wives we started to make preparations. Top on the list was arranging for a shomer. Luckily, we were able to obtain a shomer, a very nice gentleman from Brooklyn whom I will likely never see again and who ended up staying up two nights saying tehilim; a lesson in chesed shel emes.
My wife Marilyn with the assistance of our cousin Heidi was able to get access to a bikur cholim facility in the hospital. The facility has two rooms; a bedroom and a fully stocked lounge. It is maintained by volunteers and is a testament to the inherent kindness, sensitivity and generosity of our people. Right before Shabbos my wife came back to the hospital to bring food and to show me the bikur cholim rooms. On the table in the lounge were two “Shabbos boxes”. Marilyn opened one up and handed me two tiny battery operated Shabbos candles. “Light them with your mother. Benching licht was always very important to her”.
We went back to my mother’s room in the ICU, her condition was deteriorating. Marilyn left for Shabbos and I benched licht for my mother. I placed the candles on a tray next to my mother and we brought in her final Shabbos. After davening we made Kiddush for my mother, washed, made hamoetzi and eat something. After benching we sat and said tehilim, learned and stared at the monitor to the right of my mother’s bed. Her blood pressure was dropping and her rate was increasing. The end was coming near. The ICU nurse, John, finished his shift at 11pm but instead of leaving he stayed with us. And at approximately 11:45 pm my mother passed away as her Shabbos candles flickered next to her bed.
As my brother and I began our long walk in the rain back to his house we began to understand what my mother’s final week long battle with the malach hamaves was all about. Clearly, my mother was determined to live one more Shabbos, to bench licht one more time, to hear Kiddush one last time before she departed this world and was reunited with my father, the love of her life, from whom she had been separated for twenty nine years and who was certainly waiting for her at the gates of heaven with open arms.