“May the one who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us, and all Israel. To which we say amen.”

He is standing at the nurse’s desk shouting at the top of his voice. He is demanding more pain medicine for his wife down the hall, a la Shirley Maclean in Terms of Endearment. The nurse in front of him is so rattled that her hands shake as she lifts the phone to dial the on-call doctor.

When the order is received she asks me to go with her as she gives it, to help her turn and reposition the patient. She tells me the lady has end stage cancer and is very near death. When we get to the room I see she is a tiny thing, lost in the vastness of the bed, a wraith, a winter leaf about to crushed under foot. My colleague gives the pain medicine. And as we pull back the sheet to move her I see it, left forearm, upper part, a number. A number that can mean only one thing. I stand there like a stone as the full weight of what it means lands on me. After a moment I look up into her face and her eyes are on me, obsidian, giving away nothing. After a lifetime of absorbing the reactions of others she will not help me.

When we are done he comes back into the room and give her a kiss of such tenderness and a look of such love that I am ashamed to be present, so intimate is the moment. He says

“I’ll see you in the morning my love.”

and turns to go, his face a mask of anguish. Perhaps he thought she’d suffered enough. From the window I can see him walking to his car, his jacket around his shoulders. A gust of wind whips the sleeves up around him and I can’t decide if they are like fists raised to God or arms begging for mercy.

When I turn back to her, her eyes are closed. She is at peace. In a few days she is at peace for good. I tuck her, and him, away in the storeroom of my memory and move on to the next one. And the one after that.

All these years later I’ve forgotten so many of the patients that I’ve cared for, their names, their struggles. But I remember her. I’m happy to say that I can no longer remember a single digit of that terrible number, although the shock wave of seeing it echoes still. When I think of her I remember her dark eyes on me and I remember her name. The sands of time have rubbed away the number, but the name remains.

2 thoughts on “Kaddish

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