The children were finally asleep. Meyer was visiting his
parents. I relished being alone to lie reading in bed. There
was a knock at the door. I looked in surprise at my watch. In
Israel, eleven o'clock was late for visitors.
"Who is it?" I asked.
"It's Shloime; your husband just called. He said to tell you
to come to the Home immediately."
Without a phone of our own, we depended on the Gottfrieds to
be our answering service. I discounted the sharpness in
Shloime's voice; he'd probably been pulled out of bed to
relay the message and would now have to climb three flights
of steps to get back into it again. For that matter, I was a
little annoyed myself. It wasn't often that I could enjoy a
book; most of the time, as soon as I started reading, my eyes
I got up and got dressed.
A bus whizzed by just as I got to the corner of Rechov
Nechemia. Too impatient to wait for the next one, I started
walking to the Home. Not a soul was in sight. The night was
cool and silent. It filled me with a calm. The urgency in
Shloime's voice was no indication of anything wrong, I told
myself convincingly. Nevertheless, I found myself
Maybe company came, I thought, and as I got closer to my in-
laws' room, I even imagined that I heard the cheerful voice
of my brother-in-law, Shmil, who had written that he and his
wife Hendel hoped to visit soon.
I opened the door to my in-law's room and was greeted with
silence. Ma was propped up against pillows on her bed. Meyer
supported her head. Pa stood at the side of the room, looking
on helplessly. The doctor had just left. He'd given Ma a
sedative. He thought that it might be a mild heart attack but
said not to worry; he'd check her again in the morning.
I ran to the bed, took Ma's hand in my own. It was a strong
"I can't understand what all the fuss is about," Ma said
apologetically. "Nothing hurts. I feel fine. You were finally
able to get to bed at a decent hour one night, and we go and
pull you out with a false alarm. Please go home. Both of you.
It's late. Buses will soon stop running and it's a long walk.
Your children need rested parents in the morning. Go. I'm
fine. You can see for yourself."
Ma did look good. And so very calm; agitated only that Meyer
and I were being kept awake because of her.
"I'm just a little tired," she continued softly. "All I need
is a good night's rest."
As the sedative took effect, Ma's words began to slur. I
thought that she was already asleep when she suddenly sat up
and coughed... The moment passed. Still insisting that we go
home, she fell asleep again.
Pa confirmed what Ma had told us, but added that, though the
doctor hadn't shown any alarm over her condition, he'd
mentioned that one of the children should be around in the
morning when he checked her again.
As we walked home, Mayer said, "We were in the room talking,
when suddenly, Ma clutched her head and exclaimed, `How
different I feel. Maybe my time has come!'
"Pa got angry. `Silly woman,' he told her sharply."
Then, as though trying to justify Pa, Meyer explained, "It's
not that Pa doesn't have patience with Ma or doesn't
sympathize with her. On the contrary, by minimizing her aches
and pains and fears, he is acting in accordance with the
chassidic teaching that if something goes wrong, you're
supposed to say that it's nothing, only your imagination,
foolishness. Give it no credence at all. Destroy its essence
by denying its existence.
"Bad thoughts create bad angels. Good thoughts create good
angels. That's why whenever Ma wonders if her end is close,
Pa chides her for being a foolish old woman who doesn't know
what she's talking about."
When we got home, our eldest son, Duvid Shea, was on his way
to the shul where he always spent Thursday nights
studying. Still apprehensive about his mother, Meyer asked
him to study in the shul of the Home and check on Ma
during the night.
Dawn was pushing through the blinds. There was a knock at the
"Who is it?" I called out with dread.
"It's Shloime. Duvid Shea phoned to come right away."
The buses had still not started. We ran the whole way.
The nurse stood in the middle of the room, wringing her
hands. Ma was on her bed, apparently still asleep. I was sure
that I heard her breathing. Pa stood at the side of the room,
looking confused and bewildered.
I approached the nurse. "What happened?" I asked. "Why did
they call us?"
She just looked at me sadly and shook her head. I asked
again. Again, the nurse just shook her head. I glared at her
in disbelief. I was so sure that I could hear Ma
"You mean it's all over?" I asked in total confusion.
"All over, all over!" the nurse ehoced mournfully.
Then Pa started making funny coughing sounds and Mayer rushed
over to him and they fell on each other, sobbing loudly.
All we could do after that was wait for a reasonable hour to
wake people and inform them of the funeral.
A doctor came to confirm Ma's death.
Two women from the Chevra Kadisha came into the room, went
over to Ma's bed, and yelled into her ear, "Zina bas
Yitzchok, whatever we do now is only for your honor."
They lifted her up and laid her on the floor, placed a stone
beneath her head and covered her with a white sheet. Then
they asked me who I was and told me to light Ma's Shabbos
candles and put them on either side of her head. Meyer took
down the box containing Ma's shrouds.
There were two boxes, exactly the same. On one, the word `Ma'
was written in bold letters, on the other, it said `Pa.' Ma
had had shrouds sewn before coming to Israel. Whenever we
cleaned her closets and came across the two boxes, we would
get very flustered and act as though we didn't know what was
inside. But to Ma, death wasn't something to fear. There was
a time to live and a time to die. It made things easier for
everyone concerned if you prepared for your death in
Years before, she had bought two plots from a representative
of the Jerusalem Chevra Kadisha. When asked if she preferred
any special location, she answered that whatever they gave
her would be fine, as long as they were buried in holy soil.
But after coming to Israel and visiting the graves of her
sister, Frayda, and brother-in-law, R' Duvid Melech, she
decided that she preferred being buried closer to them and
she'd asked me to do her the favor and go up to the Chevra
Kadisha office to authorize the change whenever I was in
Jerusalem and had some extra time.
As it hadn't sounded urgent -- but nothing that Ma asked
anyone to do for her ever sounded urgent -- and Ma was in
good health, I never took care of the matter and after a
while, it slipped my mind.
Now I suddenly remembered that Ma had wanted to be buried in
the same section as her sister and I didn't know what to do.
It was too early to reach anyone in the Chevra Kadisha, as
their office was still closed and I didn't know any of their
home numbers, for that matter. I couldn't even reach the man
in the Home who took care of such matters.
I was a nervous wreck! There I was, determined to fulfill
Ma's wish, but unable to reach the people who could help me
do so. And there wasn't that much time, either, because it
was the Friday before Pesach, when the days are short and
people were not only rushing to prepare for Shabbos, but for
I finally reached a Mr. Gelbstein, who was in charge of the
Chevra Kadisha. I told him my problem. He sounded
sympathetic, but told me that if digging had already been
started on the plot that Ma had originally bought, it would
be too late to make the change. He'd do his best to inform
the gravedigger of the change and fufill the wishes of the
News of death spreads fast in an Old Age Home. Ladies were
already coming in: shocked, bewildered, unable to believe
what had happened. They'd just seen Ma the night before,
`frish und gesindt.' How had it happened so fast? The
women formed a loose circle around Ma's body and asked her
forgiveness if they'd ever hurt her feelings; with those who
had, wailing louder and longer than the rest. Pa sat on his
bed, the tears slowly disappearing into his snow-white beard.
His eyes were red and swollen, full of disbelief. Meyer sat
on a chair directly in front of him, holding him up, hugging
him, shushing him, supporting him from falling forward.
I kept wringing out wet towels with which to wipe Pa's face
and neck. His forehead burnt; he probably had fever. We
begged him to drink some tea, but he refused; was annoyed
when we insisted.
"Just a spoonful," we begged again and again, but all Pa
could do was cry.
It's not real, I kept telling myself. It's not
happening. A dream. A bad dream from which we'll soon all
awake. But the dream was suddenly very crowded as the
minyon from the Chevra Kadisha pushed open the door
and carried in a stretcher. They filled the small room: young
men with black beards, old men with white; all black caftans
and flat, wide brimmed black hats, begartled waists
and blank faces. Everything about them seemed to proclaim:
"We live and we die; may Hashem's will be done!"
But His will was hurting.
People were beginning to gather together in front of the
Home, forming loose solemn groups on the stoop and sidewalk.
I noticed my children huddled together across the street,
trying to shield themselves from a sun that was already
merciless at nine. They were each in a daze, totally unable
to comprehend what had happened.
The funeral began, but though the sound of mourning filled
the street, I was dry-eyed, almost in ecstacy: the only thing
that filled my head was the vision of Ma being borne aloft on
the wings of angels as they carried her to eternal peace. I
could actually see the crowds of her loved ones waiting to
welcome her at Heaven's gates: the tzaddikim, the
rabbonim, the exalted figures whose spirits Ma had absorbed
as a child and of whom she never tired telling. At last, Ma
was on her way to be reunited with all her loved ones. Was
this not a time to rejoice? Why weep when her long, hard
journey was finally over, when she was freed at last from a
world that had been an exile for her soul?
But Pa was crying. Had he only known, he kept on repeating,
always ending with a stoic, "Ya, ya," as if that
explained it all.
The assembled masses followed the stretcher, stumbling where
the pavement was broken. Ladies from the Home supported one
another by linking arms.
"Who will be next?" their sighs and their eyes seemed to ask.
Three-year-old Bruchy cried that she wanted to see her Bahby.
Someone told her that she'd gone to Heaven, to be an angel
The ride to Jerusalem was in silent, stunned grief. Never had
the landscape seemed so beautiful...
[final part of "Death" next week. More of "Pa" still to