The call came from Brooklyn on a Friday night. Our daughter Elisabeth, alarmed and confused, could not figure out how to set her clock so that she could rise in time to catch the train for work. She told us she had been struggling with similar issues for a few days, and, no, she could not go to the doctor because the Pilates studio owner had just mandated that there be no more late cancellations by instructors. She suspected the flu. “It has been going around,” she said.
We were worried, and my husband called his brother to see if he could help Elisabeth see a doctor Saturday afternoon. Within the hour, Elisabeth called back uncharacteristically enraged that we had meddled in her affairs.
Still worried, we planned to go to work on Monday, clear our desks, make necessary arrangements, then drive to New York. But on Sunday morning, her panicked boyfriend called. He agreed to take her to an emergency room, and we started driving. My husband’s brother met them at Lennox Hill Hospital where he remained until we arrived.
The days passed and Lisy’s condition deteriorated. We measured time in an endless stream of labs, the exchange of IV bags, revolving roommates, specialists, gaggles of young inquisitive doctors asking “Who is the President? What day of the week is it? If you had $4.00 and spent 75 cents on a Coke, how much money would you have left?
My husband took the day shift, and I spent the nights.
One morning my husband exploded into the room asking: “Is Dr. Devi Jewish?”
“I think she’s Indian. Why?”
“Because Rosh Hashanah begins tonight, and Jewish doctors will not be
here for two days.”
That evening, according to my routine, I settled into one of two chairs at the foot of Lisy’s bed.
On all the previous evenings, except for passing visitors and hospital staff, there had been little activity, but on this first night of Rosh Hashanah, a new patient, a Rabbi was seated in the room across the hall. He was wearing a hospital gown, but also his hat over his skull cap, the tasseled undergarment that Jewish men wear, and he was wrapped in a prayer shawl. He was a portly man with a gray beard and a gentle demeanor. His followers had been streaming in all evening, each bearing a huge container of holiday food. The Rabbi expressed gratitude, tasted each dish directly from its container, and nodded his approval. This seemed important.
I have to confess I was enjoying the diversion from our lonely plight, and I began to wonder about the attire. The hats and hair nets, the long black coats, the shapeless clothing and sensible shoes the women wore compared to the jaunty hats, curls, tailored coats, pants, and boots the young men wore. The Rabbi’s room was overflowing with New Years well wishers, and women gathered in the hall to talk. Through fragments of conversations, I determined that an important young woman of great interest to everyone would be visiting. She was French, and immediately I began to wonder if somehow she would find a way to improve on the unfortunate fashion strictures these Jewish women endured.
She arrived bearing food, but a bit more black stocking and still-sensible shoes showed below her skirt. Her clothing was fitted where it could be, and she wore a more stylish head covering than the others. Murmurs of greeting welcomed her as she disappeared into the Rabbi’s room. I did not see her leave, and by ten o’clock, everyone had gone.
Lisy was sleeping, and our room was darkened. I had reclaimed my chair. The Rabbi sat across the hall from me and to my wonderment, he was once again eating, this time from a large plastic container. I wanted to believe that at last alone he could enjoy his favorite dish. Perhaps the one his wife had prepared.
He was backlit by his room’s ceiling light and illuminated in a shaft of light from the hallway. I didn’t want to stare, but I did. And I was caught. He looked up; our eyes met. He smiled silently speaking a gentle expression of sympathy, the acknowledgement of our shared unfortunate circumstances. “It is Rosh Hashanah, and here we are spending it in a hospital.”
I smiled back. Message received. “Shanah tova. Shalom.”