a Short Jewish Memoir



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by Elaine Rosenberg Miller

His skin was wrinkled and spotted. His thinning, long hair, once brushed carefully straight back, fell forward like some 1930's schoolgirl's bob, obscuring his sunken cheeks and black-framed eyeglasses.

"I thought he was a woman," said the seated patient. At first, I thought she was strange, shuffling heavily to a table in the recreation room, fussing with her water color drawings, noisily demanding that my sons, playing cards nearby, move a chair for her. My youngest son glanced warily in my direction. I jumped up to assist her.

"Thanks, honey," she said. She explained that she had phlebitis in her leg and that she needed to elevate it. She showed me her artwork, modeled after a postcard. Black palm trees were silhouetted against a fiery red and orange sky but, unlike the spiky, fluid Florida palms, the fronds were thick and immobile looking.

"It's good," I said.

Across the room I watched my husband encourage his aged great-uncle to sip food supplements through a bent straw. Patiently, he patted his pajamed back. The old man leaned forward in his wheelchair and rhythmically touched the window sill.

He had been married for sixty years. They had never been apart. They had helped raise my husband. He had played with their cat. They had taken him to play miniature golf and to the airport to watch the planes. They had never had children of their own and called him their "boy".

Suddenly, I wanted to speak to this woman loudly complaining of the nurses and attendants. I wanted to forget how quickly he had faded from a jovial elder exclaiming with upraised hand and smile, "I can't believe I'm eighty-eight!" to a non-communicative, sunken-eyed dying man.

We had entered his room and I could see, reflected on the glass of the framed wall print, his bare legs and back, as bedridden, he lay behind a curtain.

"Stop," I instructed my sons, holding out my hands. My husband covered him with a blanket. He lifted him into a wheelchair and placed his glasses on his face.

"I sing," she said. "Sure, on Miami Beach, just mention my name. They all know me." She had begun to sing in Yiddish, a song about waiting for seven good years of plenty. Bring him over here," she said.

My husband wheeled his great-uncle over to the woman with the headband and bangle jewlelery.

"Hello, tatteleh," she said, patting his hand. She sang with a strength that belied her asthma.

He looked up, interrupting his reverie.

He smiled.

We both sang, nursery rhymes, comic songs, plaintive songs. My sons looked up from their game.

For a moment, all was well.

Then, he was wheeled out of the room.

The next afternoon, thick, dark clouds rumbled across the sky and strong winds leveled the canopy of the palm trees.

My daughter pointed her dimpled finger at the window and shouted "Lo-ok! Lo-ok!"

He died during the night, alone, of dehydration.

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