Every Wednesday, for the past 7 months, I have visited an elderly woman on the Upper West Side named Edna. Edna has the brightest blue eyes and the whitest white hair. Her fingers and legs are lanky and her nose curves ever so slightly to the right. She’s funny and flexible and finds pleasure in eating and singing. When I visit Edna, she always thinks I am someone else: her daughter, an old Russian friend, a nice Jewish visitor etc. On sunny days I take her outside and on all days, we sing songs and laugh about politics. She loves singing G-d Bless America and You Are My Sunshine.
This past Wednesday, I rode up the elevator to the 7th floor and saw Edna sleeping in her wheelchair parked up along the white walls. I asked the nurse whether or not I should wake her up, and she informed me that Edna was not doing so well and that she was on her way out (that phrase always gives me the chills). “She’ll hear you," she said. As I walked over to Edna, I thought I’d simply sit by her side and sing to her as she continued to sleep. But as soon as I started to hum my favorite tune, her blue eyes began to open up wider and wider and wider until we were both staring deeply into one another’s souls. Beyond age, beyond space and beyond time, we were connecting through the power of gaze and the power of song.
As I continued to sing her my favorite Jewish melodies, I found it difficult to leave. Her eyes were magnetizing: full of fear, hope and wonder - full of life and yet at the same time full of the end of life. In her presence, I felt the same sense of urgency that enveloped me when I cared for my mom in the hospital:
Someone needs to stay with her, connect with her, keep her from letting go into the embrace of death.
I wanted to be with her at every moment - to make sure that her soft voice was heard, her dry mouth was iced and her cold feet were warmed. Any kind of neglect in a time of such disconnect felt so painful. I wanted to comfort her and do whatever I could to help her feel that she was present and a part of this world.
Fortunately, my Wednesday visits were part of my school program, so eventually I had to leave. As I said good-bye to Edna, she told me how grateful she was for my visit and how much she loved me. I realized in that moment that she gave me as much strength, if not more, than I gave to her. She gave me the strength to walk into the unknown, to trust, to let go, to move forward and to have faith that her needs would be met with or without me there. As I walked into the elevator without knowing whether or not I would see Edna again, I thought:
There comes a point where we can't control who lives and who dies, but we can control how we live and how we love.
When people we love are in pain, we tend to neglect our own needs. We try so hard to be in control of the other's well being and find ourselves swallowed up by our fears of the great: What If this.. What if that..
Perhaps, we are wrong to believe that if we raise our loved ones out of suffering, our own suffering will be alleviated too. Perhaps the best way to heal is through letting go of control and focusing instead on mending our our own wounds while helping to remedy the wounds of others.
Edna taught me the value of being present and connecting, but she also taught me the value of healing in harmony. Just as much as I thought she needed me, she thought I needed her - and this is the beauty of being human, we all truly do need each other.
Singing and connecting with my mom and my niece