Tuesday, April 22, 2008


My friend calls before Shabbat starts. Can you come with me to visit this little girl in the children's hospital? she asks. Someone called and asked me to do it. She's originally from Israel, but only speaks Yiddish. I think she's five.

I surprise myself and reply, Yes. Without hesitation, I agree.

Well. That's different for me.

I don't like hospitals. I don't like the smell of disinfectant mingled with body odor, with the hint of death, that seems soaked into the walls and the floors. I don't like all the machines with the wires that have unknown destinations and points of origin. I don't like seeing people who have been distorted by disease and illness.

Why am I going to visit this unknown girl, who doesn't even speak English? Is it my wish to do a chessed that I haven't done in years? Is it my pity for her loneliness, my pity for the fact that she is spending the first days of Pesach over thirty miles from her family? Is it my determination to get over the awkwardness of being in a hospital? Is it even, just maybe, a sense of pleasure at how people will look at me afterwards with admiration that I walked over a mile and a half to visit someone that I don't even know?

I control my gag reflex as we enter the room of this little girl, who doesn't speak English and whose family is in Williamsburg for Shabbat and yom tov. I remind myself that we can play a game with her, and maybe that way we can overcome the language barrier. I feel my heart thuddering in my chest, and a small voice in me says - no, don't go in! You can still leave. I suppress that urge and follow my friend into the room.

On the bed lies a little girl, her wrists and hands encased in braces with pink foam lining them. Her small leg contracts in and out - her right leg, the only part of her body she can voluntarily control. Her head, bent at an angle to her neck, glistens with sweat. Her mouth is perpetually open as she breathes, a layer of yellowish substance on her tongue, probably the result of her mouth being open all the time. The plastic layer of a diaper peeks out from underneath a pair of gray leggings, hinting to the fact that she can no longer control when she goes to the bathroom. I feel myself wanting to gag at the thought of a girl who used to be able to run and skip and jump and throw tantrums, and is now reduced to a contracting shell of discomfort and pain.

There is a woman spending Shabbat and yom tov with her, a divorced mother from Lakewood who seems very relieved to have frum people to talk to. She tells us about the little girl, and how she used to be healthy and happy, but got a fever that went to her brain and caused damage. She shows us pictures of a girl merrily riding a ride at a makeshift amusement park, pictures of a little girl who has a three-year-old sibling and a one-year-old sibling, a girl whose mother comes every day to visit her, a girl whose parents have watched their daughter slip from health into disfunction. The woman is not related to the family, but speaks Yiddish and so was hired to stay with the little girl in place of her parents, who weren't able to come.

My friend and I approach the bed and say hello. The girl begins to whimper. Is she in pain? I ask the woman, concerned. Well, they gave her tylenol, but they can only change her diaper every couple hours or so, she replies. Inside, something twists in me at the thought of someone lying in that kind of discomfort, feeling it and not being able to fix it.

As I watch the little girl, not sure what to do, a small tear judders out of her eyelid and slides into the curls plastered to her temple. She's trying so hard to tell us something and we just don't quite know what she's saying, or what we should answer.

After a little more than an hour, during which we spent more time talking to the woman instead of the little girl (which is okay - she seemed to need company as well), and during which my friend and I stumbled over our slim knowledge of Yiddish to read a children's haggada aloud to the girl, we leave the room and exit the hospital.

My friend who's with me, whom I've known since childhood, chatters about her college exams on the way home. I am quiet. I am not sure what I am feeling, exactly. It's all a jumble. But I am affected, as I continue to be throughout the afternoon and into the evening, into the first seder, where I have to distract myself from picturing the girl so as to be able to eat without feeling nausea.

I'm still feeling the effects of having visited this girl, although not as intensely and not as often. I'm not sure if this post is going to release any of that or just remind me of my feelings. But if you can, I just . . . I don't know.

Her name is Alte Chaya Gittel b-s Yehudis. Thank you.  Is it even my place to say that?  


The Babysitter said...

That's a great mitzvah you did to visit her, congrats.
I also get squirmy when it comes to visiting hospitals and such.
One time I babysat this family, and then 10 minutes before I was supposed to go to visit, the mother called me up to tell me she had company, there was a mother staying from Israel who came with her daughter who was going to get surgery here, so they were staying by her house for shabbos. The mother wanted to know if I would mind babysitting there knowing that there is a sick child in their home. She said the child would be sleeping, so I agreed. The mother of the child warned me what would happen if the daughter woke up and found me there, so I got all nervous. But I was already at the house and it was too late to back out, so I stayed there. B"H the child didn't wake up, so there was no need to worry, I didn't even see how the child looked.
But I can imagine what an affect it would have to see a sick child like that in the hospital. I wouldn't be able to talk after that, but then it could be the way your friend dealt with what she saw was to distract herself so it shouldn't hurt so much. To try to act as if everything is ok, hoping that it will be ok.

pobody's nerfect. said...

i think this is the first time i've listened when you're serious (maybe it's the first time i've heard you be serious?). i'm wowed. shkoyach.

i had a sister who was born with a genetic bone disorder which inspired her to be called "The glass baby." We had "chessed girls" coming over all the time to take care of me and my older brother, at the time 2 and 3. i don't remember anything about the girls or, sadly, about my sister (she died at age 1 1/2, when i was just 3 1/2.) But I probably owe a lot to those girls, who helped me lead as close to normal of a life as i could, even though my sister needed 24/7 medical care and spent much of her life in the hospital. those girls kept us entertained, played with us, bathed and fed us when my parents were preoccupied. it really meant a lot to my mother to know her kids were being taken care of.

as a side note, when i was in seminary each girl was assigned a "chessed family" to go to on thursday nights to help out watching the kids, bathing them, cleaning and cooking for shabbos, etc. I received a name, address, and telephone number. At our first meeting, we established that the mother and I both come from the same city. and, what's even cooler, her younger sister was the main "chessed girl" who helped out my family back when my sister was sick! Hashem pays back everyone....

So shkoyach, apple! i'm sure your efforts were appreciated.

sarah b. said...

you got it (you don't have to ask). thank you for doing what you did.

Yeshiva Bachur said...

Normally I leave some what sarcastic comments, but that is impossible to do with this post. It is truly a different experience to spend time with someone so unfortunate. It is very sobering and inspiring. You did a great mitzvah by visiting her. I'm sure that your chesed will not go unnoticed.
Also, people doing mitzvos on their free time seems to me like a good thing to read about on Yom Tov.

MordyS said...

:( and :) [You rock.]

Stam said...

wow, i truly admire your ability to do that.

i couldn't even bring myself to visit my neighbor during her final battle with cancer...