But during one visit at hospice house, just after I went through her favorites – Shalom Aleychem, B’shem Hashem, Adon Olam, she looked at me intently and asked, with perfect diction: “Have you fixed my dress?”
“Yes, Ellie,” I replied. “I did. It looks fantastic. I think you will be very pleased when you see it.”
A prayer or two later, she spoke again.
“It’s almost time for lunch!”
It was about 10 a.m.
“What are you having?” I asked.
“Salmon salad,” she said firmly.
I smiled. But that was all she said that day.
Ellie is dying. Her way has been long and arduous. About a year ago, a brain tumor forced her into a wheelchair. Her speech became ever more irregular. It clearly exhausted her to say more than three or four words at a time. She would sit, with all her library books around her, living in a world dominated by her own silence.
At the beginning she tried to apologize. “I know…” Pause. “… what I want to say,” she would say. Long pause. “I just can’t…” Then, she would stop. Finishing the sentence was too much effort.
“Find the words,” I would whisper in my mind, completing the thought.
For months I told her that it was my job to read her eyes. They could do the talking for her.
A few months ago, she moved from the wheelchair to a hospital bed. I took her on walks with me. I’d narrate our stroll, ask her to do everything with me in her head. Sometimes I imagined every little thing we saw, every place we visited just as it unfolded in my own imagination.
Now and again, I asked her if there was anyone she knew with us. Once, she named her husband, Irving. I officiated Irving’s funeral in 2012.
I’d tell her when I could feel the presence of God – in the air, the sunlight, the green of trees. I’d tell her all the things I was sure of: How God loved her, how I loved her.
I saw Ellie last Friday. I don’t know if it is the tumor, but there is, now, a terrible, bulging lump on her forehead.
She mouthed a “yes” when I asked her if she wanted me to sing Shabbat prayers for her. So I sang. Suddenly, she burst out with a complete, utterly convincing sentence. “I hate having to turn my head,” she said.
So I got out of the chair, stood at the foot of the bed, held my guitar like a cello, and played “It’s a Wonderful World.” Ellie likes that song.
But I am wracked with doubt. Is this what she needs or wants? Do I speak of fear or blessing? Do I invoke God’s compassion and tenderness?
I can no longer read Ellie’s eyes. She looks at me most of the time, but not always. Sometimes she looks at paper she is crumpling in her hands. Sometimes, she stares across the room.
I drive home in my own silence, grieving.