Their Tears Are the Language “Anguish”

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September 1, 2002
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By Judith Edelstein

As a child, tears marked my face as often as smiles. They were a source of companion-ship and comfort. Their silky saltiness slid down my round cheeks. They were prayers seeking love. I experienced loss well beyond my few years. By age five, I was the soulmate of Hannah, Rachel, and Hagar, for reasons Mordechai Gafni so poignantly describes in his essay. In retrospect, I believe that God was preparing me for my life’s work.

Over time my tears also expressed joy and gratefulness. For my 40th birthday my daughter gave me a packet of tissues with a note taped on it. “You knoe [sic] the way you all ways [sic] cry about my report card. Well I’m giving you a chance to cry about something great again! My present!” She was right, for to this day I cry unabashedly when I feel God’s presence intensely.

It seems only fitting that my calling, my job, is to help people cry. I work as a chaplain in a nursing home and hospital, where the average age of patients/residents is 89. For the vast majority of residents, this is their final home. Many will never again have the opportunity to go beyond their bed; many less will see the outside world. They stand lefnei HaShem, before God, from the moment they awaken until they go to sleep. Who will make it to the next Rosh Hashana?

Within this context I visit residents “to walk with them in their suffering,” to encourage them to express their deepest fears, frustrations, and anger. Inevitably they cry within minutes of my visit, because for everyone else they must wear a mask of hope and cooperation. Most of the staff and visitors do not want to hear their fears or see their tears, as they are often loathe to acknowledge such suffering and mortality.

Imagine you are Rose Cohen. You are 87 years old. You have been living alone since your husband died. Your health was stable until five years ago when you had triple bypass surgery. As a result of complications, you spent several weeks in a nursing home, convalescing. After you returned to your apartment, you fell and broke your hip. Back to the hospital, then the nursing home. Now you have been in the facility for seven months, and you probably will not walk again. Most days you doubt you will ever return home. There are moments when you do not have the coyach, strength, to live anymore. You are always tired. You are confused – sometimes unsure of where you are or what day it is. You are cognizant that your memory is failing. Wearing diapers is humiliating. Waiting for a nurse to place you on and take you off the toilet is worse. You are helpless, totally dependent on strangers for the basic functions of life.

You have had enough, even though your two children and your grandchildren visit you regularly. They try to keep your spirits up. They want you to live. But it is time for you to go; you know it. Why don’t they? You conceal your anguish, your desire for the end, since it will upset them. They cannot bear to hear your truth. So you save your tears for later. To whom can you tell your secret, open your depleting heart? You choke down the tears of despair. “Please, God, don’t let me suffer anymore.” You stand in line with Hannah, Rachel, and Hagar as I did. I stood there in my early life, and like you, may stand there again near the end.

As life closes down, some lose the power of speech. When I invite verbal or nonverbal patients to share their despair, they are relieved and appreciative to find someone who is willing to face their reality with them. They almost always cry – even those who do not speak English. Their tears are the language “Anguish,” which is unendurable and inexpressible. As Gafni says, “When we stand before God bare of our masks of identity, we weep from the deepest place.” I watch these identities slip away. I sit with them, grateful to God for the gift of my tears that allowed me to feel theirs.

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Rabbi Judith B. Edelstein is Director of Religious Life at the Jewish Home & Hospital in Manhattan. She also serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

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