The similarity between the beginning and end of life is quite remarkable. A baby is often born with little to no hair, no teeth, and sleeps most of the day. It needs to be fed, changed, and wheeled around in a stroller in order to get from place to place. Adults can observe babies for hours as they ooh and aah over every adorable move and sound they make. At the end of life, many elderly people lose their hair and teeth. They sleep a lot, need to be fed and bathed, and are often pushed in a wheelchair in order to get from place to place. One life ends, another begins. It’s known as the circle of life.
I recently left my job at which I worked with clients diagnosed with mental illness who live in group apartments in the community. One of my clients was named Moshe. Moshe is an endearing man, best described as a big teddy bear. He is sweet and gentle, eager to please, appreciative, and never one to complain. Life has not been easy for Moshe, by any stretch of the imagination. He was abandoned by his siblings many years ago seemingly because he committed the crime of suffering from mental illness. He also has no connection with his ex-wife, son, or grandson. He may even have more grandchildren, but he has no way of knowing this. On rare occasions, Moshe expresses the pain he feels due to his family’s rejection of him, but on a day to day basis, he accepts his lot and doesn’t dwell on the negative.
A few short months before I left my job, Moshe was diagnosed with an inoperable, fast-growing brain tumor. He was admitted to a nursing home for the duration of his radiation treatment but, in a stunning deviation from his easy-going personality, he ran away from the home due to the poor treatment he received by the orderlies there. The hospital had rachmanus on Moshe and admitted him as an inpatient for the duration of his treatment. When he was ready to be released, we were hesitant to take him back to our facility. We were concerned about being able to properly provide him with the care he needs, as his apartment is on the fifth floor in a building with no elevator, and a staff member generally checks in only once a day. Residents of these apartments are expected to work, cook, shop, do laundry, and basically live independently. Moshe was no longer able to do any of these things. He did return back home for a few weeks, until his health deteriorated, at which point he was admitted to a hospice, where he has been ever since.
I have stayed in contact with Moshe, and a few weeks ago went to visit him with my husband. Considering the fact that the hospice is filled with very sick people, the atmosphere is not depressing. The décor is pretty and the nurses are cheerful. We walked past groups of families huddled around their loved ones, many who no longer have hair or teeth, sleep most of the time, need to be fed and bathed, and move from place to place in a wheelchair or movable bed. Their family members watch them closely, noticing every move and sound that their loved ones make.
When we reached Moshe’s room, he was sitting alone on his bed. This was no surprise, as we know he doesn’t have many visitors. What was surprising was that he seemed to be in relatively good physical shape, considerably better than when he had left his apartment. Moshe was very happy to see us and took advantage of a rare opportunity to pour out his heart to us. Moshe talked about intense feelings of loneliness and boredom. He desperately would like to return to his home, to his previous life. Truthfully, he is not as sick as the other patients in the hospice. At this stage he doesn’t really require that level of care. But, at the same time, he is not well enough to live independently. Moshe falls between the cracks. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. I explained to Moshe why returning to his home is not a realistic option, as much as we and his apartment mates would love it. Moshe (and I, for that matter) had no choice but to accept my explanation, as unfair as it seems. My husband and I bade farewell to Moshe and left with heavy hearts. But our spirits were quickly lifted. As soon as we walked out of the doors of the hospice, we found ourselves facing the doors of the delivery unit. One life ends, another begins – the circle of life.
Postscript: Moshe passed away this past Shabbos afternoon, Parshas VaYigash. Y’hi zichro baruch.
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.