Riding home on the light rail—a middle-aged American woman in a headscarf approached me.
“You heard about Marcie Alter.”
Our world of English-speaking immigrants is small enough for me that I knew about Pittsburgh born Marcie stuck in a nursing home just outside of the Old City walls.
“She really needs visitors,” the woman continued.
I don’t know why I listened to the plea of stranger but I did. What she was asking for felt familiar.
Ever since high school I’ve been visiting the sick not so much out for them but for me .Spending time with someone in a worse situation than my own was a good counter to my ever lurking depression. But my previous visits had been to friends and neighbors. Marcie was a stranger and so was the woman who had recruited me to her bedside but I still felt an urge to go.
I don’t know how she did it but the woman—I never did catch her name—had found the perfect visitor. In my fifties without young children, old parents, or a flourishing career, game for anything that promised a sense of purpose.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned Marcie’s story in all its gory detail, how back in the 90s she’d moved to the Jordan Valley where she suffered a massive stroke. Several long and complicated operations saved her life but left her like the French journalist Jean Dominque Baubay of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly fame—a healthy spirit locked inside of a broken body.
The following Wednesday I made my first visit. It was a blustery windy grey, the grim weather reflecting my mood. I felt weird just going in alone. Who said Marcie even wanted my company?
. With its elegant balustrades, oversized windows, and courtyard Palm trees, Marcie’s nursing home officially known as Hopital Francais St. Louis de Apparition looked like an elegant old hotel. But only from the outside.
The instant I opened the doors, I knew I had arrived at a place the Angel of Death visited regularly. The first thing that hit was the smell—a cloyingly pungent aroma of cleaning chemicals masking even worse smells.
Marcie’s home was an overheated a cubicle on the third floor. I found her lying in bed bed dressed in bright pink yoga pants and a pink t-shirt her once hefty body—years later she showed me pictures of her pre stroke self , her thin elbows and knees jutting out at odd angles.
Though it was midafternoon, the shutters were closed. Other than the small rectangles of light coming in through the slats, the room was dark and Marcie’s eyes were shut.
How was I to introduce myself. “Hi Marcie. I heard that you are a pathetic loser . some stranger on the light rail told me to come and cheer you up? I thought about leaving, after all where was the mitzvah in bothering a sick woman during her nap time? But as I turned toward the door Marcie’s eyes snapped open. They were huge and robin’s egg blue. She looked straight at me, her expression severe. She didn’t talk; she couldn’t but with several points of her shaky index finger she directed me to the upper drawer of her night table . That was where she kept her book, the book her visitors read to her. The reading was a comfort. I enjoyed reading aloud and it beat awkward one sided conversation.
What was she reading? A dystopian thriller? A romance?
Marcie’s book was called “Adon Olam a Search for Meaning,” a tissue inserted as a bookmark. The book was about the inner meaning of the Adon Olam the classical Jewish prayer poem on about spiritual surrender.
Her reading choice identified Marcie as a seeker. Rather than descending into self-pity, Marcie was looking for G-d. I read until my throat went dry. Then I gazed up at Marcie. She seemed to be sleeping, but as I put down the book and rose to leave her eyes snapped open.
I plodded through another chapter and another. Marcie’s eyes were shut. This time when I rose to leave they didn’t reopen.
Alone in the street, I felt glum. Marcie was clearly an elevated soul someone with much to teach me but we l hadn’t connected at all. In fact ; My visit felt pointless.
And yet I returned. Why? Frankly I didn’t have that much else going on and visiting gave me a destination. It filled a hole in my schedule. Maybe one day it would fill the hole in my heart I didn’t like going. It was hard to be there. French hospital was a depressing place and the white gurgling mucus from Marcie’s exposed trach made me want to puke yet I forced myself to go.
Then one rainy afternoon, Marcie had company—Dena a youngish South Afrrican woman I recognized from a class we had once attended together.
“How did you end up here?”
“It’s a job,”
Someone, Dena didn’t say who, had paid her to keep Marcie company . They were having a grand time stringing beads, Marcie picking the colors shaking her head yes or no to indicate her choices and Dena threading them into a bracelet. I felt like a third wheel unneeded, even by Marcie.
The following week I went back. After reading I said goodbye. I told Marcie my plans, how I would be flying to the US that night for a short trip and how afterwards I wasn’t sure that I’d be coming back. When Marcie heard that I’d be going to the US her face lit up. She signaled for me to take out the communications board , the fabric covered wooden rectangle dotted with the alphabet which was her bridge to the outside word. Then she pointed at various letters her finger shaking all the time making it hard for me to guess which letters she meant. Finally I figured it out. She wanted a banana boat
“You mean one of those boats that dunks its riders in the water? “ Why would she want that?
The I googled it up. “The skin cream?”
She nodded vigorously. I ordered a bottle on amazon and when I came back from my trip I brought it with me. After that Marcie became my friend.
A few weeks after my return Marcie moved to a large sunny room on the second floor and I switched my visiting time from Wednesdays to Fridays.
Early one Friday I visited Marcie in her new digs. This time she was wide awake and smiling. Should I read to her again? Then another idea popped into my head. Marcie was an observant Jew in a Catholic hospital . What if I performed netilat yadayim, the ritual handwashing that is an essential Jewish rite.
Marcie nodded her head with surprising vigor.
The hospital lacked the two-handed cup used for the ritual, so I improvised with a metal vase, a plastic bedpan, and paper towels to mop the inevitable spills that occurred when the water hit Marcie’s palsied hands.
When we finished, Marcie beamed.
“Do you want to daven ?” Marcie nodded pointing me to her well-worn Hebrew prayer book.
In my wobbly soprano voice, I sang out the ancient words, Marcie listening intently.
Then I stopped my throat thickened with emotion, my eyes damp. Marcie wanted to pray. And I who could walk, talk swallow eat. I who lived in my own home often sleepwalked through my own prayers or didn’t pray at all.
After we finished, I wasn’t sure what to do next.
Marcie shook her head.
“Listen to music?”
Again she refused.
“Do you want to hear about my life? I looked at Marcie lying in the bed. Wasn’t there something obscene about sharing my ordinary problems with her but Marcie nodded eagerly, her ruddy face bobbing above her thin frame. She wanted to hear about me.
I started with food, describing my menu for the upcoming Shabbos but it wasn’t long before I got more personal, sharing my worries about a twenty two year old son traveling on his own in South America. Marcie’s eyes and ears were wide open.
When I left, Marcie smiled, her puffy cheeks a bright pink. She even pointed out “thank you” on her communications board. My endorphins rose in a powerful wave. Finally I experienced the much-vaunted helpers high.
After that I began to plan my visits. Using the photographs on my ipad I introduced Marcie to my family and I brought her early drafts of writing. At the time I was dabbling in watercolor and one week I brought her one of my fledgling paintings. She insisted on tacking it up to the bulletin board behind her bed next to the photos of her grandsons.
Then one Friday, Marcie seemed sluggish. Her forefinger hovering between the letters on the communications board, she wanted to tell me something. I wasn’t understanding her. Which letter did she mean. A or B, C, or D?
“B?” I asked
Marcie shook her head
“D” again a head shake her cheeks puffing up and turning redder the minute. I oculd tell that this was even more frustrating for her than it was for me.
Slowly painstakingly we spelled out the word fentanyl.
I hurried to the nurse’s station where I shared Marcie’s request with a nurse who spoke Arabic accented Hebrew. The nurse shook her head. No fentanyl.
“She already had one.” Was Marcie an addict? Then I remembered her sad pallor, the stricken expression in her eyes. Wasn’t she entitled to drugs that might help her?
Thankfully the pain passed replaced by brighter days . I’ll always remember the balmy February morning when we visited the Mamilla Mall, a luxury shopping plaza across the street from French hospital, Marcie in her wheelchair a blanket over her knees, communications board at her side, and off we went.
The wheelchair was surprisingly heavy and hard to push, especially over down stretches of terrain. I gripped the handles for dear life praying that Marcie wouldn’t fall out, but Marcie enjoyed the ride. What did she want from the Mall?
“Makeup, a lipstick . A mascara, eyeshadow.” Marcie shook her head no. “Face cream, hand cream. “ No again. Perfume? No
“Take me to the cigar store,” she spelled. Why? Was Marcie craving a smoke? As we entered the proprietor greeted Marcie—he’d seen her before and right away brought her what she wanted:an empty wooden cigar box, for her grandsons, the blessed offspring of her only son Ben who lived just outside of Jerusalem.
Our next stop was the book store to buy the Dr. Seuss books that Marcie had read to Ben. She now wanted them for his children. Finding them wasn’t enough, Marcie insisted gift wrap. Marcie wasn’t just a patient. She was a grandmother who gave gifts.
On what would be her the carnival like Jewish holiday of final Purim, a holiday which celebrates the Jewish victory over an evil Persian tyrant on which gift baskets and masquerades are part of the protocol I found Marcie in her wheelchair on the nursing home balcony wearing a clown mask in honor of the holiday
Marcie insisted that I wheel her back to her room. There she pointed me to a black cellophane bag . Inside was a box of American Graham crackers and a jar of Smuckers jam—Marcie’s Purim gift. She instructed me to wheel her to the oncology unit, stopping in front of a middle-aged woman in a brown nun’s habit Sister Clare, a nun who had been born a Jew. With her gift Marcie was telling her that despite her changed beliefs she was still a member of the tribe.
That spring, Marcie’s life seemed to be improving. Her internet connection, unreliable for years, finally worked. She could listen to lectures, music, even watch movies. And there was even talk of an operation to get rid of her feeding tube and enable her to eat normally.
Then Marcie was hospitalized with sepsis. On what was to be our last Friday together, I visited her at huge Hadassah medical complex in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Karem. She was scared, alone and sick. How could I comfort her? “Read?”
She nodded. The only book I had was Trevor Noah’s autobiography, Born A Crime.
“It’s got bad words. Should I edit them out?” I asked.
Marcie was cool but I wasn’t. I deleted the expletives. I read as she dozed and woke and dozed again as morning inevitably turned to afternoon. I had to go home for Shabbos, but when I said goodbye Marcie’s eyes were iced with terror. She didn’t want to be left alone in the hospital where hardly anyone spoke or read English and no one had the patience for her communications board. My heart went out to her but I kissed her goodbye.
Four days later, Marcie died in her sleep.
I was sad but also relieved. Though I never heard her complain these final years had been so hard. Now it was all over. She was at peace.
At her funeral, I met dozens of women who had been Marcie’s friends I was surprised at how large the crowd was. Over the years several dozen women had taken time from their schedules to spend time with Marcie. And Marcie had impacted them.
Many of them were in tears. From the eulogies I discovered that Marcie had been training herself to be kinder to the staff and that through her long piles of books Jewish holy books that she’d completed a serious study of the prophetic writings with one of the volunteers who was a Judaic studies teacher with whom she had a study partnership. Without speaking, without moving, without doing anything, Marcie had left a deep impression on all of us.
Now I spend Friday mornings at one of Marcie’s favorite spots the Western Wall.
Jews believe that sick people are accompanied by the palpable presence of G-d which we call the Shehina. It is said that that same Shehina is also embedded into the stones of the Western Wall, the kotel. I guess I needed my weekly fix
I pray for my family. I pray for the Jewish people, and I pray that my challenges shouldn’t be too overwhelming and that I accept them the way that Marcie Marcie did without complaint and with an eye toward growth.
Carol Ungar has been writing for 30 plus years in many genres including cookery and children’s books.