While looking for a full-time job after switching careers, I worked per diem in the Pastoral Care Department of a hospital that was designated a Level I Trauma Center. My duties were varied – praying with a patient right before their surgery, comforting a family waiting in the ER for their family member, rushing to any room that was involved in a Code, contacting family members for any patient who was brought in by MedEvac, or even sitting with anyone alone in the ER, looking scared and in pain. That last description was just about everyone.
One night, during a double weekend shift, I approached a group of medical personnel outside of an end room in the ER and asked if I could be of any help. As the attending physician finished signing some paperwork in the chart, one of the nurses asked me if I could notify the woman’s family or pastor that she had expired (hospital-speak for “died”). I took the record, knowing how challenging these in-the-middle-of-the-night phone calls could be.
As I paged through her chart for contact information, I saw that Esther was a widow in her 80s with no children. The name of a Rabbi was listed as her emergency contact, which meant that any siblings were probably gone as well.
She was alone. Totally alone.
I used the phone at the nurse’s station and reached her Rabbi, who said he would be at the hospital within 30 minutes. I went into her room and saw two aides silently cleaning up the evidence of the ER staff’s attempts to save her life – the crash cart, gloves, torn gauze wrappers and the like. As I looked down at the bed, I saw a petite woman with white hair and a delicately contoured face. She must have been quite a beauty when she was younger. Eyes closed, she looked to be at peace.
I watched as the aides straightened the sheet that covered Esther, carefully moving her arms so that they were comfortably placed at her sides. One of the young women stopped when she saw something on the inside of Esther’s forearm – some kind of ink. She reached for a near-by washcloth.
“Wait.” I stepped closer and saw the row of numbers tattooed on Esther’s forearm. “Do you know what this is, what it means?” I asked as I murmured a silent prayer. Both shook their head “no.” I quietly explained: “The numbers mean that Esther was a prisoner in one of the German concentration camps during World War II.”
They looked confused and I realized that maybe they were too young to be familiar with the Holocaust? Hard to believe, but possible. But now was not the time or place for a history lesson. “If you want, I can explain more after her Rabbi gets here. In the meantime, thank you. I’ll stay with Esther.”
As the door closed, I bowed my head. I was in the presence of someone who had faced evil and survived. Esther was one of the more than 400,000 prisoners at one of the 3 Auschwitz concentration camps who had been assigned a serial number for identification. Pictures of the emaciated prisoners when the camps were liberated flashed in my mind, and I wondered how many (if any) of Esther’s family members had been killed in the camps. What Esther had seen and experienced in her time there was beyond my comprehension.
My thoughts became prayers for Esther. This woman had survived the nearly 6 million people who were Jewish victims of the Holocaust. I cringed at the thought of the possibility that she couldn’t have children because of the experiments that had been performed on some of the female prisoners.
Had Esther ever lost hope? Had she ever given up? What helped her survive each day in a hell of mankind’s making? Did faith give her courage and strength and determination? I would never know.
The door opened and a nurse said I was needed in another room. I told her I would contact the chaplain-on-call, as I preferred to stay with Esther.
“Who’s coming to pick up the body?”
“Okay, then come with me. No one will disturb her.”
I reached for my pager. “I’ll call the chaplain, and he’ll help you. I’m obligated to stay with Esther.”
The nurse, her face a cross between annoyed and confused, left.
When a Jewish person dies, out of respect, they are not to be left alone. By staying, I would offer Esther’s soul comfort until her Rabbi came. She had been alone enough. She had seen and experienced horrific death and destruction; perhaps now, I could offer her one small kindness.
I prayed Psalm 23 aloud.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
As I slowly covered Esther’s face, I smiled at its inherent dignity.
Thank you, Esther, for the essence that is you. I am deeply sorry for the tears you’ve shed during your life and for all the pain. May your death be a threshold to all that is good. In the “world-to-come,” may you have love, happiness, joy, community and kindness. No more darkness, only light. May you be wrapped in Circles of Grace. May God command His angels to guard you in all your ways.
I turned as the door opened. “Rabbi Levine?”
“Yes, and you must be Theresa?” We shook hands as I offered him my condolences.
“Thank you for staying,” the Rabbi offered quietly. “Esther has been alone for a long time.”
“No thanks are needed, Rabbi. It is a privilege and an honor.” I walked toward the door, my time here done. I took one last look at the bed. Rest in Peace.
Sacred Ground. Honoring the strength of the human spirit.
At the same time, remembering man’s inhumanity to man and pledging as an individual to never forget. To never allow history to repeat it. Ever. Esther – this I promise you.
“I am only one; but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something;
I will not refuse to do something I can do.”
― Helen Keller
Esther – May your soul shine with everlasting light.