This Op-Ed appeared in the 1/31/13 edition of The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
It was no surprise that when my grandmother died, her last words to me were “I love you.” These were her parting words for as long as I could remember. They came right after, “Be well, don’t work too hard, don’t worry about anything,” and “enjoy every minute of your life.” That was the kind of lady my grandmother was; quick to give advice and blessings, praise and kisses. “Whatever you wish for yourself – God should grant you, you should have only nachas.” So of course she would part from me with love on her lips.
Recently, as a clinical social worker, I’ve begun to work with people who are ill and sometimes even dying, and I’ve been surprised by their last words to me. Last year, I became involved in the case of a highly regarded engineer at the pinnacle of his career who was unfortunately stricken with cancer. When I first met him, he was most interested in ascertaining what my role would be in his care, and why exactly I was sitting with him in his living room on that particular winter afternoon. On my second visit, he gave me a hug before I left and thanked me for coming. At our third and final meeting, just a few weeks before his death, his speech was nearly gone and he was bed ridden. Still, before we parted he took my hand and spoke softly the words, “I love you.” These seemed to be among the last words he was able to locate and vocalize.
Around this same time, I took over a modest case load from a therapist who specialized in eldercare. Many of my new clients struggled with depression related to memory loss or losing their independence. Some I saw on a weekly basis and we developed strong therapeutic relationships. One particular gentleman, whom I’ll call George, was wheelchair bound and showed some signs of dementia right from the start. George had been a fiercely independent man who never married. He was an air force veteran who had worked for the government, enjoyed sports, and loved his large extended family. He had a face that looked like a boxer’s and always had a twinkle in his light blue eyes. After working with him for over a year, his memory had deteriorated as had his physical condition.
On the morning, a few months ago, when George’s mind was surprisingly clear and we were able to discuss his failing health, tears streamed down his face and he told me a story, one stored in some compartment of his mind still accessible. As a child, he had attended a local fair with his aunt and some cousins. There they saw a family with many children, all looking longingly at the rides, too poor to purchase tickets. He said his aunt gave him all of their tickets and told him to give them to the destitute mother for her children. “That was the way I was raised, to always care for others,” he concluded. Before I left that day he asked if he could kiss me and I placed my cheek against his scared face, his gnarled arthritic hand in my own.
Two weeks later George was hospitalized and I visited him for the last time. He looked small and frail but his eyes were still shining. Before I left I took his hand in mine and he said, “I love you.” “I love you too,” I replied and waved goodbye. George passed away about a week later.
Then just yesterday, I went to visit another elderly client, whom I’ll call Anna, who is currently hospitalized. She had led a rather reclusive life, had never married and had no children. Anna had been a journalist, but since retiring rarely left her apartment. Even at the assisted living facility where she resided, Anna never went down to communal meals and spent most of her time in bed, curled up with her furry companion – a noble golden alley cat she’d rescued from the streets of her old neighborhood.
A few weeks ago Anna took a fall and required complex surgery to repair her fractures. A wisp of a woman, once hospitalize she ate less and less and her body began to waste away. When I entered her hospital room I was shocked by her condition; she twitched and shook and mumbled disconnected words to herself. I called her name and she gave me a half smile. After getting her an extra blanket and after a few futile attempts to get her to eat, I finally just sat down and took her hand. “What can I do for you?” I asked, leaning in close to hear her response.
Anna’s answer was both audible and clear, “Bring more love into the world.”
That was not at all the answer I was expecting. I felt helpless; I wanted to do something practical. After a few minutes I repeated my question, hoping to learn of some action I could take to help her feel more comfortable.
This time she raised her voice slightly as if she was annoyed that I hadn’t understood her the first time. “I said; bring more love into the world!”
Okay, I thought, I understand. In the end – the very bitter, deteriorated, demented, trembling, wasting away, hopeless end; there is only love. Since I have heard it from a Jewish grandmother, from an engineer, from a government worker, and from a journalist I have come to believe it is true. I know not whether these words are being expressed because these people already have one foot in the spiritual realm or if they are simply part of a final realization of what is most important in life or if perhaps both explanations are accurate.
In honoring the wishes of Anna who remains hospitalized, I share her message with you and urge you to heed her words and “bring more love into the world.” If there is a single method for performing Tikkun Olam and healing everything in our world; then perhaps, just perhaps, this is it.