Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

Mistaken Identity

The phone call came early one frigid winter morning. Shlomo Zalman and Chaim Weiss, Edna's two sons, were already at early minyan, but Chaviva, her youngest, was home. She was trying to coax her sleepy teens out of bed when her cell phone began ringing incessantly.

She considered ignoring it, but then changed her mind. What if it was the nursing home? Ever since her mother had been admitted to an acute care facility following complications from hip surgery, her life hadn’t been the same. She visited her mother once a week, making the two hour drive straight from work. Her two brothers, who lived out of town, tried to come whenever they could. Yet it wasn’t nearly enough.


Chaviva felt terribly guilty that she was unable to care for her elderly mother, that she lived so far away. She had no sisters with whom to share the burden. Many friends had assumed that Chaviva would take her mother into her spacious home, and care for her in her old age. Some even cast aspersions on her devotion to a lonely widow, who had sacrificed for her children all these years.


Yet Chaviva and her husband had spoken to their Rav, laying all the cards on the table. The p’sak was clear: this was not a project they were physically, mentally or emotionally capable of at this time.


In addition to her large family and part-time job, Chaviva had a child with special needs who consumed every ounce of time and energy. And her mother was very demanding and high-strung, needing 24 hour care. Lately she had developed an infection and was feeling very weak.


The phone continued to ring, and she fumbled in her purse to answer it.


“Hello?” she asked, distracted. “Shloimy, you’ll miss your bus if you don’t hurry! Shooey, did you have breakfast?”


“Hello, Haviva? This is Gina from the Golden Acres Home for Adults. I’m afraid I have some bad news.”


Chaviva gasped. Her heart plummeted as she braced herself.


“What is it? Is Mom—“


“I’m sorry. Your mother passed away in her sleep.” The nurse did seem very gentle and sad. “We found her early this morning. She seemed very peaceful, and didn’t suffer much.”


Chaviva uttered a low cry. “Mommy,” she whimpered, and sat down heavily.


“Take your time,” said Gina. “And when you’re ready, we need to talk about burial arrangements. I understand your mother wanted to be laid to rest in Israel.”


“Y..yes,” said Chaviva, between sobs. It was surreal. Her mother was gone! But she hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye. She hadn’t done enough for her.


Now she would never see her again.


“I’m trying to reach your brothers, hon, but I can’t get through,” the nurse continued. “Call me back as soon as possible.”


Chaviva tried to pull herself together. Now wasn’t the time to wallow in sorrow, while her mother was lying, deceased, in the nursing home. She needed to reach her brothers, to make final arrangements. Oh, why hadn’t she visited her mother more often? Why didn’t she bring her to her own house?


Frozen, almost mechanically, Chaviva called her brothers and left them urgent messages. Somehow she got the children out of the house, summoned her husband home, and then called her Rav. Within moments, it seemed, events were set into motion. The local chevra kadisha was called to claim her mother’s body. Tickets were purchased to Eretz Yisroel, and a levaya was hastily planned.


Ten hours after that first phone call, Chaviva and her brothers were at JFK airport, about to accompany their beloved mother on her Final Journey.


All through the flight, the Weiss children sat, stunned and disbelieving. It had all been so sudden! Their mother had been hale and hearty until fifteen months ago, when their father, Reb Asher, passed on after a long illness. Mama seemed to wither overnight, becoming a shadow of her former self. The children tried to hire an aide, but she refused, valuing her independence. Despite her infirmity, her mind was sharp and clear.


A few weeks later, she suddenly fell and broke her hip. The surgery was complicated, and the recovery lengthy. Now it was clear that their mother could no longer be alone. Yet for various reasons, none of the children were able to care for her in their home. Reluctantly, with great angst, they placed her in an acute care facility and tried to visit frequently.


Now, on their way to Eretz Yisroel for the levaya, the children were indulging in regrets. Why hadn’t they taken their mother in, instead of leaving her to languish in a nursing home? What were they thinking? All the excuses they had given, not enough room in the house, difficult family circumstances, etc. seemed like just that, excuses.


“I feel terrible that Mom passed away alone, without anyone with her,” said Shlomo Zalman, giving voice to their thoughts.


“I should have taken her in,” Chaviva replied, clenching her fists in frustration.


“But how could you have? You’re busy with Shimmy all day and night.”


“Yes, but she was our mother. And now she’s gone.” Chaviva broke into sobs.


“I’m the guilty party,” said Chaim suddenly. “I have the biggest house, and the smallest family. But what could I do?” he didn’t say anything more, and he didn’t need to. His wife did not have an easygoing personality, and could not have handled hosting her mother-in-law.


“Let’s not torture ourselves more than we have to,” Shlomo Zalman advised. “It’s too late to turn back the clock. We still have one more opportunity to honor Mom and give her a b’kovodig levaya. You know she wanted to be buried next to Dad. I’m so glad we were able to arrange it.”


The flight passed slowly, the atmosphere stark and oppressive. Chaviva tried to doze off, but all she could think of was her mother, dying alone in the nursing home. She tried to eat, but everything tasted like sawdust, Besides, it felt so weird to eat without a bracha, which was what she had to do as an onein.


She worried about her husband and children, and how they were managing with Shimmy. Was he being difficult? Could they control his tantrums? Were they giving him his medication?


At last, the plane approached Lod Airport, and the pilot announced that landing was imminent. Chaviva braced herself. She knew the next few hours, and days, would be exhausting.


The family went through customs and waited for the chevra kadisha to come and pick up their mother’s Aron. After a short wait, everything was arranged; the chevra kadisha placed the Aron in a van, and the children followed in another car. The levaya was held that very evening on Har Hamenuchos. There was only a small crowd, as they had very few relatives in Eretz Yisroel.


The two sons said kaddish, and a local Rav eulogized Edna bas Miriam. Then their mother was laid to rest next to her departed husband.


The three children sat shiva in their rented apartment for the first three days, planning to finish the week of shiva back in their mother’s hometown. It was a quiet shiva, as few people knew of Edna’s passing. The only people who came to visit were old friends who’d relocated to Eretz Yisroel, and distant relatives who lived on a kibbutz up north. The siblings used this time to reminisce about their mother, and talk about her good deeds. Occasionally, their phones would ring, with condolence wishes from their family and friends back home.


On the third day of shiva, their last in Eretz Yisroel, Chaim’s phone rang. He picked it up quickly, expecting it to be one of his children, or perhaps his boss.


“Hello, Chaim?” he heard a familiar voice.


Chaim blanched. It couldn’t be. But that voice…it was too familiar. Was someone playing a mean trick?


“Who is this?” he asked in a shaky voice.


“What do you mean, ‘who is this?’ It’s me. Mom,” said Edna in her raspy voice.


“Stop playing games with me,” Chaim pleaded. “It’s hard enough as it is.”


“I’m not playing games with you, Chem-chem,” his mother replied.


Now Chaim knew it was serious. No one but his mother used that childish nickname. But his mother was dead. Buried on Har Hamenuchos. And they were sitting shiva for her.


“What’s going on?” demanded Shlomo Zalman, noticing his brother’s pallor. “Let me take care of this.” And he took the phone out of his brother’s hand.


“Hello?” Shlomo said in his confident voice.


And instant later, to the shock of his brother and sister, he fainted on the spot.


By now, Chaviva was hysterical. What was going on?


“Who’s calling?” she grabbed the phone and shrieked in a high-pitched voice.


“It’s Mom,” moaned Chaim, trying to massage Shlomo Zalman’s temples and wake him up.


“It can’t be,” Chaviva hyperventilated. “Someone is playing a disgusting trick. What nerve!”


She picked up the phone and shouted, “How dare you! We’re in the middle of sitting shiva and you play these mean tricks on—“


“Chaviva. Is that how you talk to your mother?” The voice was outraged. It was genuine. Chaviva would recognize that voice anywhere.


“M…mom?” she cried in a quavering voice. “Where are you calling from?”


“What do you mean, where am I calling from?” her mother was outraged. “From the stupid home where I’m stuck, waiting for you to visit. I tried Chaim at home, and only the maid was home. She gave me this long list of numbers to call. Where is he? In Timbuktu?”


“Ma, we’re in Eretz Yisroel,” said Chaviva, gulping down a sob.


“And you didn’t tell me?”


“We came to bury you,” she replied in a small voice.


By now, Shlomo was sitting up, yet he still felt shaky and weak. The two brothers listened as their mother began to scream and shout about her chutzpahdig children, who were burying her alive.


“Pinch me, please,” Chaviva whispered, as her mother continued her tirade. “Is this happening, for real?”


“Something’s very wrong,” said Shlomo Zalman, his face grave. “I have to talk to the home.”


“Mom, an emergency came up,” he said into the phone. “We’ll call you back in a few minutes.” He hung up and called the nursing home directly.


“Hello, Golden Acres, this is Gloria speaking,” said the cheery receptionist. “How may I direct your call?”


“This is Solomon Weiss,” he replied. “I’d like an update about my mother, Mrs. Edna Weiss.” He half-expected her to be outraged. After all, hadn’t they just picked up their mother’s body for burial? Instead, she said, “Let me check for you, sir.”


A few agonizing seconds passed. The voice returned.


“Hi, Solomon. I just asked Diana, the nurse on duty, for an update. She said your mother ate her breakfast and had therapy. She’s doing well, yet a bit anxious, and waiting for you to call.”


Shlomo gasped. “I don’t understand. What’s going on?” His voice rose an octave.


“What do you mean, sir?”


“What I mean is that we are now in Israel, sitting shiva for my mother, Mrs. Edna Weiss. Someone in the home called last week to tell us that she died in her sleep. We had a volunteer pick up her body and she was flown to Israel.”


“That’s impossible,” Gloria replied. “I just saw her myself. Let me connect you to the supervisor.”


Harriet, the supervisor, came on the line and listened to the incredible story. She quickly went to check, and confirmed that Edna Weiss was, in fact, alive and well. However her roommate, Shirley Jacobson, who was also Jewish, had passed away last week.


“Shirley’s body was picked up by those volunteers,” said Harriet. “I believe they said the body was being flown to Israel. Oh no!”


“Then it was a mistake?” Shlomo Zalman shouted. “How could you do such a thing?”


“I’m sorry,” Harriet said. “I have no idea how something like this could have possibly happened.”


To be continued…



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