“Can I feed you?” he asked Joe, impatiently holding lunch and duly aware of the onlooker.
“Get the hell out of here!” Joe snarled, his face red. “You can tell the principal, damn it! Didn’t ask my sister for permission. Son-of-a-bitch,” Joe muttered under his breath.
Joe’s caretaker, Steve, waited for Joe to calm down. He then asked, “Would you like Avram to feed you?” pointing to me. “Of course I want him to feed me!” Joe shouted. “What do you think this is, a chicken coop?”
Steve looked at me and asked, without saying a word, if I would. I agreed.
“He’s all yours,” Steve said as he left the room, removing his gloves.
I looked at Joe and wondered what he was thinking.
Joe is blind, wheelchair bound, schizophrenic and has cancer. I’ve been visiting him for over a year on my lunch breaks. His sister, Sylvia, asked that someone meet with her ailing brother every once in a while, and knowing the family from my hometown, I agreed.
It took me forever to find Joe’s room on my first visit. No one seemed to know where he was staying. I soon realized I was asking the assisted living facility staff, and not the hospice center personnel. Hospice had its own floor, quarantined at the top of the building. I remember meeting Joe that first day as an aide helped clean up spilled yogurt from his chin. As the attendant wiped his face, Joe quietly recited a Hebrew verse from the Mishna, “Don’t look at the vessel, rather what’s within.”
Joe’s rage and nonsensical statements could be matched with moments of deep clarity such as these. Our first meetings would mostly be silent but soon we’d come to have conversations, albeit ones that lasted only a few sentences. Once he realized his visitor, a pisher in his 20s, could speak Yiddish, he was overjoyed, and it seemed as if I became a character in Joe’s past, rather than a present day visitor. Our meetings could be energetic and lively, or quiet and sullen; we’d listen to music together and sometimes just sing. Joe loved to sing Yiddish songs and Hassidic melodies he remembered from yeshiva. One day he greeted me with shouts of mazel tov.
“What’s the celebration?” I asked Joe in Yiddish.
“My wedding! It’s my wedding!” he said with a beaming smile, clutching my hand. “Sit next to me and the rabbi.”
Joe never married or had any children and it was only him and me in the room. Do I shatter this imagined memory? Do I try and wake him up?
Now Joe sat in the wheelchair with his head down. I wondered if he was embarrassed.
Earlier that visit, Joe welcomed me with another of his greetings.
“Avram, my old friend from home! My learning partner from yeshiva!”
After shaking my hand, he said that he needed to go to the bathroom. I went to alert someone from staff, but they were skeptical as Joe had given false alarms before. I returned to Joe without an attendant but he was insistent and so I walked back to the staff relaying the message. Finally, an aide arrived. Steve helped Joe to the toilet but not in time. After assisting Joe in cleaning his accident and the bathroom, Steve left and returned with Joe’s lunch. Steve looked exhausted as I stood holding Joe’s food.
Once Steve was gone, I asked Joe in Yiddish if I could feed him, knowing he had already given permission.
“Nu?” he said looking away from me.
I opened up the lasagna, mashed potatoes and juice. I had watched Joe’s sister feed him before. Having come from a baby naming ceremony earlier that morning, I suddenly felt struck by the circle of life. I tried not to show emotion, wondering, even if I did, would Joe know?
I used the spoon and fed Joe. His eyes remained closed as he would hum and say an occasional “yum.”
“Mer, Avram, Mer,” he’d say, “more, Avram, more.” I would feed him, sometimes singing a Yiddish tune, developing a rhythm of when and how often, with Joe. He asked for juice and I brought a cup to his mouth. I took his hands and placed them around the cup and then eased my hands away so that he was drinking on his own. He barely spilled. Joe smiled and finished eating. Suddenly, Joe started to weep. He looked towards me and said, “No one ever taught me the art of living.”
“Joe,” I asked sheepishly, “what is the art of living?”
“I’m in a dirty cave! You can tell her she ought never to have broken my lamp.” Joe started yelling and didn’t engage with me anymore.
We sat for a few more moments, sang one or two final songs and then said goodbye. My lunch break was over. I hit the down button for the elevator and waited, hoping for a heartfelt sigh that would never come.
Avram Mlotek is a first-year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale. He teaches at Hebrew and Yiddish schools throughout New York City and performs regularly with the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene.