It was getting close to Shabbos when my grandfather left. With a whispered goodbye he went off to shul and left me alone with my grandmother sleeping a heavy, drugged sleep, in the mechanized bed on the oncology ward of Lenox Hill Hospital. Fifteen years old and alone with the woman who was my grandmother of course, but still not quite; yellowed and weakened, shedding hairs in her sleep.
The room was grim, devoid of breath or sunlight. Fluorescent overhead lights buzzed incessantly, setting my teeth on edge. The air smelled of ammonia and burnt soup and sickness. I breathed as shallowly as I could. The high opaque windows were painted shut; they never opened. Outside the door, rubber-soled footsteps thudded dully and food carts squeaked without deference along the shiny corridor. Somewhere I heard the grating voice of the floor nurse and the beep of machinery. But in here it was as silent as death.
I was alone! I felt it in a breathless terror....
I was alone! I felt it in a breathless terror, like birds flapping angry wings against my chest, wanting to get out. I wanted to get out. When I had agreed to this arrangement, my grandfather was here with his deep, rumbling voice, my grandmother was awake and smiling and I was foolishly confident. Now, I pitied myself. I didn't know what to do, how to do, how to be the caretaker to this one who had once taken care of me.
I leaned against the windowsill, my shoulders rounded for protection. I shouldn't be here! My thoughts were a panicky moan in my head. I didn't know, didn't know, didn't know! I can't do this! I don't want to do this! And then sharp as a slap on a screaming child's cheek, the voice in my head snapped, "Enough!" That voice was so sure and so commanding that I stopped.
In the sudden silence, a thought entered my mind. "He left because it's Shabbos." Because it's Shabbos, I thought again. The word itself was like a balm, a spreading, soothing calm. I took comfort in that word, in its safe, familiar peace. Shabbos. I knew how to do that.
Behind my eyes, I saw the picture of Shabbos in my grandmother's home, the table neatly laid, the candles burning steadily. From her kitchen came the yeasty warmth of challah rising, the cinnamon smell of compote. I breathed deeply for the first time and straightened my shoulders. If I could give her nothing else, I could give her this.
Calm now, and filled with purpose, I carried my overnight bag into the small cold bathroom and changed into a dark green dress, drop-waisted with pink roses. With my hair pulled back from my face I could see my new gold earrings. My mother said they were called "Love Knots" and I reminded myself that she loved me. Then, I carefully put on my very first lipstick, "Sugared Grapefruit", an almost non-existent shade of pink. I leaned back, pleased with my image in the mirror. Now I looked like Shabbos.
Stepping out I surveyed the silent, sterile room. My grandmother still slept on the rumpled bed sheets, "Property of Lenox Hill" stamped in blue ink. In my mind, I could hear her husky voice, "We do what we must do, Yael." The bedside table glared at me, cheap wood veneer on a metal stand. I ignored it and cleared the clutter of pills and packets off its top. Then I strode to the metal closet at the room's end and took out a pillow case. Once, twice, I waved it in the air, snapping it out of its creases. With sure, quick hands I pulled the pillow case over the tray and suddenly, we had a white table. It was as it should be.
Even here, deep in the valley of the shadow, Shabbos had found me and brought me peace.
A yellow plastic bag lay crumpled on the slick linoleum floor. Inside sat a thick piece of sponge cake left for us by the kind-hearted Bikur Cholim volunteers. I thought of her ivory cake stand and the silver pie server. Then I transferred the crumbling cake onto a Styrofoam plate. With a flimsy plastic knife, I cut it into twelve cubes in a circular flower pattern on the plate. Settling the plate on the table, I added a pink carnation from a wilting bouquet on the windowsill. I filled the green plastic pitcher with tap water and stepped back to admire my handiwork.
The flowers, the cake, my beautiful dress, the lovely white table, the gold in my ears. If I squinted hard, it all blurred slightly and looked just right. Like home, like before. I breathed deeply and felt the place inside me where Shabbos had finally come.
Then I leaned back against the windowsill and felt a small hot tear slide down my cheek. And as I traced its path with my finger, I realized that I was crying tears of gratitude. Because even here, deep in the valley of the shadow, Shabbos had found me and brought me peace.
From the mechanized bed came a sound, like a sigh, and I turned as she opened her beautiful sapphire eyes. I saw her focus on the tray, on the flower, and finally, her gaze fell on me.
"Good Shabbos, Babbi," I said, shyly, proudly.
"Good Shabbos, Yaely," she answered softly. And those words, and that look, were my reward.