Saturday, July 17, 2010

Changing Plans

By Susan Esther Barnes

While browsing the web on Friday, I made a comment on Minnesota Mamaleh's blog about what I was looking forward to doing on Shabbat.

My father taught me better than this. You never say, “I’m going to do such and such.” You always say, “I hope to,” or “I’m planning to,” or someplace you insert, “God willing.” For me this is not a superstition. It’s an acknowledgment that we can make all the plans we want, but God may have different plans for us, and in the end, it’s God’s plan that comes to fruition.

Last Saturday my husband and I went to see his folks in Oregon, and the previous two Shabbats I was in Israel, so this, I assumed, would be the first Shabbat in about a month on which I would be able to follow my normal routine: Services on Friday night, Torah study on Saturday morning, Saturday morning services, and a nap in the afternoon. After all, I had nothing else planned. What could possibly go wrong?

On the third Friday of the month during the summer, our synagogue holds Friday night services outdoors at a nearby state park. It’s a beautiful place, with plenty of grass to sit on and a gorgeous view of the San Francisco Bay.

So there I was, standing at the parking lot entrance, greeting congregants as they arrived, when a particular couple drove up. We have a mutual friend, Rose, who at 93 was diagnosed with cancer. I was able to visit Rose in the hospital a couple of times before I left on my trip.

She seemed to be doing quite well. In fact, on my last visit she was telling me she’d only been walking from her bed to the restroom, but she didn’t think that was enough exercise, so she was going to try to talk the nurses into taking her on a walk down the hall. The staff was working on plans to discharge her to a convalescent hospital.

Now that I was back, I wanted to visit Rose again, so I asked this couple where she was. They answered my question, but they told me Rose had stopped eating and had been moved to hospice. It’s funny how people are able to convey what they mean without coming out and saying it. What they were telling me was Rose is dying, it may not be long now, and if I wanted to see her I’d better do it soon.

As if that weren’t convincing enough, at home I had a voice mail message from another friend, telling me Rose specifically asked for me to come see her, implying that it should be soon.

So instead of going to Torah study on Saturday morning, I called the place where Rose is and asked if I could come see her. “Come on over in about an hour,” they said, “She’s up and showering, and she’ll be having breakfast soon.”

Showering? Breakfast? Does this sound like someone who has stopped eating and is going to die in the next few days? What was I supposed to make of that?

Of course there was nothing for it but to go on over and see for myself. And there she was, talking on the phone, as lucid as ever. But beside her bed was a full tray of food, along with an array of cups and glasses filled with various liquids she clearly wasn’t drinking.

So we talked. I tried to make plenty of space to let her talk about whatever she wanted. She told me about her two children who had died, and how she keeps thinking about what it was like for her and for them when that happened. She talked about her son who is still living, and her hopes for him.

She told me about how, before her husband’s death, as a rabbi’s wife she used to greet people at the synagogue, and how I do that now.

We talked about our first memories of each other. I reminded her that back when I attended my first class at the synagogue because I knew nobody and wanted to meet some friends, she was the first person I met. I tried to let her know how much it meant to me when she was the first person to introduce me to someone as her friend.

I told her I love her, and I will miss her. She told me her children are always with her, and she will always be with me.

I was there for an hour and a half. Mostly we talked. For short periods of time we were silent, and that was okay too. Some moments we smiled and laughed, and at some moments tears graced my cheeks. It wasn’t nearly enough time, but the rabbis tell us not to stay too long when we visit the sick, so I left, and said a prayer for her.

I sat in services this morning, but for the most part I couldn’t say the prayers. I just let the tears come down as they would. I didn’t feel sad exactly; I just felt like crying. A part of me kept paraphrasing the line from the Monty Python movie, scolding, “She’s not dead yet,” implying it was not yet time to cry. But grief takes its own course in its own time; only a fool tries to divert it.

Perhaps I will see Rose again. Perhaps I will speak with her on the phone. Maybe both; maybe neither. It’s hard not knowing, but it’s the way it’s supposed to be. I am grateful Rose has this time to see her friends and family and to say goodbye. I am grateful I had this time with her.

It’s funny how often God’s plans are better than mine.


  1. what a beautiful reflective post on so very many things! i'm so happy that your staurday worked out exactly the way it was supposed to. it sounds like you both needed all of the tears, smiles and silences that came with it. you graced each other's day! "man plans, god laughs," right? sometimes it takes awhile to see why things work out the way did, but in this case it's clear right away. lovely post and thank you for the link-love! :)

  2. Thanks, Mamaleh. It's a hard thing to visit someone who's dying, but it's a holy thing.