Chuppa over the Nursing Home by Leon Olenick
My mother lived the final year of her life in a nursing home in Miami. Her body had failed her, but her mind stayed clear until the end. She had a great personality- she could always make anyone laugh, and always wanted to be helpful, no matter how frail she became.
The home was located in a very poor neighborhood known as Little Haiti. After driving through the neighborhood and seeing little shacks and makeshift houses, visitors arrived at the gate to the Jewish Home for the Aged. When you traveled past the gate, you would reach a magnificently landscaped pristine facility. Everything was manicured. Beyond some of the many buildings is the courtyard, where trees and flowers were always in bloom, comfy benches would greet you. Music would play softly and the atmosphere sunk in so deep you couldn’t help but be relaxed.
My mother called me and said that she must speak with me right away – she wanted me to visit her immediately. She had something important to ask me. I quickly arrived and she said that she wanted to introduce me to some of her best friends. She took my hand and escorted me through the hallways. She first introduced me to her friend Ruth, who was a woman far past 90. She wore fresh make-up and was elegant in her appearance. Her features revealed how beautiful she must have been as a younger woman. She was still beautiful. Standing next to her stood Henry, who was also well past 90 years. He had a head full of thick white hair. He was wearing shorts with high socks pulled to his knees. His wrinkled face told the story of surviving a hard, long life. His straight shoulders revealed an imposing dignity. Mom took my hand and introduced me as her son, the rabbi.
She proceeded to tell them that I would be happy to marry them. I stood somewhat shocked and rigid and very surprised. I was cordial to Ruth and Henry. They told me that they were in love and wanted to get married. They both said they haven’t felt a love like this since their late spouses died. They looked me in the eye and said, “We are old and are probably going to die soon. We want to join our souls.” Henry took my arm, pulling me aside and assured me it was not only for the sex. He said “I mean, of course the sex will be good, but I really do love her.” I told them I would do some checking with their families and the administrative staff and that I would get back to them by the end of the week. I kissed my mother good-bye and started toward the administrator’s office. I had to pass through the heavenly courtyard again. I looked up and said “Rebono Shel Olom (Master of the Universe), give me the wisdom to deal with this love story with blessings and in peace.”
I spoke to the administrator who was aware of the situation. He said, shaking his head, “I can’t see anything wrong with it, but you’d better check with the families.” I spoke to both families. They also thought it would be all right. I insisted that everyone sign off on maintaining family finances status quo, and also suggested we raise a chuppa but not go through the state legalities. I figured God blessing the wedding was more important than the governor of Florida knowing about this. It took about two weeks to have all the legal papers signed and many faxes went back and forth. The date was finally set. The children from both sides would fly to Miami from their homes up north. I requested no press as I did not want a circus – I wanted a holy space. I was really not into planning all the delicious details, but my wife Jackie joined forces with Mom. She created a ketuba for them to sign and ordered flowers and decorations. The big day finally arrived.
The families had arrived and were present for the signing of the ketuba. The courtyard was decorated with streamers and glitz. There was a beautiful chuppa, supported by decorated poles. It was a perfect winter day in Florida. The sun was shining, and it was 70 degrees outside. The path that the bride and groom would walk along was covered with red carpet and ended at the chuppa. A band played soft music and the sun danced through the blossoming trees. Henry appeared in his white tux with his shirt opened at the collar. He was escorted by his son and daughter. He said he did not need his walker, though it waited for him under the chuppa.
My mother was next. She was the flower girl. She proudly strutted down the isle sprinkling rose pedals on the red carpet. Ruth then appeared, wearing a white dress and white shoes. She had a beautiful orchid on her shoulder and her hair was perfectly coiffed. She beamed. Her sons escorted her to the chuppa. When they approached, they were kissed by their children.
As I motioned them to join me, I glanced around the courtyard. The entire garden was lined with residents and staff, and the ones on the second and third floor that could not make it down to the courtyard hung over the railing. A peace that I had never experienced at a nursing home or assisted-living facility existed. These people were not only present to witness the wedding, they were there for hope- hope for the past, future, and present, elderly, for sure, but certainly still able.
Henry and Ruth exchanged rings, and their children recited the sheva bruchot. Although this kallah and chatan were elderly, the energy we all experienced at that holy chuppa on that holy afternoon connected us back to our matriarchs and patriarchs and revealed to all witnessing this wedding that love is ageless. We all danced around them when the sixth blessing was recited. The nursing home staff provided lunch, and one staff member told my wife, “We pushed two beds together for them tonight.”
As I drove away from the nursing home, I knew I learned that love is timeless, and we have to live each moment and treasure each day. Quietly, I thanked my Mom for including me in this great blessing.