“Holy Bagpipes” by Leon H. Olenick
The snow was melting in Minnesota. Spring was beginning to lighten and warm the darkness of winter. The snow on the ground was lingering and had turned black from the traffic. The birds were chirping, calling for the warmth of the coming season. The entrance of the hospital had a clear walkway, surrounded by mountains of decaying snow.
My first visit of the day was to the oncology unit. This unit’s staff has a very difficult task. They provide presence to people who are dying and witness the patients’ bodies deteriorating on a daily basis. They become close to the patients and caregivers. They cry inside, however on the outside they are professional and present, offering constant compassion and understanding.
It was requested that I see a Jewish patient in room 408. Upon entering the room, I was warmly greeted by a man in his early 70s. He was well groomed. His thick graying hair was neatly combed. His eyes were bright with hope. His name was Ralph. His wife of 40 years, Shirley, was present. Her attire reflected the Minnesota season. She was well kept and she wore a combination of bright and drab clothes.
Ralph, after numerous tests, had recently received his diagnosis of stomach cancer. We spoke at length about their feelings toward the cancer. They said they had been through many challenges in life, and this was only another. They were determined to beat it.
I allowed them the space to communicate their feelings. They spoke about their family, two sons and four grandchildren, with pride. They told me about their business and how delightful retirement had been for the last few years. Ralph was not a religious man, however he was very spiritual. He had explored the eastern religions and had his own way of reaching out to God. He would create his own meditations from his heart. These came from a pure space of love. I subsequently addressed the issue of anger about the diagnosis. He said, “Hell yes, I have a lot of anger and a lot of living to do.” I admired his down-to-earth attitude.
The surgeon was to operate later in the day. They requested I offer a mishabayrech (healing prayer) for him.
Mishabayrech Avotaynu v emataynu, Robino Shel Olom (Master of our Universe God of our ancestors), I stand here with Ralph, who is about to have his surgery. Please guide the surgeon’s hands as he operates on Ralph. Let him be mindful of his task and give him the fortitude and skill to remove the cancer from Ralph. Let Ralph’s body endure the procedure, and send your angel Rafael to join with him. Please capture all the cancer cells, and grant him a “refuah shlema & refuah ha guf,” a healing of body, mind, and spirit. Let the love that Ralph and Shirley have for each other energize their souls, and bring them close to you and each other. Amen.
I hugged Ralph and Shirley and left the room. I later checked in recovery and Ralph was doing well. The doctor said he was able to remove most of the cancer and Ralph would receive chemotherapy and radiation in the coming months in an attempt to irradiate the remaining cells. Time passed, and Ralph received his treatments. He was an outpatient and would come three days a week for his treatment. I would visit Ralph at his home during this time.
I can compare his appearance to the passing seasons in Minnesota. As the fall and winter came, the weather turned dark and gloomy. The bitter cold pierced not only one’s skin, but shook one’s neshuma, and turned one’s kishkas inside out. Ralph looked the same way. His hair was falling out more rapidly than the leaves on the frozen trees. His face was sunken, and you could see his cheekbones.
I thought of the bare branches of the trees, standing alone and naked. His once-strong body shivered as he wrapped himself in his blanket. His voice was faint like the wind coming through the desolate streets.
Ralph was losing his battle. I would visit him about once per month. Each time he grew weaker. He was always cordial and ready for my visit. Shirley would always make lunch and have some Jewish music playing on the stereo.
We came to the point in our relationship where Ralph was ready to speak about mortality. I felt we were facing death together, as we spoke about the soul and where it travels after it leaves the body. We talked about life, and I reminded Ralph that although he felt worn out, he was 100 percent alive. I encouraged him to live each second to the fullest. He spoke of his family, and of not being able to see his grandchildren under the chuppa. I assured him that he would be there in spirit to offer his blessings.
Winter turned to spring and once again the birds were chirping, however Ralph could not hear them. He was back in the hospital. He was comatose, and it was time for his soul to leave his body. I visited daily, bringing support and compassion to Shirley, his sons, and the staff that had become very close to him.
The days became weeks and Ralph was still lingering between life and death. I knew from past experience that sometimes a person will not allow themselves to die if they feel they have unfinished business. I sat with Shirley. She wanted Ralph to die so his soul would be released from his bondage. I prayed with her for this release.
As I prayed I thought of how the Israelites in bondage prayed for their freedom from bondage. I also realized that on some level we are all in bondage, and have to have a release in order to evolve.
Her tears were few, her eyes were tired, and her face exposed her inner pain. I asked her if she could think of any unfinished business the Ralph had left. She said he was very content, and cleared all of his business in preparation for this day.
She said, with a nervous laugh, the only thing she could think of is that he always said he was sorry for only one thing that he did not accomplish in his life. He was sorry that he never became a bar mitzvah. This resonated with me. I told her to have her sons present in the hospital room the next day at 10 a.m. Ralph was going to be a bar mitzvah. She smiled and agreed.
As I traveled the path to the hospital the next morning hugging the Sefer Torah, the sun was shining brightly and the birds greeted me with a beautiful niggun. I took the melody to be the “biddenkins” niggun (the song the veiled bride sang as she circles her groom prior to their wedding) and sung with them. I entered the elevator to go to Ralph’s room. The etz chaims, the wooden posts around which the Torah scroll were wrapped, were prominent as they peeked through the tallit that covered the Torah.
A woman on the elevator innocently inquired, “Do you play the bagpipes?” I smiled as I answered, “Today I do”.
Entering Ralph’s room, I noticed bright decorations that the staff had taped to the walls. The dreary room had been transformed into a room for celebration to commemorate Ralph’s bar mitzvah ceremony. The room was full to capacity with staff. Shirley and her sons were present.
I explained the intention of this mini-service, and its order. I asked the entire makeshift congregation to send their deepest energy to Ralph. I unwrapped the Torah from the tallit and called Ralph to the Torah. Yamode Yamode Rafael ben Yaakov v Miriam Bar Mitzvah. His oldest son proceeded to receive the honor for his father. I read Shema from the Torah, asking Ralph to hear the words deep in his heart and listen to the call of the angels that want him to join them. It was nearing Pesach, and I offered a short D’var. I spoke of Pesach being the time we are freed from Mitzrayim, the narrow spaces of confinement. I explained that during our lives we are all placed in these narrow spaces, and with strength and faith we have the capacity to be released from them. I gave Ralph permission to exit from Mitzrayim without any fear, and free his holy soul.
Mishabayrech avotaynu v emataynu, we again stand before you with Ralph and his family. Master of the Universe, forgive him for anything he has done intentionally or unintentionally to offend you or hurt any person or anything in your Universe. Let his soul be in your deepest shalom. Guard his family and allow them inner peace knowing that he will be safe and let him feel confident that he did good here on earth during his lifetime and that his loved ones will be fine. I ask the angels Michael, Gavriel, Uriel and Rafael to surround him and escort him into the arms of those who left the world before him and love him. Send signs to his family that he is safe and in you arms. Amen
I then asked all to join me as we recited the shema together. The tears were of joy and sorrow. We raised the Torah, dressed it, and wrapped it in the tallit.
I went over to Ralph, kissed him on his forehead and said, “Mazel tov, my dearest friend. You are a bar mitzvah.” Ralph died 10 minutes later.
May his memory be a blessing, and may the bagpipes always play his song.
That is simply beautiful.
I’m Jewish, though not at all religious… but I thought your story was very touching. I passed it along to our cantor.
Another beautiful and moving story. Thank you for sharing.
Through my tears, I thank you for a beautiful story!
Through my tears, I thank you for a beautiful story!