It often becomes difficult for medical professionals in a hospital to remember that each person lying in the bed is a person and not only a disease. And every single one of those people has their own, unique story.
As I walked into the bright, sun-lit room and after brief introductions, I sat down next to Jake, a 62-year old nice-looking man, admitted for cardiac issues. I immediately noticed some sort of large tattoo on his left arm, but I was unable to decipher what it was from my position and angle.
Jake told me that his beloved job brings with it high stress. The hospitalization has unfortunately served as a wake-up call for him to reduce his work load and to contemplate making some life changes. Being in a hospital had given him much time to think about life, meaning of life and what is truly important; a comment I frequently hear.
He told me that he came to the conclusion that it is probably time to make the long-awaited move that his wife has been begging for, a move to relocate to North Carolina to be near his daughter. I asked him how many children he has. “I have two, but one died 25 years ago,” an answer I was not expecting to hear.
Jake paused and then continued, “I usually don’t share this part of my story with others, but I really need to get it off my chest now and I feel like I can share it with you.”
“My wife and I were going on a quick vacation. We dropped my teenage daughter and 4-year-old son off at my mother in law’s house. She gave my son a hotdog for dinner. My son choked on it and immediately died.” Jakes eyes began to well up with tears. “My mother-in-law died a few weeks later. I believe it was from a broken heart.”
Jake continued. “I had grown up in an Orthodox home, and married Cindy, who is not Jewish. After I married, I gravitated to the Reform temple. Cindy was very respectful of my beliefs and would often accompany me to the temple. After our son died, I was so angry with God. I stopped going to temple. Why would God take away an innocent 4 year old child? What kind of God would do that? I was so angry. So confused. Our rabbi was of no help to us and was unable to identify with our feelings. It distanced me even more from God. It was our friends, support groups and weekly counseling that helped us move through our trauma. The pain of losing a child never goes away. The pain is with me everyday. ”
Jake and I just stared at each other. Silence. There were no words to say. However, my unspoken words penetrated Jake’s heart.
“Over the past few years, I have slowly started to re-claim my relationship with God. I acknowledge him. I now talk to God on my own. I ask him for the strength to cope. I ask him to watch over my son. I still do not attend temple. Maybe one day…”
After a bit of conversation and a surprising prayer request, Jake thanked me for my non-judgmental presence, my compassion and listening ear. He felt a bit better, having released a lot of stored up pain. He asked if it would be okay if we could speak from time to time, being that I was his only Jewish connection at this point in his life.
“Oh, and by the way,” he said, “I know that Jews are not allowed to get tattoos. I know by Jewish law it is prohibited. But I got one anyway years ago.”
He lifts up his left arm to show me. The scripted words say: “ אבינו מלכנו, [our father, our king,] why did you take him from me?” I was stunned by his choice of words, a play on words from our high holiday liturgy.
Below the inscription there is depicted a beautiful life-like child’s face; big brown eyes, long eyelashes, brown hair with bangs, a pudgy nose, full pink lips and some freckles on his cheeks. As I couldn’t stop myself from staring at the tattoo, I was speechless and amazed. I never saw a tattoo as detailed as this. The features on the face made the child look so clear. So vivid. So real.
“This tattoo is my son.”
Debby Pfeiffer is a board-certified chaplain working at Morristown Medical Center through its affiliation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ. She resides in Bergenfield with her husband and children. She can be reached at [email protected]