I met Rina in autumn. She came onto our service because her breast cancer, treated twenty years previously, had come back in metastatic form despite a double mastectomy. She was grateful for those twenty good years, and now she accepted her terminal prognosis. She lived with her younger son, a quiet, learned man, in a tiny studio apartment where he slept on a pallet next to her hospital bed. Her oldest son had embezzled her pension and life savings, but she never spoke ill of him. Rina was a Jewish lady from New Jersey. She would say in her east coast accent, “Ev’rybody’s gotta die. Whaddaya gonna do?”
This working class girl had moved out to the West coast when her older sister needed help with a new baby after the Second World War had been won in Europe, but not in the Pacific. She was an “old maid” at twenty-three, and figured that being a California nanny would be an adventure. She came across the country by train, and was impressed. “Who knew this country was so big?” The train was full of young men in uniform. Judging by an old photo taken just before the trip, it is no wonder with her strong cheekbones, hourglass figure, and engaging smile that Rina did not lack for companions in the dining car. “I never paid for one meal!” she winked.
Rina had listened to the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcasts since she was a little girl. “The first time I heard opera, it just captivated me,” she told me one afternoon. My practiced chaplain’s expression of concerned interest must have failed me for a moment, because the next thing she said was, “Opera”—a two-syllable word for Rina—“Ya either love it or ya don’t.”
I played her opera from YouTube through my bluetooth speaker, and invited her to watch the video of Maria Callas singing the Violetta Aria from La Traviata on my iPad. When the last note had died away, we sat in silence for a while, recovering, before Rina said rapturously, clasping her hands over her bony breast, “Maria Callas. Such a voice! It’s a gift from God, that voice!”
I asked, “And what about you, Rina? What has been your gift from God?”
“Oh, I could make a soup,” she said, looking at me impishly. “I could make such a soup, that the smell of it would fill the house, and a child that came into that house and smelled that soup would know that they were loved.”
“That’s a mighty good gift,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” she agreed, remembering.
Two months later I was visiting again. Rina had been getting more cachectic, more tired, and was having more pain in her back as the cancer progressed. When I came in, her son Saul would take the opportunity to dash to the grocery store on his bicycle to replenish their meager larder. This particular day, Rina was barely responsive, eyes closed, breathing labored. I sat beside her hospital bed in a silent meditation for healing.
You may be surprised that I use that word healing in association with a terminally ill patient, but it is related to the words “health,” “hale,” and ultimately, “whole.” I was meditating on Rina’s wholeness as a person, and on her being a part of the cosmic whole.
Suddenly, she put her hand up, and I took it in both of mine. “What do you need, dear?” I asked. “I’m here. Chaplain Carl is here.”
“Lemme see your face,” Rina rasped.
I stood up and leaned over the bed, thinking that she was confused about who I might be. She took my face in both her hands and looked into my eyes for a long moment. I’d somehow not realized that her eyes were an emerald green color, not a murky hazel like mine, but a true green.
She shook my face gently side to side. “You’re so beautiful,” she said.
“You are so very beautiful, Rina.”
The moment held us in its glow, and time stopped the way it does, you know, when you’ve entered into numinous time, sacred time. The afternoon sun slanted through the window, and I could hear schoolchildren calling to one another as they walked home. Rina and I just stayed there, transfixed by the precious beauty of existence.
She died four days later. She never complained, she was never afraid that I know of, she was never concerned with her dignity, which is the most dignified way to be. She was grateful for everything, and she often laughed until she wheezed.
“Ev’rybody’s gotta die. Whaddaya gonna do?”