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Jewish Journal

Praying with Betty

by Susan Esther Barnes

October 30, 2013 | 1:00 am

Photo of Betty's cool-looking front door by Susan Esther Barnes

For the last few months, on most Saturday afternoons I have been visiting a woman I will call Betty, in order to preserve her privacy. Betty is in hospice, which means she is approaching the end of her life, and is living at home in a hospital-type bed she will likely never leave, with the constant attention of a caregiver.

I met Betty because I am a volunteer for the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. Living at home alone, unable to go out, and seeing only one person (or the caregiver’s relief on her days off), can be quite a lonely existence. So I was asked to visit.

Unfortunately, by the time I got to visit Betty for the first time, she was already suffering from dementia. I have never had a conversation with her. Once or twice she has asked me who I am, but when I answer, there has been no coherent conversation after that.

Once, the entire time I was there, Betty was talking. Part of the time, she was asking me whether I had my car keys, and she seemed to want to go someplace. Some of the time, she was speaking with people I couldn’t see. At one point, she appeared to be hosting a dinner party in her mind, and was concerned that the roast come out of the oven in time.

Usually when I see Betty, she is asleep. Sometimes I talk to her. Sometimes I quietly sing or hum some Jewish songs to her, knowing that music is processed in a different part of the brain than speech, and hoping she will recognize the tunes.

At times, I have wondered whether there is any point to my visits. Generally, she doesn’t seem to know I am there. Even when she opens her eyes and looks at me, I’m not sure she really sees me. But part of me hopes that somehow, on some level, my presence is making some kind of positive difference, if only to help her to feel a little bit less alone.

Last Saturday, Betty woke up shortly after I arrived, and said, “Who are you?” I answered, and then she reached out her hand. I held her hand in mine while she fell back asleep. I started humming and singing some Jewish songs, mostly from the Saturday morning liturgy.

Suddenly, for the first time since I’ve been visiting her, it occurred to me to sing the Sh’ma. I had mixed feelings about this idea. The Sh’ma is the most recognized prayer in Jewish liturgy. Even those Jews who aren’t very observant know it. We chant it as part of every service. It is called “The watchword of our faith.” So, although I wasn’t sure whether Betty knew all the other songs I had sung to her, I was confident she knew this prayer.

On the other hand, the Sh’ma is supposed to be the last thing we say before we die. I certainly did not want to imply that Betty was about to die. For a patient who is coherent, and certainly for a person in hospice who was aware that the Sh’ma is said right before death, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting it. But in this case, I decided, it would be okay, because I was confident it wouldn’t register with Betty as a sign of impending death.

So I began to chant the Sh’ma, using the tune so familiar to Jews around the world. And as I began the second part, the V’ahavta, Betty drew the hand I was holding in mine to her other hand, so she could hold my hand in both of hers.

She held my hand in hers like that until I approached the end of the prayer, when she pushed my hand away and opened both of hers, letting go.

I don’t know what it means, but I like to think Betty recognized this most familiar of prayers. I like to believe the tune reached a part of her brain that still remembers. I like to feel that, somehow, my visits do, indeed, make a difference.

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