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Final instructions

“Who are my shomrim going to be?” my Dad asked. It was the first night of Rosh Hashanah. We were walking home from shul, pushing my father’s wheelchair, when he suddenly turned around and popped this question. “Dad,” I replied, “what are you talking about? Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it. Don’t talk like that.” It upset me that he was bringing up the topic and that he seemed to be concerned. He was not strong that last Rosh Hashanah of his life. On the first night he sat at the dining-room table surrounded by my husband and me, some of our children, their spouses and our grandchildren. We shared a delicious meal, but my father’s conversation often brought tears to our eyes as he discussed his impending death. We continued to pooh-pooh it, but he would have none of that. The next day he came with us to shul and heard the shofar, but he slept through most of the davening in his wheelchair. That afternoon he was unable to join us at the table and lay in his bed for the rest of the day and into the night. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we brought him back to shul but his aide came to take him home early, as he seemed weak and confused. Again he was unable to join us for seudah with the family, and when I tried to get him to eat he didn’t want anything.

As the day progressed his breathing became increasingly labored and shallow. He was barely responsive; his aide started to prematurely eulogize him with tears of love in her eyes. For the next few hours we kept walking in and out of his room, checking up on him, while my grandchildren played quietly. As the hours inched closer to Shabbos (It was a three-day Yom Tov/Shabbos kvius that year) we realized that my sister, who lived an hour’s walk away, should be notified.My father’s aide called my sister’s motherin-law’s aide who was at her house to tell her about my father’s failing health and urged her to come quickly. Around the same time, my friend, who had seen my father from a distance in shul, stopped by to find out how things were going. I don’t know what possessed me, but knowing that my father was very social, I invited her into his room. He lay there looking like death warmed over, barely breathing, with his eyes closed. “Good Shabbos, Mr. Hollander!” she greeted him warmly. His eyelids fluttered,and he gathered himself together to force his eyes open and give her a weak smile in return. She stayed a few more minutes, wishing him a “Shanah Tovah” and telling him to get stronger soon. As I was walking her to the door and thanking her for coming, my sister and brother-in-law burst in out of breath, having just run several miles in a panic. As we walked slowly towards my father’s room I described his recent turn for the worse and cautiously peeked in. There was Dad, fully dressed and sitting up in bed. “Well, hello!” he greeted them with a surprised smile. “Shabbat Shalom. Good to see you.” As my grandson Moshe put it, “Saba Rabbah popped up!” After sitting with Dad for a short while, my sister and brother-in-law quickly did a relieved about-face and returned home.

My father then requested some soup, matzah balls and chicken. His appetite had returned as suddenly as his energy. He insisted on going to shul for Friday night davening and refused to leave until he was able to take the rabbi aside and tell him that he and the rabbi from his own shul would have to “work it out.” We had no idea what he meant, but our rabbi assured him that they would. They did. We were granted another month with Dad. On the morning of Simchas Torah the phone rang before I was about to leave for shul. When the machine picked up I heard the voice of his aide weeping hysterically and sharing the news of my dear father’s passing. I got to his house as quickly as possible, where my sister and brother-in-law had been staying with him for Yom Tov and were there now with his lifeless body. A few minutes later the rabbi of his shul came to discuss the details with us. The main concern was what to do with the meis. There was still much of the second day of Yom Tov ahead of us and tonight was Shabbos. If his body was removed to the funeral home, which was possible on Simchas Torah, the members of the chevrah kaddisha would have a very long trek back and forth over the next two days, a real tirchah and a huge undertaking, leaving their families for a long period of time on Yom Tov and Shabbos. Our father had never liked to bother anyone or to put anyone out. What would he have wanted? I remembered his concern about who his shomrim would be. Now I understood why.

He had somehow known that this would become an issue and had raised the subject because he didn’t want it to be treated lightly or without thought. Knowing how important this was to him, I suggested that the solution was for his body to remain in his own home over Yom Tov and Shabbos… and we would be his shomrim, with the help of the chevrah kaddisha. I realized how perfect an idea this was as I stood by the kitchen window overlooking the entrance to the shul when the doors suddenly burst open and hundreds of joyous people poured out. As they danced in jubilation with the Torah scrolls not far from where my father’s body lay, I realized that he was surrounded by everything he loved— his family, Torah, mitzvos and song—as his soul rose to shamayim. This was an honor and a privilege we had never anticipated but welcomed with love, kavod and gratitude to Hakadosh Baruch Hu as our hearts filled with sadness and love for our wise, dear and devoted Dad. But that wasn’t the end of it; there were still my father’s instructions to the rabbi to “work it out.” On Motzaei Shabbos both rabbis sat down with us to finalize the details of the levayah. Everything was decided without any difficulty. Our rabbi had a family funeral of his own to attend so he asked my father’s rabbi to officiate in our shul, as he could only be present for a short time. As my father had wished, and none of us could have imagined, everything was resolved simply and beautifully, guided by his concerns as we strove to fulfill the last requests of a simple, devout man who was beloved by many.

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