Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Bikur Cholim

Short Fiction

In last week's installment of Count Zero, by Simcha Wasserman, in “The Final Score,” we read about a game of hockey and on the value of fair play and sportsmanship. In this week’s installment of Count Zero, “Bikur Cholim” (Hebrew for “visiting the sick”), we enter the world of the elderly and of nursing homes, often lonely places where residents have to face many losses. Count Zero eats some applesauce with an elderly resident, which has an all-around healing effect. As does the sound of laughter.

by Simcha Wasserman

An old man sat in a hospital chair in the hallway, feebly struggling to pry open the locked food tray that held him in place.

The Count had just finished visiting several elderly friends he knew from the community, who were “fortunately” only physically unwell. The pathos of this man in the hall, moved him as if this man was his own grandfather.

He moved towards him and gently held both his hands still, making direct eye contact. The old man smiled and then began softly crying. “I can’t open this tray!”

A nurse walking down the hall stopped and said, “Excuse me sir, but are you a relative of this patient?”

“No. I just visited some friends down the hall and noticed this man. Can you help him open his tray?”

“He’s always trying to open up his tray. He doesn’t realize that he can’t walk and would fall without support.”

“Does he have visitors?”

“Oh yes, his daughter is coming today. She is just returning from a vacation in Florida.”

“Would it be okay if I sit with him for a while? Just to, perhaps, divert his attention away from his tray.”

“Well, I, I, I don’t know. Oh, there’s the doctor on call.” The nurse took the doctor aside, spoke to him for a minute, and then returned with him to the Count.

“Young man, I’m not sure why you would want to spend time with a complete stranger, but if you don’t mind sitting in the hall with Mr. Oliver for a while that will be fine, but if he gets upset you will have to leave. The nurse, here, will keep an eye on him. And if necessary, I will be on this floor for the next few hours.”

Jane, the nurse, brought a chair for the Count, who sat directly across from Mr. Oliver. Jane turned to Mr. Oliver, “Mr. Oliver, this young man would like to talk with you, okay?”

Mr. Oliver reached out to hold the Count’s hands in disbelief, crying again. “I can’t open this tray!”

“Why do you want to open this tray when you’re going to eat something now?”asked, the Count.

“I am?”

“Sure.” The Count caught the nurse’s attention, after glancing at his watch, and said, “I see it’s too early for dinner but would it be okay if Mr. Oliver and I have applesauce for a snack?”

“Oh yes, yes, right away.” She came back with two applesauce containers and a bib. After fitting Mr. Oliver with a bib, she handed them their snacks.

“Excuse me, Jane, but where’s my bib?”

Mr. Oliver started laughing. Jane stared at the Count, who showed no reaction whatsoever. She had never heard Mr. Oliver laugh before.

She ran to get another bib and handed it to the Count, who said, “I will need your help to put this on, please.”

Mr. Oliver laughed again, even louder.

And there they sat eating applesauce with bibs and napkins, laughing together like two long-time friends.

About an hour later, Mr. Oliver’s daughter, Marci, arrived straight from the airport, anxious to see her father.

Jane saw her exit the elevator, and quickly briefed her about the last hour her father had spent with a young unexpected visitor.

Before Mr. Oliver saw his daughter, she heard him laughing with the Count. And they were both wearing bibs, as if it was the most natural thing to do. “My father is laughing,” she thought, “I can hardly believe it,” and she wiped away some tears with a tissue.

“Daddy!” she said, kissing him on the head, holding his hands. “What’s so funny?”

“My friend...he can’t open this stupid tray, either!” And he and the Count laughed again. And Marci and Jane laughed along, and not without a few tears falling from their eyes along the way.

Marci and Jane thanked the Count before he left, with Marci saying that the “sun” and “warmth” in her father’s face and laughter far outshone the brightest day Florida could ever hope to offer.

As the Count began to leave, he suddenly stopped by the elevators, and turned towards the women. “Pardon me, Jane,” he said in a matter-of-fact way, “but I believe this belongs to the hospital.” He smiled, and for a moment looked like a young boy, as he handed her his bib, and then entered the elevator and was gone.

Next week, “Origins”

Simcha Wasserman is a Lubavitcher chossid living with his family in Toronto.

Copyright ©2015. Simcha Wasserman. All Rights Reserved. The story is published here with the author’s permission.