I first noticed the man as he was being wheeled next to the bench, and I watched as he shaked and twisted uncontrollably, while his Filipino caretaker left him to sit in the sun streaming through the clouds late on the last day of Passover. Well, the last day for all of us lucky ones here in Israel, anyway. Our eyes met for a long moment, and I broke away guiltily when I realized I had crossed over the line that separates mere idle curiosity from staring.
Four continuous days of enforced togetherness, due to all the time off for Shabbat and the holiday break, were taking their toll on my family, so before cabin fever could turn my brief respite from work into a reenactment of the climactic scene from The Shining (Heeere’s Mommy!!), I had agreed to take my children to their favorite park, which they had whimsically dubbed “the park of a thousand ladders”, thanks to the towering jungle gym dominating the playscape. Upon arrival, all four had gleefully joined the seething hive of children hanging from every possible centimeter of surface on the structure, while I curled up with a bad novel and an even worse Passover cookie, idly wondering where I’d be able to find a donut in my new city as soon as chametz season began anew.
The wheelchair and the attending Filipino guest worker are normal sights for Israel. But the man’s age made him stand out. Although he was clearly past the first blush of middle age, he was by no means elderly, and he didn’t look much older than my husband, possibly only in his early 60s. The tremor spoke a diagnosis of palsy or Parkinson’s of terrifying intensity. It’s not hard to see how, before the advent of modern medicine, the onset of this condition would have been marked as possession, for the man was clearly not in control of himself, at least not on a physical level.
I continued to steal glances out of the corner of my eye, and noticed another Filipino who had come to speak with the first. They chatted happily in the sun, breaking into the full open-throated laughter of youth, which would have made me smile with nostalgia, if not for the poor trembling soul, sitting solitary and discarded, occasionally struggling stoically to press a handkerchief to his mouth in a feeble attempt to wipe away errant flecks of saliva.
“Talk to him! Include him!” I wanted to yell. But who am I to become involved in his private tragedy. Perhaps the man is just an empty shell, with no one even left inside to talk to. Although, when our eyes had met, I imagined I had seen full accusatory comprehension of the depth of my horror and pity in his eyes. For the briefest of moments, I considered going over and speaking to him. But as I played the scene out in my head, the barriers and the likelihood of utter failure loomed large, like Hell’s Angels working concert security. This was Hadera, not Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, and even if the man was completely lucid, he was unlikely to speak English.
Worse, if he did speak English, what could I even begin to say? That he looked alone? That he looked in distress? That I felt pity, horror, and shame? That I had come to do penance by spending five minutes of my day with him, like a corrupted version of reciting three Hail Mary’s in atonement for the sin of still being, relatively speaking, young,? And while my conscience struggled over whether it was better to turn towards or turn away, the man slumped over unceremoniously, and mouth agape, fell asleep.
“And G-d said, ‘My spirit shall not continue to judge him forever; he is nothing but flesh, and his days will be 120 years'” (Breisheet 6:3)