She greets me with a toothless smile.
“Where have you been!” she says in Hebrew, in her deep, raspy voice, “come, come, sit down sweetie. Why are you still standing? Get yourself some coffee. I’ve missed you all week.”
“Ahuva, you look lovely today,” I say, walking toward her.
“Eh. This is lovely?” she points to her missing teeth, “Doctors. What do they know, anyway?”
I sit down across from Ahuva. She’s in her regular spot in the living room, sinking into the couch chair. Her tanned complexion, full cheeks and golden-red hair give her a youthful look, though she’s spent 90 years under the middle eastern sun. On her lap rests a purple blanket, covering one leg. The blanket rests on the chair where her other leg should be, which is noticeably missing.
Ahuva adjusts herself in her chair, which seems to be a part of her. I’ve never seen her off of it. She’s been disabled for a few years now, since the sarcoma took over her left leg and she had it amputated. The doctor told her for years that “it’s nothing.”
“Tell me all about your week, dear,” she says.
Nadia, Ahuva’s caretaker from India, brings us chocolate covered biscuits. We dip them in our steaming coffee while talking about my week and about Ahuva’s new great granddaughter, in America. I turn on Ahuva’s tablet to see a beautiful, chubby girl swaddled in a crib, her big sister looking over her.
Ahuva’s face lights up with the tablet screen, looking at her tiny, bundled legacy. But as the tablet screen goes black, her expression darkens, too.
“Shame they’re all in America. Such a shame,” she says, slightly lowering her head, “and they never visit.”
Ahuva tells me about her two children, who left Israel over 30 years ago. About her grandchildren and great grandchildren who don’t speak a word of Hebrew. About her Haredi brother who lives 20 minutes away, but cannot visit her for “modesty” reasons. And about the rest of the family, who—for some reason or another—have become estranged.
While talking with Ahuva, I think about the meaning of my visits with her. I see her once a week, for two hours—some of the few hours she spends with company. And during those two hours, we read together and discuss the news. I ask her about the government and she laughs: “what government?” We talk philosophy and listen to Israeli music from the pioneer days. We keep each other company and share pieces of our lives, completing more of the puzzle with each visit.
She tells me about her escape from Baghdad and about life in Israel in the 1950s, when food was scarce. She explains how important it is to live in Israel, and I agree. But we also both understand the price of being so far from family.
“Want to see some old family pictures?” she asks.
“Sure,” I say, “I love old-fashioned photo albums…they don’t make them anymore.”
The cabinet creaks as I open the mahogany door. I pull out a heavy album and blow off the dust.
Flipping through the thick pages of the album, I see Ahuva in New York. A younger Ahuva, standing next to family, in front of a backdrop that so resembles the suburb in which I was raised.
There’s a familiarity in the graininess of the picture and the slightly faded green filter. I look at the picture of Ahuva smiling on a boat, the statue of liberty standing proudly behind her. On the next page, she’s picnicking in central park, and then, at a birthday party in a suburban backyard.
I think how easily it could have been a picture of my Saba, on one of his visits to New York in the nineties. In the picture of the birthday party, Ahuva holds her grandson, who was just a baby then. Turns out he is exactly my age.
Sitting there with Ahuva, I feel that she and I adopted one another, each of us filling a need of the other. Our visits remind me that the benefits of volunteering go two ways; often it is the “helper” who needs to give, and the receiver provides the opportunity for giving.
Wednesday morning, 9:00 am.
I wake up late, feeling lazy under my covers, recovering from Tuesday—the busiest day of my week.
Wednesday is the day I visit Ahuva, and the thought of seeing her propels me out of bed. I pour myself a cup of coffee and dial her home phone—I always call before heading out to meet her, just to make sure.
I’m surprised to hear Nadia’s voice on the other end.
“Hi, Nadia! Can I speak with Ahuva?” I say.
“Oh…you didn’t hear?” she says, quietly. Then a long, heavy silence.
“Didn’t hear… what?”
I think I mishear her. It couldn’t be? It must be her Indian accent, I think. I walk into the bathroom for some quiet. My heart’s beating faster now.
“Nadia, you’re not serious, right?”
“I am. She died on Friday night. Heart attack. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier…I was alone. Couldn’t find your number. Some family is here now, from America.”
My voice barely makes out the words as the knot in my throat tightens: “When’s the shiva?”
“After three, today. Come.”
“I’ll be there” I say, and hang up the phone.
I am crying in the bathroom, now. The shock of her death has me in its grip—I can’t seem to make sense of it. Just two days before her death, Alon and I lit the Chanukah candles at her apartment. She beat Alon in a game of Backammon. We ate jelly doughnuts and sang Chanukah songs. She looked so alive. She told me she hoped we’d still visit long after we move, like the other volunteers.
I leave the bathroom to tell Alon the news. The tears come faster now. He hugs me in bed and we lay there, mostly in silence.
“I was lucky I got to meet her,” he says.
He had met her for the first time the week before, two days before she died.
I think about how close Ahuva and I had become in those two months. How much I’d grown to appreciate her company, her open heartedness, her dry humor, and the quickness with which she welcomed me—a complete stranger—into her home.
Now, two weeks later, I reflect on our short time together.
I think about the other survivors of her generation, from Europe and the Middle East. The ones who survived the ghettos, the camps, the violence, the endless persecution. The ones who made it to Israel—by strength and divine providence—only to end up alone.
So many of this dying generation are alone. Alone to fight for their rights with bureaucrats over the phone. Alone on Shabbat eve, on holidays, on birthdays. Alone as the seasons change, as their skin wrinkles and hair whitens, as their health deteriorates.
Many of them remain forgotten until their final days, when the thought of inheritance arises. Then the family comes, sits shiva for the necessary time, packs up the belongings, and moves on. Their caretakers find new jobs, and the volunteers, like myself, delete the weekly meeting from their Google calendar in a way that feels trivial.
Though I didn’t get to write down the details of Ahuva’s exodus from Baghdad or the adversity of coming to a barely-settled land, I share this memory to ensure that a part of her story is told. That her name is acknowledged by those who know me, and hopefully, by strangers, too. That the story of our brief encounter gives the reader an idea—though perhaps only tiny glimpse—of who she was.