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Guardian vs. Guardian Angels

There is a term in Judaism, hashgacha pratit, divine providence, which means that G‑d not only knows what is going on here on earth, but is engaged in supervising it as well.  It is a concept I believe very strongly in. Close to 20 years ago, I sat with my paternal grandmother and implored her to share with me the names of all relatives she could remember.  Unlike my maternal grandparent’s side of the family that was decimated in the Shoah, this side of the family was extensive. It was then that my grandmother told me about Harriet.

My grandmother shared with me that she had a first cousin, Harriet. Harriet had been the shadchan, or matchmaker, of my grandparents.  Harriet had two children but they both died young, and neither procreated.  I remember thinking at the time how tragic this was; Harriet, as is the case with so many individuals, outlived her children.

Eleven years ago, both of my grandparents passed away within nine months of each other. I struggled deeply with their passing.  I would often recall my grandmother’s recurring words, “the grandparents have to go before the children (and grandchildren).”  It was then that I went on a search for Harriet who had no living descendants and whose address was found in my grandmother’s phone book.  I visited her in Brooklyn and I brought her a copy of the family tree I had drawn up with my grandmother.  Harriet was kind, with a friendly demeanor.  I was glad I was able to connect with her; Harriet had known two people that meant the world to me.  I called Harriet numerous times after our visit simply to check in and see how she was doing.   Unfortunately, I lost contact.

Fast forward to fall 2020, when my flight to Israel was delayed intermittently due to COVID-19. I felt a strong premonition to find out where Harriet was, even though the phone number I had for Harriet had not worked for some time and my efforts to try and find her a few years back had proven to be in vain.   Harriet was family, and I did not have closure with the matter.  I called nursing home after nursing home and to my surprise, I actually found her.

Due to COVID-19 I could not visit and since my name was not on the ‘approved list’ no information could be given to me.  A friend advised me to send a letter to the nursing home – so that is what I did and I included a picture I had taken with Harriet.  Although I confirmed the letter was received, no information was given to me.  I obtained my student visa in late October 2020, and I left for Israel.

Last March 2021, while studying and interning in Israel, I received a phone call late one night.  The nursing home had given my name to the guardianship program in New York. Harriet was not doing well and decisions had to be made. I was being called because I was family and this was a life and death issue.  To say I was taken aback by this phone call is an understatement, but I went into active mode and for the next two months, I was on the phone with doctors, nurses, rabbis, and nursing homes, to try and understand the complexity of end of life issues from a Judaic standpoint.  I spoke to Harriet many times through an iPad.  She had dementia and did not speak but she was alert and recognized her name.  I was on a mission to see that her medical care and ultimately her burial would be handled with the utmost diligence.

Handling Harriet’s care threw me into uncharted territory.  I had to believe from the bottom of my neshama, soul, that there was a reason I was placed in this situation.  From the moment I received that phone call, the words ‘there were no graves’ repeated themselves over and over.  There was no burial place for so many members of my maternal grandparents’ families.  The guardianship program did not have any information on specific burial plans and the program did not even know that Harriet had been married or that she had children.  She had been a John Doe in a nursing home!  My detective skills, determination and divine providence led me to find the synagogue that Harriet was affiliated with and to find out her Hebrew name and her mother’s name.  I was also eventually able to find the cemetery where her entire immediate family, her daughter, her son, and her husband, are buried along with her brother, sister and parents.  A rabbi with whom I shared this story said that the guardianship program would never have gone to the length I did to figure all of this out.  I also am almost certain that during one of my iPad calls with Harriet, she had complete clarity when I stated that I found the burial place of her daughter.

On a Saturday evening last May, I received a call that Harriet was not doing well and she would likely not make it past the night.  However, Harriet was a fighter and I had been told by her doctor that she had survived COVID-19 and even a bout of pneumonia. He told me she went into the hospital with the physical body of an 80-year-old although she was 98.  That week I called Harriet and spent a significant amount of time on the phone saying Tehillim.  There is so much that is unknown about patients with dementia; there was something so surreal and special about saying Tehillim for Harriet and I hope that hearing those words brought peace to her in some way.  Harriet, Chashka bat Shmuel, passed away on May 13, 2021.

Ten years prior, my grandmother passed away on May 13, 2011.  There is part of my being that was so completely broken when my grandmother passed.  When Harriet, my grandmother’s first cousin and her matchmaker passed on the same secular date 10 years later, it gave me and continues to give me solace.  Perhaps G-d is winking at me and saying ‘keep going strong,’ life is meant to be lived.

Steve Jobs had observed, in life, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”  I have become a humbler person because of my experience in dealing with Harriet.  One never truly knows what another person is dealing with and the responsibilities he or she is juggling, which is why it is so important to judge people favorably.

I found out later that Harriet was placed under guardianship and relocated to a nursing home in 2016 after being found wandering the streets. I have wondered if I could have helped sooner had I continued to simply call her.  All of her stuff was discarded except for the three boxes of personal items she took with her to her new location.

In the United States, approximately 375,000 individuals or 25 percent of the 1.5 million adult guardianship cases, have a guardian that is “an organization or a paid official with no knowledge of the impaired individual before appointment…The number of persons with professional guardians is expected to rise dramatically as the population ages and more individuals are incapacitated owing to dementia” (Cohen, Wright et al., 2015, p. 1687).

As baby boomers age, the number of elderly individuals will only continue to increase.  How many of those will not have an advocate?  How many will end up in guardianship as John Does in a facility that does not know anything about their family histories?  When asked to help an elderly person, with any type of service, how many of us would go the extra mile and be guardian angels?

I feel blessed that I was able to have the zechut, merit, to find Chashka and see that she was given a proper Jewish burial and laid to rest in the same place as her immediate family.

Today is the first yahrzeit of Chashka bat Shmuel.  May her neshama have an Aliyah. Amen.

Footnote:

Cohen, A., Wright, M., Cooney Jr, L., & Fried, T. (2015) Guardianship and End-of-Life                    Decision Making. JAMA Internal Medicine, 175(10), 1687-1691.

About the Author
Julie H. Bernstein, MSW, Wurzweiler ‘21, is a professional living in Miami Beach who works in the Jewish non-profit field.
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