Last week my father-in-law Rabbi Meyer Strassfeld died. He was almost 94 years old and had, for the last few years, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. While he recognized his children until the moment of his death, much of the rest of his mind had become jumbled and confused. He would give long sermons to his “congregants” in the middle of the night, believing that he was still the rabbi of Temple Sinai in Marblehead, MA, or Agudath Israel in Dorchester. He was often aware of his own confusion and did his best to cover, but it was painful to watch the decline of this man whose life was so much about his mind.
People often say that the aging process simply accentuates one's essential characteristics and this was certainly true for my father-in-law. He was always a mensch and he got menchier. He was always kind and he got kinder. Mostly, he was also happy, and he maintained an extraordinarily positive attitude about his life, despite some of its contours: early disruption because of rising anti-Semitism in Ukraine and then Germany; the death of most of his family at the hands of the Nazis; learning a new language and new culture; tragically losing his beloved wife of almost 60 years. But even as I write this, I know it would not be how he would have seen it. Rather he would say, and often did, how blessed he was—to have lived freely in this great country, to have had a wonderful marriage, three wonderful children, eight wonderful grandchildren, and a career he loved.
Nine months ago, we moved him to a nursing home in Washington, DC. We had put off the decision for a long time because he was deeply engaged with the Boca Raton Synagogue and went to shul there every day. The community has been a wonderful place for him, particularly after my mother-in-law died, and we were reluctant to uproot him. But when he no longer really knew where he was, we felt it was important that he be closer to family. We worried a lot about how he would manage the transition and though his children told him exactly what was happening, it wasn’t at all clear he fully grasped it. When they got to the nursing home, my husband got him settled and then went to take care of some paperwork. When he got back to the room, there were several nurses and social workers there, having begun the orientation to the facility.
As my husband tells the story, his father seemed not to understand anything. His caregiver from Boca, who had made the journey north to help in the transition, tried to explain it to him.
“Rabbi,” he said. “Look at all of these beautiful women who are here just to take care of you!”
My father-in-law looked around the room, and in a moment of complete lucidity answered, “Is that so? You know you are doing sacred work, right?”
My husband looked at the faces of these women, who indeed know they do sacred work but rarely are noticed for it. Because their patients are confused or worse. Because the world has forgotten the souls of elderly people. Because the children and spouses and family of Alzheimer’s patients are often too stressed to say thank you to those who care for their father, husband, friend.
But in that moment, as a rabbi had recognized their holiness, they felt blessed. And so do I, for having known this kind and happy man. May his memory be for a blessing.