The Jagged Edges

He was just south of 40 and dying quickly of a messy cancer.

I was a volunteer hospice caregiver at the hospital where he was to spend his final days. My manager had told me he was from Texas and my parents were too. I looked forward to meeting him.

When I entered his room his back was to me and he seemed to be staring vacantly out the window. He was a lanky man with a head of disheveled, sandy-colored hair. I introduced myself and asked if he wanted a visit. He spun around in his wheelchair.

“Sure,” he said. “It would be nice to have some company.”

The large jet-black swastika tattooed on his left forearm was now in full view.

I recoiled instinctively, a wave of nausea impaling me to the doorjamb. Training my gaze a few inches above his eyes, I started to back out the door.

“I’m so sorry,” I lied, “but I just remembered I promised to bring a glass of juice to another patient. I’ll come back later if you like.”

“I would really like that, thank you!” he said with a smile. His name was John, he told me, extending his hand.

But I was already halfway into the hallway.

For the next two weeks I wrestled with what I had done. Before Adolf Hitler bastardized it, the swastika was a sacred symbol that meant “well-being” in Sanskrit.

Yet, my body could not forget the six million of my people who perished in the ovens.

Another two weeks went by. My parents and friends were supportive of my reaction to John’s swastika. But I still felt unsettled. I continued to visit other patients during my weekly hospital shift, feeling divided and ashamed.

For two more weeks I questioned some of my most deeply held assumptions, until one day, acutely aware that John had little time, I gathered together the courage to come back and listen to his story.   Perhaps this would be an opportunity for me to begin to heal my own cultural wounding.

But John had died that morning.

I sat down next to his still warm body lying on the bed. A small bushel of daises had been placed on his chest along with wooden rosary beads. I stared at the swastika and began tracing its edges with my index finger.

And may your memory be a blessing, I whispered, the honorific I had grown up reciting in synagogue when remembering the dead.

I don’t remember how many times I recited it or how long the visit lasted.

But I remember John looked at peace.

And that I could not stop weeping.

Years ago, as a freshly minted hospice volunteer, I was brimming with curiosity and the confidence that I could handle any person or situation.

But I was trained to set boundaries.

I wished I hadn’t.

One Response to The Jagged Edges

  • Liza Davis says:

    Heart-breaking. This reminds me of my relationship with my father, which is at this time estranged. We have entirely divergent socio-political views and he is not well. He refuses contact, so it makes it “easy” in a way not to have to deal with his mental illness as well as hateful politics. Yet again, he is basically alone in the world.

    We need to be compassionate with ourselves as well, when facing challenges like this. You really don’t know what the outcome of your conversation with this man would have been. But at the time, you weren’t up to it. Had you known that he had days to live, perhaps you would have acted differently, but you didn’t.

    We can’t live life backwards. Because I grew up loving a family that could have hateful political views, I know it is possible to reach a common ground with people who can have politics that make me nauseous. I prefer not to, most of the times, but I know it is possible.

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