The Vidui

Hank B. Slotnick, PhD

Disclosures

Introduction

I call my son to tell him his Grampa is dying. "Again?" he asks, acknowledging that we've expected Pa to die twice before.

The first death watch followed his GI bleed 5 months before, and the second came after what was probably a sub- or epidural bleed due to a fall last month. The key word here is "probably," since Pa has an advance directive that effectively precludes finding out exactly what his problems are. We're not going to do anything other than keep him comfortable no matter what the diagnostic findings, so there is no practical reason to do the tests.

This time Pa's much worse than after either his bleed or his fall. His pupils are shrunken and fixed, his hands and feet are very cool to the touch, mottling is developing on his left foot, and he is unresponsive to my voice. I watch as he draws small, shallow, rapid breaths that slowly build in intensity and then taper off until they stop altogether. He and I wait anxiously until he starts the routine again. The physician who looks after Pa and the nurses who know him tell me he'll live about a week more.

It turns out that Rabbi Wellins is here today. He's the rabbi who conducts a service one Sunday each month at the facility where my parents live. Mary Lou and I take Ma to the service, which we all enjoy, and I talk to the Rabbi afterward. He is very comforting, very reassuring.

But most of all, he's informative. He answers all my questions about Jewish traditions and rituals associated with death and dying, and he offers suggestions about things I haven't thought of. Because he knows my parents -- they've regularly attended his Sunday services -- what he says is comforting in its intimacy. He has spoken with Pa in Hebrew, and like the rest of us, he has enjoyed Pa's singing.

Rabbi Wellins also tells me of a tradition called a Vidui, which is a confession of one's sins. Ideally, Vidui is said within 72 hours of a person's death and while the person is still conscious. If the person is conscious, he knows both that he is about to stand before God, and that a sincere confession of one's sins before death helps ensure a portion in the world to come.

We decide to conduct a Vidui for Pa.

The Rabbi and Frieda, a friend from the facility where Ma and Pa live, meet Mary Lou and I at the entrance to the Alzheimer's unit 15 minutes later. "What is his mamaloschen?" the Rabbi asks. Mamaloschen is a Yiddish word meaning "mother tongue," and I tell him it is Yiddish. "Why is he asking?" I wonder, and I decide he's probably collecting information for the comments he'll give at the funeral.

We go to Pa's room and find him very agitated; he's pulled off his bedclothes and his diaper, and, when I return after looking for a caregiver to help us, he's sliding out of the bed on his back. I reach across the bed, grasp him under his arms, and pull him into a less dangerous, more comfortable position. The caregiver arrives and we finish straightening Pa up.

Mary Lou goes around to the far side of the bed so she can hold Pa's left hand, and I stand across from her holding his right hand. Rabbi Wellins puts on his tallis as he stands next to Mary Lou, while Frieda, who has moved to the foot of the bed, gently touches Pa's foot. Pa remains agitated with his eyes open but unseeing, his mouth open but silent. He is unmoved when I tell him who is here with him.

"What is his Hebrew name?" Rabbi Wellins asks me. A Hebrew name has two parts, a given name and the name of the individual's father. The two names are separated by the word "ben" for men or "bat" for women -- the words indicating the filial relationship between the two people.

"I don't know his father's given name," I reply, "but his name is Yitzchak."

I lean over Pa with my mouth next to Pa's ear. "Pa," I ask, "what is your Hebrew name?" He doesn't respond, and so I ask again. Still no response.

Rabbi Wellins asks Pa, b'Yvrit -- in Hebrew -- what his father's name is. Pa's lips begin to move, but it isn't possible to hear what he's saying. The Rabbi asks me what my grandfather's name was in English. I tell him it was "Harry," and the Rabbi says that my grandfather's Hebrew name was most likely Chaim. He now turns to Pa and asks, b'Yvrit, if his name is Yitzchak ben Chaim.

"Kane," Pa whispers the Hebrew word for "yes" and then, loudly enough so that all can hear, "Yitzchak ben Chaim." Soon there is enough conversation between the Rabbi and Pa alternating between Yiddish and Hebrew that the Rabbi, Mary Lou, Frieda, and I all know that Pa understands what is happening. His body is unchanged, his eyes are still open and unseeing, but he's aware of who's there and that the confession he's about to make is in anticipation of the fact that he'll soon be in the presence of God.

The Rabbi begins the Vidui prayers, first in Hebrew, then in English. I'm struck by the repetitiveness of some phrases: Adonai echad, Adonai echad -- God is one, God is one. And I recall what Rabbi Wellins said an hour earlier about that phrase: God is a oneness that encompasses both people and things, filling the universe.

I realize that for the moment, the 5 of us, connected only by the immediacy and the gravity of what we are doing, are the universe. There is no reality beyond the 4 of us surrounding Pa, and time is an irrelevancy. The Rabbi continues with his prayers, Mary Lou continues holding Pa's left hand and I his right. Frieda stands at the foot of the bed.

There is now a presence in the room, a sense that we are alone and not alone at the same time. The oneness Rabbi Wellins described earlier has enveloped us as he prays and as we listen to his words.

The Vidui is soon finished, and Rabbi Wellins and Frieda are ready to leave, though Mary Lou and I are not. I tear myself away from Pa long enough to shake the Rabbi's hand and thank him for what he's done for my father. Frieda hugs me, weeping quietly, and she and the Rabbi leave. I turn back to Pa and notice that he, too, has eyes brimming with tears. He says nothing -- there is nothing to say -- while Mary Lou and I wipe away his tears, tell him we love him, and that we're here with him. He remains motionless, the agitation we saw earlier replaced by silent calmness.

I spend the rest of that day and all of the next with him and my mother. I give him a shave early Monday morning and talk to him several times throughout the day even though his condition is unchanged from Sunday afternoon. I return home late Monday telling him I'll be back to see him on Wednesday, my plan being to spend every other day with him and Ma until his condition deteriorates further, and then I'll be with him 24/7.

I receive a call Tuesday afternoon, 2 days after the Vidui, telling me he's passed on.

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