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Rabbi Yaacov Behrman Headshot

Chartering Her Own Path: My Mother's Final Hours

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I spent my first Shabbas in Sloan Kettering Hospital on March 2nd. Just a week earlier, my parents had hosted a large Purim celebration for family and friends. My mother, dressed in surgeon's scrubs an Israeli doctor had given her when she took my father for a procedure at NYU Medical Center, and my father dressed as the "Laughing King," entertained our twenty plus guests unaware of the devastation about to begin.

On February 24, we were rushing to Sloan in the back of a Hatzalah ambulance. My mother was in terrible pain. The doctors at the hospital told her that the problem was likely scar tissue. But my mother felt otherwise. I was still trying to be naively optimistic.

She was admitted into the hospital and instructed not to eat or drink. On Friday my dear friend Yanky came to spend Shabbas with us at the hospital.

My mother insisted that we eat in the lounge and not in her hospital room. She set the table with a lovely white cloth she had ordered, hoping to create a spirit of Shabbas in this hell hole. Although unable to eat or drink, she held the bread to her nose and slowly smelled the bread saying "Lekovod Shabbas Kodesh oy Lekovod Shabbas Kodesh- In honor of the Holy Shabbos."

We had a guest that Shabbas afternoon. My mother had invited a Jewish woman she met in the hospital hallway to join us for the meal. The woman's husband was in a room a few doors down, very ill.

The woman poured out her life story.

"My husband survived the Holocaust. He married me and started a new life in America. The beginning was hard but eventually we became a successful, happy family. Than we lost a grandchild and another was born with severe physical disabilities.

"Now my husband is very sick and in constant pain. Wasn't the Holocaust enough? Why did g-d create a world where there is a need for a hospital like Sloan in the first place? Why are there three floors for pediatrics?"

My mother held her hand and a had a deep meaningful conversation. She didn't try to answer her questions, but with humor and wit cheered the woman up and conveyed to her the importance of being a strong support for her husband.

In the course of the conversation, my mother asked this woman where she bought her stylish watch. The woman, eager to comfort someone suffering, said, "I bought it in Italy; you like it, please take it." My mother accepted her gift.

When the lady left, I said, "MOMMY, PLEASE GIVE BACK THE WATCH! This woman is emotional, and you can't use the cancer card to take that watch."

The woman returned and became extremely upset with me. "How dare you tell your mother to give back the watch! No one asked you. We tell our children what to do not the other way around." My mother, clearly enjoying the spectacle, agreed.

Two days later on my parents' anniversary, the woman attempted to give the gift again, and my mother accepted.

Three weeks before Mother passed, her oncologist at Sloan told her, "Mrs. Behrman, you've started to die. There is nothing that can be done."

We came home that day, bought two new yellow chairs for the porch and spent an hour gardening. The following day our dear friend and family doctor came over to discuss her prognosis. Mom was very clear with her medical team that she wanted to be involved in all decisions related to her health. She explained to me that making her own decisions gave her some feeling of control over a situation that was out of her control. Mommy understood this well, she had spent the last 18 years advocating for people with disabilities. No matter how severe their disability, Mom always tried to empower her consumers to make their own decisions and take some control over their lives.

On June 17th, my mother Sarah, Bas Baila Rivkah, Behrman (nee Steffani Moss) passed away at the age of 69. She passed wearing makeup and a brand new dress. It was exactly how she wanted it to be. She passed in her own home, proud and beautiful, with her dignity intact. I was with her, and we spoke an hour before she passed.

To me, the watch story will be always very special. Mom was so sick, yet still able to comfort someone else. It will serve as a reminder of how blessed my dear mother was to have had the ability make her own decisions until her last hour. She focused on the little control she did have rather than obsess over her imminent death. Regardless of what we, her family, her doctors or her nurses told her, she chose her own path.

To Read Mrs. Sarah Behrman's Obituary Click Here

Rabbi Yaacov Behrman is a New York-based political activist and the former director of media relations for Chabad headquarters.