Last November, I adopted a safta (grandmother) here in Yaffo. Her son waited for me at her nursing home to make the initial introduction and explain to her that I’d be visiting twice a month. Then, he left us alone to “bond,” which did not (in the least bit) come easily or immediately. In fact, during our next several visits, she tried again and again to kick me out, pleading that this was a waste of her and my time. But when I finally resisted enough times by luring her with a walk outside or some classical music, she began to justify her behavior with, “I’m just waiting to die…”
Rivka, my safta, is 93 years old. She’s no longer able to walk, no longer able to see, and barely able to hear. She’s no more than 40 kilos, a Holocaust survivor, and has long outlived her husband, sister, and best friends. And while she is forced to sit all day among demented, distressed, and mute seniors, my safta’s mind is sharp as a razor. Her eagerness to depart from this world is understandable: she’s a prisoner of her frail body, a crazed silence, and a cognitive mind to absorb her entire reality.
But with some time and trust, safta has grown very attached to me. At the very least, I get her to speak, outdoors, in the crisp Yaffo breeze. With my general interest in history, I try to take advantage of her almost 100-year old eye-witness accounts of wars, regimes, and immigration…hoping to hear theatrical stories about her past. But safta is simple woman, and she hasn’t internalized, or perhaps refuses to internalize, her past in that way. And like many survivors, she’d rather pass these topics all together.
But here’s a topic safta has given a tremendous amount of introspection to: her married life. In short, she was married to a man for over 60 years who she didn’t love – “not even for one day,” she says. After the war, the male population was scarce, the parents placed tremendous pressure to start families, and there was little room in society to challenge this notion.
Safta had one child, who anchored her marriage to this man. She wanted to leave him so many times, but the guilt, fear, and taboo of tearing a family apart made her a prisoner once before. In her very long life, she has never felt romantic love, a melting kiss, or passionate sex. This marriage, consequently, has succumb to her single greatest regret.
It’s an immensely tragic story. But it serves an important lesson on happiness, which I deeply cherish. Sometimes the most difficult decisions, that may cause pain to others or undermine those that don’t accept them, is our only gateway to happiness. Safta’s marriage is also a lesson on having to take unwavering responsibility for our destinies, even embracing a degree of selfishness, so that we can part with life in a state of gratitude and pride. Whereas safta, she is pleading for the end so that she can be released from her bitterness and sorrow.
I understand that our generation is far more empowered to make strides for happiness than safta’s war-ridden, economy-ridden generation of WWII. But we retell stories from history in utter hope that they don’t repeat themselves. So, may I endure the lesson’s from safta’s life, be forgiven for the hardships I may impose for my happiness, and remain liberated to a lifetime of joy and true love.