"Eli, Eli…." This was Irma’s favorite song. Shortly before midnight, she passed from this Earth. Throughout the day, we had sat around her bed, singing songs, playing instruments, talking about her life – while Irma herself, mouth wide open, detached more and more from her physical shell.
Irma was 79. During the last five years, she had suffered several health crises: sleeplessness and high blood pressure, a stroke, cancer. She fought hard because she loved life. Using a walker, she still took pride in baking bread every Friday and sharing it with family and neighbors, knitting dresses for babies being born around her, leading a group at the community center in making gift cards. To her last doctor visit three weeks earlier, she had even taken a cake she had just baked!
Most of all, she liked to invite friends to her home for a big party. These events were special. They were not loud and boisterous, soaked in alcohol. No, they were calm and luminous evenings, lifted by thoughtful appreciation for each other. Those who were musicians took turns in sharing their gifts. It took me about two parties to realize what all those attending had in common: Their hearts were wide open!
Irma had grown up in Baghdad, Iraq, with four sisters. They were a Jewish family, a minority that was more and more harassed, then persecuted. When the first shots fell, Irma was the first of her family to flee to Israel in 1948. Two months after its founding. Irma was 21. First, she helped refugees like herself to settle. Later, she taught children who were considered difficult or hopeless by other teachers. Her patience was endless.
For the last 30 years of their lives, Irma and her sister Cora lived in the United States. First, in New York City. Then, in St. Paul, Minn. This is where I met them 10 years ago. Irma, a living, walking history as a founding member of Israel. Cora, an incredibly energetic and engaged being at the age of 70.
Ready to go
What can one do when a loved one starts telling everybody, "Thank you for everything!" and "I am ready to go!"? Three weeks ago, Irma learned that her cancer had returned. Soon afterwards, she declared that she was done fighting and too weak to undergo another operation and chemo.
"I am at peace!" she said.
Her sister Cora had a hard time hearing that. She had been Irma’s caregiver during the last five years, trying to keep her alive. Letting her go now would amount to "killing her," in Cora’s view. Besides, they were like twins. Inseparable. Or, as a friend put it, "one soul in two bodies."
Just yesterday afternoon, as we were sitting around Irma’s bed, Cora leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Spirit is preparing me through my sister’s example!" She had finally come around to some form of acceptance.
Gathered here around Irma were her two children, her sister and several musician friends. Just like at one of her parties, there was life, color and waves of appreciation going back and forth between everyone. And just like at her parties, we sang, played instruments and talked about Irma’s life and also our own. And just like at her parties, everyone’s heart was open.
I started to get the impression that what we were participating in here was not a death, but a birth. We tried to help Irma birth herself into her life on a higher realm. Through hopefully supportive thoughts, emotions and sounds, we aimed at helping her out of the womb of this physical shell into a dimension that Spirit – Life Itself – had in mind for her. On this we actually all agreed, regardless of our personal creeds. Some of us were Jewish, some Christian, some of other beliefs. It didn’t matter. In our love for Irma and for life, we all instinctively agreed to support her in her path, while dealing with our personal grief in our own individual ways.
I got up several times to walk over to Irma and tell her how much I appreciate her and the fact that I could be here and share life with her. In her body, she was, of course, unresponsive. But, I spoke to her, soul to soul. As such, we always hear and understand. Sharing life together is a celebration. Yet, it becomes an even deeper and richer celebration when we also share our passing from it. We learn from each other in life and in death.
By now, Irma’s labored breathing had become very loud. It was 10 p.m. and the loving musicians and her children had reluctantly left for some rest. Cora had decided to stay overnight in her sister’s hospital room. It felt right for me to stay too. We dimmed the lights in the room. Cora was given a recliner chair by the nurses. I pulled my chair up right beside her, at the foot of Irma’s bed.
An ancient song
In unison we started to gently sing an ancient sound, the sound of surrendering every care to the will of The All, the sound of trust. Through this, we not only wanted to provide the most loving space we could for Irma, but we also did it to reassure ourselves.
Irma’s breathing calmed. I got up to check on her. My finger still felt the warm air coming out of her nostrils. Sitting down again, I tuned my awareness inward, to Irma’s inner presence. As I was sending love and appreciation her way, the contours of Irma’s body and bed suddenly changed: they turned luminous and transparent. With my inner perception, I saw her as a radiant being, a ball of light, yellow as the sun, standing beside the bed.
She said, "Tell Cora I am happy!"
Knowing that in Spirit she could be everywhere, I asked, "Don’t you want to tell it to her yourself?"
She just repeated, "Tell Cora that I am happy!" Great joy radiated from her. The joy of new-won freedom. And off she went, trying out again her cosmic wings.
I got up from my chair to check on Irma in her bed. She was still. No pulse. What I had seen was indeed her slipping out. I made sure that the room was in peace as long as Irma needed it to be in peace. Then, I slowly opened the door and told the nurse that Irma had died.
The nurses threw me out of the room to clean and prepare Irma’s body. Waiting in the hallway, pondering upon what had just passed, I became aware of this melody, this song that had come to me as I had watched Irma slowly lift out of her body. It had been Irma’s favorite song:
Eli, Eli (God, God), I think
I don’t want this scene to end
The sand at the sea
The sound of the waves
The light in the sky
The prayer in the heart
Of the women and men.
Irma always loved to sing this song. When she lifted her voice, this haunting melody permeated everyone’s being. It expressed Irma’s love for life. To her, it was not a bittersweet song, but a purely sweet one.
Thank you, Irma, for teaching all of us this song. And thank you, Irma, for teaching us also how to fly.