Panicked shrieking filled the air. He’s fallen again, was my immediate reaction.
As I hastily made my way to my father-in-law’s room, images of his last fall flashed before my eyes. How could it have happened again?! Just a few short weeks ago, he’d been so badly injured, people had said he was lucky to be alive. It seemed a miracle he wasn’t left paralyzed — how many broken necks leave a spinal cord intact? Crossing the hallway, I uttered a fervent prayer that this time should not be any worse.
I found Grandpa on his feet. Waiting for me with accusing eyes. And yet, even as I allowed myself to breathe, I didn’t know what to make of his wild gesticulations. “Where is it?” he cried. “Where?”
“Where is what?” I followed his right arm as he brought it up over his chest, his fist clenched tightly in despair.
“That thing. Nu… The thingy they took off my back… that needs to be taken back...”
It took a few seconds for his words to sink in. Of course. His back brace.
Following his fall, the orthopedist in the hospital’s outpatient clinic had fitted him with a torturous device. The heavy back brace was meant to support his fractured vertebrae and replace the temporary structure given in the ER. It was dreadfully annoying, however.
Cumbersome at the outset, it soon became downright painful. When an unpleasant odor started emanating from his back, we were alarmed enough to rush back to the ER and ask for a second opinion. Incorrect installation of the brace, it turned out, was the cause of his grave discomfort. It had been so poorly placed that the constant rubbing of the contraption against his back had created a lesion that was fast becoming infected.
Upon his second discharge, my father-in-law was equipped with a new, lighter brace, and a generous course of antibiotics. The old contraption was ceremoniously ensconced in an unassuming plastic bag. Offers to dispose of it before we left were determinedly waived. “I paid through the roof for this awful brace — and look what it did to me!” said Grandpa. “I’m going to take it back and get the orthopedist to refund its cost.”
Well… who was going to take it back? Not Grandpa. He was almost immobile. Any hospital visit required our close involvement, and we were in no hurry to spend another whole morning returning the brace.
So, we stashed the plain white bag in a corner of his room where it awaited his next hospital checkup.
Now, the bag was gone. A quick look in the corner told me what I already knew. I went through his quarters, leaving no drawer unopened, no cupboard unturned. But it really had vanished.
“Where is it? Where is it?” Grandpa asked repeatedly, his head shaking, his ire increasing by the minute. I looked at his pursed lips and shaking fist and tried to come up with a plausible answer, but my mind drew a blank. Grandpa’s room was off limits to all but my husband, me, and the cleaning lady.
The cleaning lady. Nina had been in his room just this morning! It made sense. The bag was so nondescript it could easily have been mistaken for garbage. And yet, I found it hard to voice my thoughts. The words came out in a mad scramble.
Before he could react, I added: “You know what? There’s a slight chance Nina may have left the bag on the sidewalk next to the dumpster. Would you like me to take a look?” Would he? Now that was a silly question. I don’t know what I was thinking. In truth, it made little sense that Nina wouldn’t have chucked the bag straight into the dumpster’s cavernous depths, but I had to do something. Say something. Anything.
The sheen that entered Grandpa’s eyes at the mere mention of hope justified my effort. I ran down to the parking lot and took a thorough survey of the ground around the dumpster. Nothing. No bag. No brace. No hope. What now? I couldn’t bear the thought of facing Grandpa’s disappointment.
Gazing at the dark gray dumpster, the notion struck me. Stinky garbage bags, stuffed to the gills and overflowing, filled the dumpster. It can’t have been emptied in a while. Perhaps Grandpa’s plain brace bag is still buried under all that trash.
As soon as the thought came to life, I tried to quash it. I have rarely met a woman as squeamish as I. The faintest whiff of an offensive odor makes me gag. And I hate, simply hate, getting my hands dirty. Working in the kitchen, a towel is permanently at hand, ready for me to wipe my palms on at five-minute intervals (after rinsing!). It’s just the way I’m wired. But facing the dumpster with the elusive back brace potentially lurking within, I had to make a decision: investigate or walk away?
Never. My every instinct screamed. Not in a million years. Not in a billion, trillion light years. I could already feel the slimy trickle of reeking refuse on my arms. Never.
And yet, my feet had a mind of their own. Kibbud av, they reprimanded me. It isn’t really kibbud av. (Father-in-law. Doesn’t count). Still, planted firmly in front of that dumpster, my feet wouldn’t budge. I’ll tell him the bag wasn’t here. He’ll understand. His woebegone face flashed through my mind. Chesed. Hakaras hatov — we owe him so much! I gulped.
Turning on my heels, I ran back upstairs. With the speed of a turbo-charged engine — no time for regrets! — I exchanged my clothes for the worst shmattes I could find in my closet. Then, armed with a pair of latex gloves, I headed back to the lair to face my fearsome dragon. Seriously. It was that bad.
“Hashem! I’m doing this for You,” I pray-declared with every fiber of my being.
As I approached the dumpster, I blocked my olfactory senses. The container was too high for me to climb over with grace — and I wasn’t taking any chances on being spotted knee-deep inside. Grabbing the upper limits of the dumpster’s wall, I pulled hard, and just about managed to tip it over. Great. Now I’m only ankle deep. Don’t smell. Don’t feel. Don’t think.
Working like a mindless zombie, I rummaged through the fetid refuse. And there it was. Oblivious and blameless. The bag. By some small miracle and Hashem’s enormous kindness, it had turned up fast.
I returned to the room and handed the parcel over to Grandpa. He took it wordlessly, too stressed out to show his gratitude — but I was ecstatic.
I have no idea what paradise looks like for particularly squeamish people. In my imagination, though, a small corner of my Gan Eden will feature a pile of Divine garbage, smelling of roses.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 511)
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