Challah and Comfort

“Human greatness doesn’t lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness.”

Anne Frank, German-born Dutch-Jewish diarist and Holocaust victim

In May of 2008, Iris’s granddaughter Ruby was born at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Sadly, Ruby was never able to leave the hospital and died four months later. Iris and her family were understandably devastated. But while Ruby was receiving excellent care, the family was also cared for. 

Each Friday, CHOP volunteers deliver challah to Jewish patients and families. Challah, the special bread eaten on the sabbath (Shabbat), which begins at sundown on Friday evenings, is one of the symbols used to welcome the sabbath. The two loaves (a double portion for Friday and Saturday) are blessed, along with wine or grape juice, as Jewish families gather and give thanks for these symbols of life-giving sustenance. Iris and her family were so grateful for these thoughtful gifts provided by the hospital, that helped them maintain some semblance of normalcy during their stressful time.

A month after Ruby’s death, Iris was visiting her friend Fran, who was then a patient at St Mary Medical Center. Iris noticed challah on Fran’s tray and asked where she had received it. Fran explained that the hospital had started the challah delivery service recently. Iris knew immediately she wanted to participate in this program. To honor the memory of her beloved granddaughter, Iris became a St Mary volunteer. On Fridays she delivered challah, and she also took the specialized training to be a No One Dies Alone Comfort Companion and Respite Companion. (Refer to my May 19 blog for more details.)

In her role as a Respite Companion, Iris was called upon one day to visit a dementia patient. Her visit with ninety-year-old Genevieve, proved to be one of her most unusual ever.

Genevieve began animatedly telling Iris that she was waiting for her husband to come, and they would then attend a wedding. Her beautiful long white hair and sparkling blue eyes drew Iris in. However, the nurses had prepared Iris to understand that Genevieve was living in her own world and to just “go with it”.

She asked Genevieve to describe the dress she would be wearing. Again, her eyes lit up as she told Iris about her deep blue velvet gown with an intricate white lace collar. Iris could easily imagine how stunning she would look.

In the next moment, Genevieve was gripping her back as if in severe pain. She said she was in labor. Though Iris was startled by the dramatic shift in subject and mood, she coached Genevieve through her labor, encouraging her to breathe and pant. Iris stayed at her bedside until her eyelids became heavy and she said, “I’m really tired now, and ready to go to sleep, so you can leave.” Genevieve peacefully relaxed, and Iris stepped out, quite exhausted herself.

Through her many years volunteering at St Mary, Iris was so grateful for these opportunities to bring comfort to the patients. But she especially enjoyed the challah deliveries. “Bread is life. Bread is love. I was so grateful to visit the Jewish patients and to enable them to take part in this important aspect of Jewish tradition, even while confined. And I felt deeply blessed to be able to honor the memory of my precious grandchild, Ruby.”