Sunday, April 23, 2006

Questionable Mitzvah

I had a very nice post planned out, but my friend needed to be taken to hospital, so it went on the back burner.

While waiting for Liz to fill out her insurance papers, I was approached by an elderly man and his wheelchair-bound wife. The woman's eyes were downcast, but the man stared directly at me.

"Excuse me," he said, a little apologetic, "my wife hurt her hip earlier and she needs to use the restroom. I was wondering if you could go in with her. To make sure she doesn't fall down."

I glanced down at the woman, then up at the man. Dead serious. Quietly, I handed over my coffee and newspaper to one of my companions.

"Sure," I whispered. I couldn't seem to get my voice to a normal conversational level. This, after all, was not something most people have an in-depth discussion about. He nodded and turned his wife's chair around, beginning to walk towards the bathrooms. I followed, trying to look more confident than I was feeling.

The restrooms turned out to be a single-person room, small and sterile. I looked up at the man.

"In in?"

"Yes, please. If you don't mind."

"No... no." My gaze fell on the woman. "You don't mind, do you?"

For the first time, she raised her face. Her eyes were alert, clear.

She shook her head. "No." Gingerly, she began to pull herself up from the wheelchair, her husband rushing to put a hand beneath her frail elbow. As soon as she was fully erect, he removed his hand and I filled the touch vacuum with my own fingers. We entered the cramped bathroom together.

As she began to disrobe, I shut the door, locked it. She sat, leaving me to stare at an uninteresting poster on the back of the door. Silence.

"I'm sorry about this." Her voice sounded strangled and embarrassed.

"No, it's fine," I glanced over enough to smile at her, then looked away. The awkwardness continued.

She paused. "Sometimes, I think I need to go, but then I really don't. A false alarm."

"It's better to be safe than sorry."

"Yes," she paused, then struggled to stand up. "A false alarm."


"I think I hurt my hip in bed today. I'm not sure what I did to it."

"Yeah, I hate when that happens." She washed her hands daintily. As her back was turned, I noticed her mode of dress. Stylish, modern, yet modest. A lady like this wasn't used to having strangers watch her while she performed her basic bodily functions. I felt like I was denying her one of the essential privileges of being human: privacy. Vaguely, I could feel shame rising from my belly to coil firmly in my chest cavity.

I opened the door for her, helped her sit back into her wheelchair.

"Thank you," her husband said.

"It's okay. No problem."

"If I had known that it was a single bathroom, I would have gone in with her."

"It's okay." I smiled at the woman in what I hoped was a carefree way. She smiled back, faintly.

I walked back to my companion, who had been holding my things.

"I give you a lot of credit for that," she told me, handing me my newspaper.

"Mitzvah," I muttered, pulling the collar of my peacoat up around my ears.

But I really didn't feel that way. Sure, on the outside, I was helping a little old lady get around safely, a noble pursuit. In reality, though, I was taking away something valuable from her: her independence. I was a thief, not a hero.

Maybe it was also a glimpse of the future, a future in which I will need to be escorted around a bathroom by some young pup who has her whole life ahead of her. Depressing.

I don't know if this story was really worth posting, but it's been on my mind for several hours now. I guess that's what happens when you write after your bedtime.



  1. Mitzvah or not, it sounds like your incredible sensitivity was exactly what the woman probably needed in those trying circumstances. Kol ha Kavod.

  2. Thank you. I appreciate that. :)