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This is a tale of a poised and elegant princess, one that ruled her kingdom with a respected, graceful whisper. It was a magical serene kingdom that a malicious enemy attacked. An enemy that charged unexpectedly and caused unprovoked mayhem, while degrading, raping and mortifying our refined princess. And all the while our joyful princess fought for her people with a determined spear. She goes by the name of Frenchie; her determined spear was her unyielding goofy smile; and the malicious enemy was cancer.
Ruth was her name. She spoke French and Hebrew, French being her mother tongue. It was when I learned that that I tagged her "Frenchie." Frenchie never came for chemotherapy alone; she always had her husband, her knight, by her side, holding fair lady's hand. I still don't know his name.
Whenever they walked through the doors of the day care ward, I would yell, "Bonjour!" They would laugh, run toward me and yell louder than me - "Bonjour!" And upon reaching me they would give me a kiss on each cheek. That became our routine. It always put a grin on the other patients' faces; I think that's why they did it.
Her husband took on the task of trying to teach me French. I would try, and they would laugh.
She was about 47, 160 cm., dark, and a smile was always on her face. She constantly looked so composed. Her husband, just a little taller, looked much stronger than she did. The first couple of times they came, he hardly ever sat next to her because he was busy walking from the food corner back to her, serving her every need. That was my job. I took over, asking him in French - with erroneous grammar - what he and his lovely wife wanted to drink, eat, snack on. He grew accustomed to the seat next to her, holding fair lady's hand.
The enemy got stronger. Consequently Frenchie started coming in to get blood and not chemo - always a bad sign. A point came when they stopped running toward me, for she had become too weak and he had become her cane. I would yell, "Bonjour!" They would look up and smile.
Next, Frenchie was hospitalized. I didn't go visit her immediately, just saw her husband around. I said hello, to which he responded, "You know, you should really come see her, it would make her really happy."
He had gotten older since I had seen him last. His smile looked forced, his eyes full of tears and dismay. He had a constant "why her" look in his eyes. When I did go to see her, I walked toward her bed, pulled the curtain open and saw death. Her cheeks were concave between her cheekbone and jaw. No teeth. Her body under her blanket looked like a sack of twigs. She could only raise her hollow eyes and look at me.
I realized then why her knight looked so beaten. The enemy had drained and raped his only princess. I could tell that she recognized me, so I put the biggest smile on my face. I yelled, "Bonjour madame!" After that I started coming more often with food and drinks for her husband.
When I would walk in, he'd look up with bloodshot eyes, say "Bonjour" in a whisper then say, "Look Ruth, its Sara." I came on a Friday one time and sometimes jesters (yeshiva boys) come on Fridays and go through all the rooms, to every bed, singing. We heard them in the next room. I was standing on one side of her bed and her husband on the other side. I said with an energized voice, "Listen, you hear the singing? Wow! Let's surprise them and clap when they come in!"
The wounded knight looked up at me just as I finished the last word, again with the bloodshot eyes I'd grown accustomed to, and smiled. A smile I keep seeing in my thoughts. This smile wasn't forced, he just really felt like smiling. At that pivotal moment, our knight regained his strength, and by showing Frenchie that he was still able to smile, she was able to clap.
So when they came in, singing and dancing, I said, "OK! Let's do it! Clap!" And I started clapping, with her husband joining me. Frenchie was clearly using every ounce of energy she might have had that day when she slowly raised her fragile hands and clapped. That was the most movement she had managed all week, so her husband looked like he had just slain 1,000 dragons.
Later that week, I came as usual, with an apple and pear in my hand for our knight, who wasn't there. I went up to her bed and saw her lying there with no one holding her hand. I asked the nurse, who said her husband went home to sleep a little and her family wasn't expected to come that night. I walked back to her bed, and held fair lady's hand - like her husband did. And said, "Je suis ici" - I am here. "Tout le monde ici" - we are all here. I told her her husband needed her. I repeated those three sentences over and over again. (My French was probably wrong.)
I must have been there for three hours, just standing there repeating the same three sentences: "I am here. We're all here. Your husband needs you." At one point she looked up at me, revealing that special smile - her unyielding spear. I stayed there until she fell asleep, holding fair lady's hand.
Our princess died three days later.
With a few nurses, I went to visit her husband while he was sitting shiva. At first I just sat in the corner listening to what everyone was saying about Frenchie. How amazing she was, how she loved God and her religion. Did any of them know that she, being the elegant princess she was, left this world with a smile? Her son, in particular, told stories that made her sound like a worrier. Funny, I thought, I didn't know her as such.
Judaism says that the soul is in the room, listening to all of this. I wondered where she was.
When her husband finally noticed us, he looked at me and said, with tears streaming uncontrollably down his face, "Bonjour! Oh! How she loved you! How she loved you!" When I reached him, he was still crying. I looked into his eyes for what seemed to be forever. "She clapped," I finally said. He nodded, then the dam burst and he looked like a knight without a shield - vulnerable.
I went back to sit in my corner, watching our knight regroup. "She clapped," he whispered to himself. Then he looked up at the visitors with a new-found strength. And smiled.
He smiled, so she clapped. She clapped, so he smiled.
The writer did a year's National Service in oncology day care at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem.