How A Dying Nonagenarian Helped Me Start A New Life
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Jade Schulz
Jade Schulz
Relationships

How Visits With A Dying Nonagenarian Pushed Me To Start A New Life

The leap I was able to take because of her.

“Have you heard of General Eisenhower?” Esther said. The 90-year-old lay in her hospital bed in a Manhattan apartment. Sirens sung outside. Before I could reply, Esther said, “My husband worked for him during the war.” I already knew about Esther’s husband. I knew what she would ask next, too. “Have you ever heard of Hitler?” She turned toward me, although she couldn’t see. “I have.” I scooted my chair closer to Esther’s bedside. She told me how her parents escaped with her from Warsaw and moved to America, a story I’d never heard directly from a survivor as a recovering Catholic from the Midwest transplanted to Manhattan for grad school.

Despite her repetitions, Esther’s words carried the same intensity each week over the three months I’d been visiting her on Sunday evenings as a hospice volunteer. Each visit started the same. I braced myself for the next questions. “What do you do?” Esther asked. “I’m a lawyer,” I said, hating this string of personal inquiries. “Good for you. What kind?” “Wall Street. I do financial regulation.” “Do you like it?” I paused.

Week after week, we had the same conversation and yet, I didn’t have an automatic answer. Instead, I went mute. I couldn’t lie to this woman. I couldn’t complain. She’d lost her entire extended family in the Holocaust, her brother and sister to childhood illness, and her beloved husband a few years earlier. She lay in bed with a smile, unable to move on her own, dependent on her daughter and with a life expectancy of less than six months. “If you loved to juggle, I’d tell you to take a year off and go juggle. See where you are at the end of a year.”

I sat in silence, wishing I could take 12 months to travel and escape from the choices that entrapped me.

“Now, I’m not telling you to go learn to juggle. But I think you know what I mean. You think that you’re too old.”

I’d turned 40 a week earlier and felt it was too late to delve into a new passion. I’d already turned my Irish dance hobby into a short career by dancing in Riverdance on Broadway in my 20s. Now, I felt I had to be practical. “But you’re young, so young, with so much life ahead of you. You need to be happy. You need to find work that makes you happy.”

I hated my job, feeling like my role made no real difference, just reshuffled money, making it change hands but not improving anything. Plus, I had a challenging relationship with my manager and suffered from severe anxiety whenever he was near.

“Is there anything you can do to make your current job better?” Esther asked. “Maybe I can change teams,” I said, not financially ready to take a break and transition into a different field —  possibly elder care, which seemed like a better fit for me than working with financial markets. 

A week later, I visited Esther again and told her I’d asked my boss’s boss to change teams.

“Good for you!” Esther clasped her hands with excitement. “What did he say?”

“It’s not the right time.”

It was mid-July. Esther suggested I ask again. I did after reviews in the new year but was told, “no,” again. On my following visit, I told Esther.

“We will figure out what to do next,” she said.

Weeks later, she died, but her words repeated in my head, making me ask myself: What will make me happy? What could I change? Would anything make my current situation better? I plodded on at work. Unexpectedly, I got a chance to take a three-month leave of absence to help my 86-year-old father suffering from dementia in Missouri.

After just days, I discovered he needed far more help with his affairs than I had anticipated. Overwhelmed, I used the dating app Bumble as a distraction, hoping to connect with a New Yorker home for the holidays — a man I’d meet once I returned to my life. But, I matched with Steve, 44, a long-term local. We emailed. We met for coffee. We had several dinner dates. After a few weeks I introduced Steve to my father, who devoured the chocolate chip cookies that Steve had baked and told me to get married, which made me blush.

After my leave ended, I flew back to New York with a new perspective, knowing on a profound level what I needed to do with my life. Six months later, after daily calls and several trips by Steve to the Big Apple, I quit my job, ready to make a change and test living again in Missouri. Before leaving Manhattan, I visited Esther’s daughter. “Your mom’s voice is often in my head, telling me to find happiness,” I told her. “I don’t think I’d be able to take this leap without her.”

“You’ve honored my mother. You’re radiating happiness,” Esther’s daughter said. My eyes welled as I smiled.

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