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Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Nursemaid: A Tribute

When Ariella and Gilad were still in their crayon and play date years, and our young family was still very much in the 'getting on our feet' phase, an unusual set of circumstances presented us with the opportunity to have a nursemaid come live with us.

I know what you're probably thinking; that a 'nursemaid' (or governess, nanny, au pair, or whatever you want to call live-in help), is the realm of the wealthy.  And you'd be correct.

But what had happened was that an elderly friend of the family who had a terrible, degenerative disease, had deteriorated to the point where she had to move into a full time nursing facility.  And her live-in companion/nursemaid, who had no family or immediate prospects, was without a place to live.  We were asked if we would consider taking her in... if only until a new position or living arrangement could be found?

Our small Connecticut home was comfortable, but space was at a premium.  Ari and Gili each had their own rooms, but whenever we had shabbat guests or family staying with us, one or both of the kids would end up with a roommate.  But the idea of a nursemaid/companion for the kids - even for the short term - was hard to resist.  So we said okay, and welcomed a pleasant stranger into our home.  But she didn't remain a stranger for long.

I suspect that most parents of young children harbor a secret Mary Poppins fantasy.  You know, the idea that you can have a wise, wonderful helpmate in raising your children.  I'm sure part of this dream is born of doubt in our own parenting skills.  But it is also the idea that we could occasionally step back and see our children learning responsibility, compassion and manners from a well-bred caregiver.

Our new nursemaid turned out to be the answer to those secret longings.  She was endlessly patient with our children, and they seemed to become more responsible and empathetic people nearly overnight.  But the nursemaid was also still young enough that she could tire the children out with her games, and became a natural companion and confidant for them.

Zahava and I were tempted to pinch ourselves, because we knew that we'd been blessed with the perfect addition to our household.  And for her part, we never got the sense that the nursemaid was restless or looking for another position.  She simply settled in and created a place for herself in our home... and in our hearts.

Granted, some of her habits took some getting used to. But if anything, they endeared her to us even more.

For example, she was an extremely light sleeper and made it her habit never to retire for the night until everyone in the house was in bed.  Since my second job was as a musician, this meant that several times a week I would come home in the wee hours of the morning to find the nursemaid dozing in the front room... awaiting my return.  As I would hang up my tuxedo and slide into bed, I would hear the nursemaid's soft tread around the house, past the master bedroom door...and finally into each of the kids rooms to make sure they were alright... before finally allowing herself to go to bed for the night.

She was also eerily aware of everyone's health.  If a member of the family was coming down with something, she was almost always the first to know about it.  And she took it upon herself to sit by the bedside of whoever had been stricken until the fever, cold or stomach ache had passed.  I can't say for sure that any of us healed from our illnesses any faster as a result of her concerned ministrations... but I can't discount the possibility either.

One of the odd things was that, despite not being Jewish, the nursemaid immediately took a shine to the pomp and ceremony of shabbat and the various holidays... especially the festive meals.  She was always the first at the table when we returned from synagogue... and by agreement, whoever made the blessing on the braided Challah, always passed her the first slice.

But when we started finalizing our plans to move to Israel, Zahava and I had to do some soul searching.  We knew that Ari and Gili loved the nursemaid and considered her a member of the family... and that the feelings were reciprocated.  But we also wondered if it would be fair to even consider taking her with us to a new country.

In the end the decision was an easy one to make.  She had made her life with us, and even though she didn't exactly meet the requirements of the Jewish Agency and Ministry of absorption, Nefesh B'Nefesh made special arrangements for the nursemaid to join us on our charter flight to Israel.

Our nearly eight years in Israel have literally flown by. 

The nursemaid helped us welcome Yonah into our family, and immediately took it upon herself to become his best friend and playmate.  But we couldn't help noticing that she was slowing down quite a bit... and that her age was becoming more and more apparent.

Then one day a few years ago she fell ill.  Zahava and I took her to a specialist for some tests, and after a short interval were devastated to hear the diagnosis; Lymphoma.  Not being a citizen, she didn't have health insurance, so we paid for her treatment out of our pockets, and took her for months of chemotherapy sessions that left her a shadow of her former vivacious self. 

But after she had recovered from the debilitating effects of the last treatment, we sensed that she had truly turned a corner.  After a few more visits to the specialist, our prayers were answered.  The cancer seemed to be in remission.

Slowly but surely the nursemaid got her strength back and resumed her role in the family.  But by this time, we had forced her into semi-retirement, having taken on a new nursemaid... capable of seeing to the needs of the children, while giving our beloved original nursemaid someone young to mentor and mold.

We never regretted for a moment the efforts we'd made to secure treatment for the nursemaid, even tough we could ill afford it.  And we were blessed with more than three years of her presence in our home and in our lives as a result.  In spite of the fact that her hearing was going and her sight was dim, she kept to her well-loved rituals - even when not feeling her best - insisting on putting the household to bed each and every night.

But this past week we saw dramatic evidence that her health was once again failing her.  She could barely get up, and walking was clearly painful.  Not only that, but she seemed disoriented and took a serious of truly frightening falls when she seemed to lose some of her gross motor control.  On Friday morning she seemed to be going downhill fast... so we rushed her to the specialist.  And this specialist who had helped us nurse our beloved nursemaid through illnesses and regular check-ups, had to lay all the information before us.

He didn't pull any punches.  He told us that her condition was terrible.  Her quality of life was quickly disappearing.  He couldn't say for sure that she was in serious pain (because she was not the sort to complain), but he couldn't rule it out either. 

What the veterinarian could tell us was that her life was rapidly nearing its end.  It might be a day... or a few weeks at most.  And it might also be a few hours.  Her organs were beginning to fail, but to the extent that things were still working, she still had control of most of her bodily functions.  As we watched Jordan shuffle around his small clinic, occasionally slipping and stumbling when her hind legs lost the signal sent by her brain, a long silence stretched out among us.

At first I thought the vet was gathering his thoughts and was going to tell us what to do.  But as I looked into his eyes, I realized that he was waiting for us to come to a decision.  It was one of the first and only times since I was 18 that I have truly regretted being a grown up. 

As if to confirm that we were to guide the decision, the vet said, "I won't think you are a monster if you decide you want a little more time with Jordan.  She might have a little more left to give, and I can't say for sure it would be a bad thing for her... or for you.  But I also won't think you are a monster if you decide that her quality of life... and her dignity... are so far gone that you want me to help her to leave comfortably right now.

He had spoken fairly quickly, and in a more nuanced Hebrew than Zahava was probably used to, so I paraphrased what he had said for her.  By now we were both crying.

I broke the silence and said, "We have to do this now".  Zahava couldn't speak at first and simply sniffled in her tears and nodded her agreement.  But then she said, "Let me lift her onto the table.  I want her to feel that it's me".

Zahava gathered Jordan into her arms and lifted her from the floor up onto the exam table where she'd been so many times before.  The two of us helped her to lie comfortably on the table; Zahava cradling her noble head, and I stroked her sides and flanks.

The vet worked quickly setting up the injection point in her leg.  When he saw that we'd whispered our 'thank yous' and goodbyes, he gave the first injection.  Jordan whimpered at the sensation of the injected liquid as she'd done at each of her long-ago chemotherapy sessions.  But almost immediately she relaxed and began to breathe in long, audible snores.  A second injection was given and her breathing stopped altogether... and a final injection directly to her heart a few moments later stilled the wonderful being that had been our family's faithful companion and nursemaid for almost 12 years.

As we stood silently stroking the soft remains of our departed friend, a woman walked through the open door of the exam room and began to ask the vet a question.  He held up his hand to indicate that she should wait.  And taking in the scene before her she instantly understood what had just transpired.

After a few moments we thanked the vet for all his guidance and wonderful treatment of Jordan over the years.  We then broached the subject of his payment.  He held up his hand to us as he had to the woman a few moments before. 

He explained that he never took payment for this particular act of kindness ((he used the Hebrew word 'Chessed').  It turns out that this was how he ended up a vet in the first place.  He had originally wanted to become a pediatrician, but when he realized that he would not be allowed to end the suffering of terminally ill children who were in excruciating pain, he changed his mind and decided to treat animals instead.  He also said that he never accepted payment for euthanizing a pet lest anyone think that he had a financial interest in ending an animal's life before its time.

The vet reassured us that we had acted correctly, and gave me a warm embrace, telling me that he wished that all of his clients loved their pets as much as we had ours.  He then told Zahava that if she weren't religious, he would give her a hug as well.  She saved him the trouble by pressing her tear-stained face against his chest and initiating a warm embrace.

As we were leaving, the vet removed Jordan's collar with her name tag and annual municipality registration tags, and handed it to me.  He told us to hang it in our garden so that the wind would make the tags jingle together and remind us of her life.

On the way out of the office, the woman who had entered earlier stopped us and expressed her condolences for our loss.  It turns out that she had come to the clinic to consult with the vet about her own aging dog who was deaf and blind and losing control of its faculties.  And even though I don't know what she ultimately decided... I know she understood that she was talking to someone who took the seriousness of the decision to heart.

We all miss our treasured nursemaid Jordan more than words can express.  Yonah, who has never known a world without her attentive presence, is especially distraught.  This is his first real experience with death.  Some friends helped their child write Yonah a letter of condolence, and some other friends had a tree planted in her memory.  A third friend sent over a children's book that helped explain things in terms that Yonah could understand.

Jordan was just a few days past her fourteenth birthday on Friday when she left us.  She lived a wonderful, long life surrounded by her family.  We tried throughout her life to let her know how much she was loved and appreciated.  We hope that we did right by her in her final hours, and ask her forgiveness if we erred in any way.

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Update: Here are the first two photos we have of Jordan. Ari just gave me the poloroids to scan. They were taken in August 1999 -- within days of Jordan joining the family.

Circa_081999

Posted by David Bogner on May 22, 2011 | Permalink

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And here I thought I was all cried out.... [sniffle!]....

Posted by: zahava | May 22, 2011 1:55:06 PM

I'm so sorry to hear about your loss. We lost my mother's old dog a month ago and it was very sad. I understand you so well. But how wonderful to have all those memories. And what a great vet.

Posted by: Lila | May 22, 2011 2:19:23 PM

Oh, no. I knew the moment I saw the words "nursemaid" and "tribute" in the title. I'm so sorry.

Barukh dayyan ha-emet. My heart is with you all.

[tears]

Posted by: Rahel | May 22, 2011 2:23:23 PM

What a wonderful device for such a tender tribute. Nicely written, Bogner. I am very sorry for your family's loss, but happy that Jordan and you and that remarkable vet happened to share this space in time together.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | May 22, 2011 2:40:14 PM

What a beautiful eulogy for a beautiful creature. Baruch Dayan Emet.

Posted by: Stefanie | May 22, 2011 2:55:05 PM

rest easy Jordan, as I openly weep for your family.
peace my dear friends.

Posted by: weese | May 22, 2011 2:59:47 PM

Oh David...I'm so very sorry...my condolences to your entire family. Our furry companions do find a way into our hearts unlike any others. May your memories of Jordan always bring comfort to you and smiles to your faces.

Posted by: Erica | May 22, 2011 3:01:29 PM

I was actually thinking of Jordan a few days ago. I used to work at a veterinary hospital many years ago, and remember this part of the job painfully. But when I was on the other side, and bringing in my dog, King, I understood the true kindness. I'm glad of the wonderful times you had together.

Posted by: JDMDad | May 22, 2011 3:02:52 PM

A beautiful tribute, David.
Sending you guys a hug...
Leora

Posted by: Leora Hyman | May 22, 2011 3:05:15 PM

Sorry to hear the sad news. This was beautifully written.

Posted by: Benji Lovitt | May 22, 2011 3:12:17 PM

It's amazing how a four-legged friend can come into the life of a family and steal their hearts away. We are sorry for your loss.

Posted by: AF | May 22, 2011 3:17:11 PM

That was one of the most beautiful eulogies I've ever read. We are so sorry for your loss.

Posted by: Leah Weiss Caruso | May 22, 2011 3:27:46 PM

Beautiful. Thank you so much.

Posted by: walter | May 22, 2011 3:52:31 PM

Moving and beautifully written.

I cried so much that La Fluffita, aged 10, and almost completely recovered from last year's near fatal illness, limped over to comfort me.

By the time the Chairman died 12 years ago, four of our dogs had gone before him, and within 3 years of his passing, the last two dogs we'd shared had joined them. He, like you, was a musician (keyboards), and while the heavenly band gets bigger every year, I imagine him taking all the dogs for a long walk, where the weather's always clement, there are sticks to fetch and streams in which to drink and paddle, before he goes to play the perfect gig.

Enjoy the company of your newer friend and the happy memories of Jordan. May they get sweeter with every day.

Posted by: chairwoman | May 22, 2011 5:12:13 PM

Heartrending and beautiful at the same time. My condolences although I know how inadequate they are in such times. My dad never adopted another pet after his favourite dog died and its been 30 years....

Posted by: Sonal | May 22, 2011 5:17:09 PM

Thanks for all the stories about Jordan and for keeping us informed. My thoughts are with you guys.

Posted by: Baila | May 22, 2011 5:55:40 PM

I'm sorry for your loss.

Posted by: Foxfier | May 22, 2011 6:25:49 PM

I am so very sorry for your loss.

Posted by: beth | May 22, 2011 6:36:07 PM

Really well written (as I read between tears!). Jordan was meant to be with you guys and I'm so glad that you were all blessed to have each other in each other's lives.

Lulu has some big paws to step into...

Posted by: val | May 22, 2011 7:11:52 PM

That was beautiful. Truly. I've had to make this decision for a few 4-legged family members over the years, and it is always excruciatingly painful. I still end up in a puddle when I think of my beloved cat, who was with me for 19 years.

What a tremendous soul your vet is. I, too, had an amazing vet - in NY - when he let his vet tech, a close friend of mine, come to my house to end my dog's suffering.

I consider myself lucky to have met your wonderful nursemaid. I'm sure Jordan considers herself blessed to have had such wonderful charges. My heart goes out to you all.

Posted by: Alissa | May 22, 2011 9:16:51 PM

I cried too! You were lucky to have such a wonderful nursemaid and she was lucky to land in such a loving family.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | May 22, 2011 9:55:20 PM

Wow, David -- what a beautiful tribute. I'm so sorry for your family's loss, and so glad you appreciated Jordan as well as you did. Thinking of you guys...

Posted by: Alisha | May 22, 2011 10:03:46 PM

Bawling my eyes out. Almost a year to the day that we lost a dearly loved member of our family. Jordan was lucky to be in such a beautiful family and have the honour of being nursemaid. May the beautiful memories of her remain with you.

Posted by: Kiwi Noa | May 22, 2011 10:19:07 PM

What a beautiful tribute. You had me in tears. May your memories of Jordan comfort you and your family. Your vet is a tzadik too.

Posted by: anneinpt | May 22, 2011 10:30:34 PM

Thank You for posting this.It is good to know that others experience this as well. Last year we had to do the same for our beloved cat Chaya, who at age 13 developed incurable lung cancer. I had inherited Chaya from a friend many years ago. She was a unique, bright, beautiful, often cranky cat with a kind heart at the most unexpected moments. She changed my life forever and I am grateful to Hashem for the time I had with her...I loved her like she was my own child and I miss her every day.

Posted by: ChavahLeah | May 22, 2011 11:31:51 PM

I was sent as link to this by a wonderful friend. I had to have my 14 year old Lab, named Lilly, put down less than 2 weeks ago.

Thank you for saying this so much better than I could.

Posted by: Dances With Typos | May 22, 2011 11:59:49 PM

I'm so sorry for your loss. What a beautiful and moving tribute.

Posted by: eloise | May 23, 2011 1:51:50 AM

I am so sorry for your loss. We, too lost a 14 year old companion in January. While time has helped, we miss him every day. But knowing he had a wonderful life with us, and us with him helps.

What a beautiful tribute to your 'nursemaid'. Her memory will live on in your hearts. Thank you for sharing your story.

Posted by: Hannah Mendelsohn | May 23, 2011 3:40:35 AM

So sorry for your loss. What a beautiful tribute. I know, from your blog posts and from visiting you guys a few years ago, how treasured Jordan was as a true member of your family. I loved meeting her when I visited your home.

Posted by: SaraK | May 23, 2011 3:42:35 AM

My heartfelt condolences.

Posted by: Sean | May 23, 2011 6:13:44 AM

What a beautiful and moving tribute to a cherished member of the family ... made me cry real tears. So sorry for your loss.

Posted by: Chantal | May 23, 2011 7:20:09 AM

Oh, so very sorry to read of this. It's a wrenching decision to have to make, but I hope you know that did the right thing. If only all pets could be so loved and appreciated. You gave Jordan the gift of dignity.

Posted by: bratschegirl | May 23, 2011 9:03:32 AM

So beautifully written. So sad. What a blessing for you all these years.

Posted by: Caryn | May 23, 2011 10:34:59 AM

:-(

::tears in my eyes::

Posted by: Sarah B. | May 23, 2011 12:06:28 PM

So sorry for your loss.

Posted by: David L | May 23, 2011 1:29:15 PM

David, what a wonderfully written tribute to Jordan. I have had 2 similar situations -- once with "Bounce" who was my nursemaid and shared my life from age 11-27, and again just a few years ago with "Macy" who was the nursemaid of my kids. She was given the honorary title of "Assistant Mommy" in our household and she oversaw the early years of our first 3 kids. Alas, she was not with us when our youngest was born.

You and your family have my deepest sympathies. Only a true dog-lover and a parent can understand the impact she made in your family.

Posted by: ProphetJoe | May 23, 2011 4:19:45 PM

So very sorry. What a beautiful tribute.

Posted by: MoC | May 23, 2011 5:40:36 PM

Barukh dayan emet. Those of us with Animal Companions know that their lives are, sadly, all too short when measured against ours. May Jordan's memory be for a blessing, now that her life with you - also a blessing - is over.

Posted by: Elisson | May 23, 2011 5:47:59 PM

beautifully written.

Posted by: roberti | May 23, 2011 6:02:59 PM

I'm so sorry for your family's loss; your beautiful tribute has me in tears. Nothing makes this any easier to handle, but I'm glad the vet was so compassionate. May the pain fade soon, and only the happy memories remain.

Posted by: Shira | May 23, 2011 7:04:06 PM

I am sorry for your loss, friend. The lives like Jordan don't fit very well into the term "pets", and we hurt when they leave us.

Thank you for sharing the happy times and allowing us to say a prayer of support for you and your family at the time of this loss.

MC

Posted by: mostly cajun | May 24, 2011 3:27:40 AM

So sorry for your loss...as the owner of a black lab getting up in years I found myself right in your shoes...and in tears. But that does sound like an amazing vet and I'm glad you can appreciate all the time you had with Jordan.

Posted by: Beershevaboheme6 | May 24, 2011 5:17:59 AM

Wow, what to say?

Even though I've never met you, your family or Jordan in person, I still felt a bit numb when I read that. Animals like Jordan really are parts of the family and when they go, they take a bit of you with them.

My sincere condolences on your loss.

Posted by: Karl Newman | May 24, 2011 10:57:28 AM

Beautifully written and conveyed. Thank you for sharing...

Posted by: Josh | May 24, 2011 3:00:24 PM

I'm so sorry. I am so glad that I was able to spend time with her when I was in last.

May Hashem send you comfort - for me I am sending you love.

Posted by: Marjorie | May 24, 2011 10:17:37 PM

This is such a wonderful tribute. As a fellow dog owner, who has gone through some similar tribulations (though in the end, we didn't need to euthanize our dogs), I can very much identify with the sentiments you express here. Enjoy your younger dog, but don't let Jordan pass from your memory (not that it's likely she ever will).

Posted by: Shades of Grey | May 24, 2011 11:26:06 PM

:( Even after days of reading this post for the first time, I'm still lost for words. I'm so sorry for you...
I went through this exactly a year ago, and I still can't look at the pictures of my furry luvie without breaking down.
(a cat, not a dog, but does it make a difference really?)

Posted by: a. | May 26, 2011 10:28:29 PM

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