Chaya Mitchell is dead.
She died at about 5 AM this morning.
She is free.
[I was one of the lucky ones who was able to see Chaya one last time and say goodbye to her. I saw her on June 4th.]
I had just went for a haircut at Regis in the Lincolnwood Mall. My hair was blowdried and beautiful, framing my face, and I was standing hesitantly in front of a rack of keychains at KB TOYS.
I had consistently read the updates about Chaya. I knew that her parents had started a collection of keychains and toys for her and I wanted mine to be different, to be special, to hold a particular form of meaning. I wanted my keychain to represent the Chaya I knew. So I looked through them and found one that was of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Ariel is the one with a beautiful voice, the singer. I thought that this was suitable- Chaya had always loved to sing and had a very beautiful voice. But I was not sure. I spent a very long time in the toystore, determining which Disney keychain would be right to give to Chaya.
Perhaps it was because I was scared of who I would see.
I didn't know what Chaya looked like now. I imagined that she was shriveled, emaciated, broken perhaps, her skin ashen and grey. I did not know. But I purchased my keychain and armed, made my way to her door, smiling as I climbed up the wooden ramp to provide for a wheelchair or some other form of rolling conveyance. Chaya's father greeted me, as did Mrs. Nadoff, and led me to the back room.
I physically felt a blow, staggered a little. This was not Chaya. No, this could not be her. I did not believe it. I would not believe it.
Chaya was very changed. I would not have recognized her had I not been told who she was.
A cheerful black lady sat beside her and was involved in feeding her. She smiled at me and took my keychain, bringing it close to Chaya's eyes so that she could see it, then moving it to the side, where there were more than three hundred others assembled. I was amazed, fascinated by the keychains. Trying to be cheerful, I slung my backpack to the floor and said happily, "Chaya, hi! This is Chana ________. I've come to visit. Your room is so colorful- there are so many beautiful pictures on the wall and your collection of keychains is great! And you have a song written about you! I wish I had a song written about me..."
I babbled for a while, perhaps in an attempt to make myself feel better rather than truly comforting her. But I was speaking to her, speaking about everything that was good and pretty in this room rather than the things that shocked me. She had her nails done, "Oh, I love them! Your nails are glittery and your toenails, too! Whoever did this for you must be so nice."
She was wearing beautiful glittering studs in her ears and I complimented them. She smiled, always gracious, always kind.
"Who are you?" she asked me, trying to turn so she could see me, her voice a thin raspy whisper.
"I'm Chana," I said, blinking back tears. "Chana, Chana ________."
"Oh," she said softly. She paused, then turned to me again. "Would you like a drink?"
I don't know if you can imagine what went through my head at that moment. Here I was, thinking that she was so changed, that I did not know her, but she was offering me a drink. She was being a hostess, gracious, asking about my wishes and my feelings.
"No," I declined, smiling. "I- I drank and everything before I came here."
I looked at her again; she made the effort to smile.
"Did I ask you yet," she questioned, "about your favorite things?"
The words Did I ask you yet made me want to cry. She couldn't remember, you see, what she had asked me and whether I had replied. She wanted to make sure, being the kind of person she was, that she was polite and kind and gracious.
"No," I said, "you didn't ask me. But- what are your favorite things?"
"Sushi," she answered affirmatively, smiling, "and dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches the way my dad makes- with onions and tomatoes.
"I like omelettes!" I said happily. "With eggs and onions and different toppings, too. Oh, and I like steak."
"Steak!" she said very happily. "Yes, I love steak! Steak is one of my favorites."
"For my eighteenth birthday," I supplied, "my parents took me to Shallotts and I got to eat this big juicy steak. It was wonderful."
"And mystery books," she said, looking as though she recalled a fond memory with pleasure.
"Jewish or secular?" I questioned.
"Doesn't matter," she said. "I used to read mystery books. Now I can't read them anymore." She was straining her voice to speak to me.
"Do you- do you want someone else to read to you?" I asked, anxious to be useful.
"No, I'm okay," she waved me away, then fell silent.
I paused. "Do you have more favorite things?"
"Sushi," she said again, then paused. "Don't remember," she breathed softly, "sorry."
Again she turned and I drew closer and she made the effort to smile at me.
"What's your name again?" she questioned.
"Chana," I answered.
"No, no, Chana ________."
"Oh," she frowned and tried to remember.
Her mother entered the room, then and showed me the pictures from when Chaya got to go to Disneyland. I showed the pictures to Chaya, too, and again she smiled and explained the ones she could to me. She named the person who was with her on that trip, stating her name very confidently, very sure of who she had spent time with.
That's when her mother showed her a picture of a dog and cued her. "Whose dog is that, Chaya?" "The Turks' dog," she repeated and I smiled, glad that she was able to enjoy looking at the dog.
I had stayed a very long time considering how tired Chaya was, perhaps a full twenty minutes, even a half an hour. Realizing how tired she was and seeing how the next visitors had arrived, I decided to make my way outside. They had a dog and I could see how happy Chaya was to see the dog.
I ended off by repeating to her how beautiful her room was- filled with the different keychains, the long strand of beads, the cards and balloons and other well-wishes, pillows with the Wicked Witch embroidered on them (Chaya played that part to perfection in the school Erev Shira), a room full of love. I thanked the parents and walked outside into the rain.
I was thinking about everything that had happened in that room. I was thinking about how changed Chaya was, how I would not have known her unless I had been told who she was. I was thinking of her body and how beautiful she had been. And then I was thinking about our conversation, this girl who loved to learn reduced to talking about sushi and omelettes and other forms of food.
And then I realized that that was not what we had been talking about. No. It might have sounded to an outsider as though we were talking about something as mundane as food, but in truth we were talking about everything that was important, everything meaningful, everything that mattered in the world... And she was trying to comfort me; she was trying to entertain me; she raised her thin breathy voice in an attempt to console me and to make sure I was not bored- as if I could have been! She was the one who offered me a drink of water, even then, even lying within her bed, unable to move, needing someone else to feed her; she was asking me if I would like a drink of water.
When I left I was crying- it wasn't because of her body, because of how she was caught within a form that wasn't hers. It was that I felt so humbled; I felt a kind of awe. Because despite all this she smiles, despite all this she speaks, despite all this she struggles and strives to entertain me, to amuse me. I who am so undeserving of what she is giving me.
It was not her body and it was not her voice but it was her soul, what spoke through her and expressed itself in the way she behaved toward me. She did not complain, she did not offer any judgement, everything she spoke was positive and kind.
How beautiful a soul she had!
I do not doubt that her beautiful soul has been called before God and seated in a place of honor beside him- that she has her beautiful body back, with her long, lovely curly brown hair and eyes that see-that she is now everything and more that she was before.
She surrendered to God and met him in love, not anger.
She humbles me. She awes me.
She is- and has always been-beautiful.