Under the silent gaze of his grandparents, Orthodox Jews from Hungary preserved in sepia on his living room wall in Park Slope, Andrew Mark lay dying last year.
He was suffering from cancer of the liver and colon, which had spread to the lymphatic system.
A sofa bed was set up in the living room. Andrew’s last days would be spent there, cared for by Marion, his wife of 50 years, comforted by their son and daughter, visited weekly by a rabbi and social worker from the Jewish Hospice of Greater New York.
Marion knew the prognosis all along. Andrew, through two rounds of chemotherapy and one surgery and pneumonia and a mild heart attack, took longer to accept it. For a time he withdrew into himself.
One day Marion had an idea. “I said, ‘Andrew, do you want to pray together?’ ” The couple, who identified themselves as Conservative and had made cyclical attempts at strict observance, knew the siddur but had not opened it regularly over the years.
He said yes, so she took from a bookshelf a softcover collection of inspirational Jewish readings, compiled for the infirm some 40 years ago by a rabbi whom she had served as a secretary, and took it to her husband’s bedside. “He held my hand,” Marion recalled the other day.
She started reading, in English: the 23rd Psalm, selections from the Talmud, the words of latter-day Jewish thinkers.
Andrew was consoled. “It calmed him,” Marion said.
A family tradition was born that day on a Brooklyn side street. On the weekday mornings when Andrew felt strong, at least three times a week, he and Marion would pray together. She would do the reading. On Saturday mornings they would walk to shul, four avenue blocks and four street blocks away. Later they would do shacharit side-by-side in the living room. This continued for nine months, until Andrew died at home, at 79, in November.
Andrew, who was “hereditarily Satmar,” and Marion, whose childhood family on Long Island was “very against religion,” found support in prayer, whereas many people dealing with terminal illness turn away from religion in anger at God.
“I was grateful to God because He gave us blessings in that year — my faith in God grew as I saw my husband wasting away because he did not need painkillers,” Marion said, sitting in her ground level apartment that is filled with seder plates, menorahs and JNF certificates.
“This was God’s miracle,” she said. “I was very grateful to Him.
“It’s an internal experience. It’s a very private experience,” said Marion, who would make private prayers for her husband’s health. It became “just like bread, part of your life.”
“It was a beautiful thing to see,” said Moshe Borowski, a community liaison at Metropolitan Jewish Health System. As a social worker for the Jewish Hospice, which is part of MJHS, he became friends with Andrew and Marion. “Instead of questioning God, they did the exact opposite.”
The emotional pain, mounting expenses and constant logistical problems that families face when a member is dying “make it hard to focus on anything but the immediate physical needs,” Borowski said, describing Andrew and Marion as “a textbook case of a family that is able to plug into the holistic approach” — using all available emotional and spiritual resources.
The 5-year-old hospice, which provides end-of-life services for about 100 people in their homes and maintains a small inpatient facility in Borough Park, is “very holistic,” Borowski said. In addition to social workers, Rabbi Yosef Stern, the rabbinic coordinator, makes the rounds of the hospice patients offering a spiritual shoulder.
“It’s difficult to get to that level,” to get beyond the present, Borowski said.
Andrew would meet with the rabbi privately, praying, calm till the end. “He really wanted to talk with God,” Borowski said. “Everyone on the staff was touched by him.”
The key was that old collection of readings, which put the couple’s feelings into words.
“It was almost mystical,” Borowski said. “It gave them emotional and spiritual solace. It gave them a vision — that it’s never too late in Judaism.”
The Markses, never estranged from their religion, became intimate with it as Andrew’s days dwindled.
“Our faith in God helped the two of us go through the experience,” Marion said.
She doesn’t recall the book’s name. She lent it to a friend after Andrew died. “It wasn’t in good shape,” she said. “It’s 40 years old.”
The book was always on the Marks’ shelf. “It was part of the fabric of our lives. I would refer to it over the years, in crises.”
Standard prayers and most Psalms Marion had found uninspiring. Her book, long out of print, found its mark.
Marion read from the book on a Friday morning, three days before Andrew took his last breath. That Friday, he started drifting in and out of consciousness. With his grandparents’ portrait above him, he recited viddui, the Hebrew prayers of confession, and the Sh’ma, on one’s lips at the end, with Rabbi Stern. Friday night was a Shabbat meal.
“He was able to say the prayers on the challah,” Marion said. “Those were his last words.”