What was the point in sending a New Year's card to a blind and confused woman in a nursing home?

I met Yetta G. while working in the recreation department of a nursing home unit of a city hospital where she was a resident. My job was to motivate her and another 80 clients to be meaningfully involved in the world around them. Yetta and I had many one-on-one conversations as she felt reluctant to leave her room. When she discovered I was single, she kept telling me how much she wanted me to meet a nice Jewish girl and marry.

I learned from staff that no family ever visitedAfter I got to know her a bit, she told me about her deceased husband. "Our first date," she said with a smile, "was to the movies. We saw The Cat and the Canary." Then she would laugh in the sweetest way and say, "I guess the cat got the canary."

I found out that Yetta never had children and I learned from staff that no family ever visited. I wanted to remove her from the isolation of her room, and it was gratifying when she would agree to come to group programs where she could socialize with peers.

When I got a job at another nursing home, it was hard to tell the residents I had developed such close relationships with that I was leaving. It was particularly difficult to tell Yetta, as I knew how alone she would be. But she responded with a sincere smile and a joyful "Congratulations." She was happy for me and whatever sadness she felt for herself, she didn't let on.

Several months passed before I called her. She didn't have a phone in her room so it took an overworked and underpaid, caring nurse to bring Yetta to the phone at the nurse's station. She was delighted to hear from me and we had an animated conversation.

About six months later, I got married. One day, my wife and I took a ride to Yetta's nursing home. "Overjoyed" is an understatement to describe how this woman who "sees" with her heart reacted to meeting my wife.

I'd call her every few months and we'd converse like old friends. The age differential – about 55 years – made no difference at all. Then it happened. It came seemingly overnight for me but probably over a long period of time for her. She didn't remember who I was. At first, she just seemed happy to hear a friendly voice. A few calls later, though, she became agitated when I contacted her, yelling, "Who is this?!" in a tense, almost desperate tone. Nothing could calm her down. As much as I liked our conversations, I decided to stop calling her.

When the next Rosh Hashana approached and I was sending out New Year's cards, I thought of Yetta. I debated whether it would serve any useful function to send her a New Years greeting, and in the end, I sent it. It was a long shot, but I thought maybe a kind employee would read it to her.

I may have been the first person from the outside to have any contact with Yetta in yearsAs weeks turned into months, it seemed that my relationship with Yetta was over. I was soon proven wrong. One day, I received an official envelope in the mail from the city hospital Yetta lived in. The letter was headed, "Dear Family Member of Yetta G." It went on to tell me that she had been transferred to another unit in the hospital.

I wondered how they got my address and why they had appointed me primary family member. Then it hit me – the New Years card! I may have been the first person from the outside to have any contact with Yetta in years, perhaps for as long as she was living there. The nursing staff in Yetta's unit probably took note of the sender's address (mine) and passed on the information to the Social Services Department.

For the next several months, they stayed in touch with me, sending official letters with information about Yetta. One late afternoon, about a week before Passover, I saw an official City Hospital correspondence in front of my front door. I looked closer and saw that it was a telegram. I opened it quickly, wondering what the news was. It was to inform me that Yetta G. had passed away. In that moment I felt sadness for her loss and also remembered all the goodness we had shared.

I read further. As "next of kin," I was asked to contact City Hospital as soon as possible to make arrangements for her burial. I rushed to the phone, wanting to let the hospital know that I was not a relative. The last thing I wanted was to delay the burial process.

My phone calls only put me through to an answering machine and my several messages were not returned. I kept calling until finally I spoke to a live person. When I told her who I was calling about, she asked me what plans I wanted to make for the funeral. I explained: "I used to work at your hospital some years ago and I developed a good relationship with Yetta. I stayed in touch after I left and somehow they listed me as a family member." She replied, "Oh, then she's nothing to you."

On one hand, I knew what she meant, but I was stunned by her coldness. Yetta was a Jew, a human being and a friend. She was a special person to her husband, her parents, and all the people whose lives she touched. But the fact was I could not spend the money needed for her funeral.

"You'll take care of the funeral arrangements, right?" I asked her.

"Of course we will," she said. I hung up the phone, slightly heartened that at least the hospital would arrange for her funeral.

When my wife got home I told her about my call to the hospital. Immediately, my wife said, "She won't be buried in a Jewish cemetery. They'll bury her in Potter's Field."

"But what can I do about it? The hospital is a maze of red tape" I couldn't get my wife's statement out of my mind. I had a running dialogue with myself: "I've done a lot already, beyond the call of duty. Leave it alone. But how can I let her be buried in Potter's Field? But what can I do about it? The hospital is a maze of red tape. It would take a lot of calls. I'm just so busy with Passover preparations… but who else could advocate for her? It's already after hours. But she was my friend." The last thought was the clincher. I put down my dust cloth and got on the phone.

As expected, everyone I asked to speak to at the hospital had left for the day. The operator put me through to the on-duty administrator. Expecting an abrupt "Call back tomorrow," I was glad to see he was sympathetic to my plight. He recommended I call the rabbi who visited the hospital weekly. I left a message for the rabbi with the pertinent facts.

A half hour later, the rabbi called. "Thank you so much for calling me," he said. "The hospital is supposed to tell me when a Jew passes away. If they have no family, I make the arrangements for a Jewish burial. I'm going to call them in the morning."

I thanked him and provided my work number so he could keep me informed.

The next morning, I was paged to the phone. It was the rabbi and he sounded upset. "I called the office," he said, "and told them they should have informed me of Yetta's passing. When I told them I wanted to make the funeral arrangements, they told me to stay out of it, that it was already in the works and they would take care of everything."

This was bad news. I asked the rabbi if there was anything that still could be done. "Let me work on it," he replied.

Twenty minutes later, the rabbi called back. There was joy in his voice when he told me, "I have good news. I got the backing of Governor Pataki's office, and then contacted the hospital office. I told them that the Governor's office would intervene unless I handle the funeral arrangements. They immediately agreed that I do it." I thanked him profusely and he thanked me. Knowing the rabbi's diligence, I believed that Yetta would be well taken care of.

May our mitzvahs, however small they appear, lead us to more mitzvahs Recently I thought of a passage in Ethics of the Fathers that reads, "Run to perform a minor mitzvah, for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah." Who could have known that the "minor mitzvah" of sending a New Year's card to a blind woman who didn't know who I was would lead to this dear person getting the Jewish burial she deserved?

May our mitzvahs, however small they appear, lead us to more mitzvahs and a deeper appreciation of the kindnesses G‑d does for us.