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Only the part of her being washed was exposed at any moment; all else was kept covered by a clean white sheet. This would be the first time I'd ever touched someone who was not alive. Nor did I assist when in one swift movement Lara swept off Sarah's sheet, and René and Lara engulfed her in an unbroken watershoot from the buckets.The women took care to save any cloth that had absorbed even a drop of Sarah's blood -- blood that had been the source of her life. I had inched over to the gurney and was facing Phyllis, when by way of hand gestures she asked me if I would care to remove Sarah's nail polish. But I was distracted from panic as Phyllis beckoned me to the head of the gurney where she would hand me cotton swabs saturated with acetone. Why hadn't she just reach over and give me the swabs? "Tehora hi (She is pure), Tehora hi, Tehora hi," said the team, and it seemed to me that had the sanctifying waters spoken they would have answered, "Yes.Reading from a laminated, timeworn sheet, she said a prayer at each step of the tahara.
There waited three other volunteers, Lara, Miriam and René, all friends of mine, who, with Phyllis, would comprise the tahara team. We each donned two full-sleeved aprons with bibs -- the first yellow gauze, the second white plastic -- a pair of firemen's rubber boots to be worn over shoes, and two pairs of surgical gloves. Swaddled in white sheeting was Sarah bas Avraham, a woman well into her eighties.
I never saw her fully, as care was taken to keep her face covered. And I felt a sense of privilege that would recur each time I would perform this part of a tahara, helping to prepare a Jewish woman for her endmost pilgrimage.
The Kabbalists tell us that although the eyes of the dead cannot see, exposure of the face in such a setting of helplessness is a source of humiliation to the Neshama, the soul. I did not help with the culmination of the tahara -- purifying the body by way of water.
We slowly backed away and out of the room, facing the casket in final tribute to the body and soul of Sarah bas Avraham.
I found the lavatory, and there I wept, deeply and profusely.