I burned myself last week. Right after Rosh Hashanah I went into the kitchen to pour hot water into a single-cup coffee filter and ended up with a pot of boiling water splashing down the right side of my body. On the week of the Jewish New Year, my 1-year-old daughter, Helen Rose, had a bad head cold and I had a second-degree burn across my chest. Everything would have been fine, except it wasn’t.
A little while later, the blisters that had formed on my breast ruptured while I was trying to carry Helen down four flights of stairs in our apartment building. I was in pain for five days. I walked around the apartment without a shirt on and tried to keep the area clean. Then, one night a few days before Yom Kippur, I noticed a thin red line spreading from my breast to my armpit; I could hardly move my arm.
As a Jew I feel that guilt has played a large role in my life. There are jokes in our community about “Jewish guilt” and “Jewish mothers’ guilt.” So my mind automatically went to that place we tell ourselves not to go: “What did I do? I did something wrong and it’s almost Yom Kippur. I’m paying for something.” Adrian, my Catholic partner, heard my lament.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “It was an accident.”
I asked him if there was such a thing as Catholic guilt, especially in Mexico, where he’s from. I even tried to find the word for “guilt” in Spanish. The only word I could come up with was “culpa.” But culpa doesn’t really mean “guilt”; it means “fault.” It comes from the Latin root “culpa,” also used in the well-known term felix culpa. The phrase means “happy fault.” Catholics believe that Jesus dying on the cross was a felix culpa, because although he died for mankind’s sins, which was bad, the Catholics got to have him as their savior, which was good. So to me it was as if Catholic guilt, if there is such a thing, could never compare to Jewish guilt. For me, guilt is guilt, and there is no happiness involved.
As soon as Adrian got home from work, I rushed to the emergency room carrying all my guilt with me. My burn had become so infected that the doctors at my local hospital transferred me to the burn center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. I cried. Adrian was taking care of the baby, and I felt alone. It turned out I had cellulitis and was to stay at the hospital with an IV until my burn healed. I cried again. Helen’s birthday was two days away and Yom Kippur was the day after her birthday, but I was informed I might have to stay in the hospital for three days.
Hospitals are lonely, but if they do one thing it’s test your faith. They test your faith in God and your faith in other human beings. One of my nurses wore a cross. Another wore a Star of David, and the third wore a heart with the word “Mom” in the middle. I felt that all three of those nurses represented all three parts of my family and myself: Jewish, Catholic and motherly (and fatherly) love. They took great care of me while I thought more about guilt, about the New Year and about the Day of Atonement coming up. I thought about my daughter’s smile and Adrian’s sweet face.
I tried to remember that my wound was nothing. A burn center cares for people who have been truly disfigured by fire. I was lucky to have only been partially burned, and not across my entire body or face.
I thought of my little Helen Rose. How could I have let myself think God was punishing me for something by burning me? I burned my own breast! And it was an accident! Some people sit in the hospital for days, weeks, months. And then some people’s children sit in the hospital. Guilt has nothing to do with it—life happens. Tragedy happens. Sometimes death happens. These things happen to Jews, Catholics, Muslims and every human being on earth. They don’t happen to make us pay; they happen to make us learn.
But Jewish guilt can come in handy sometimes. I dished out the Jewish guilt that was passed down to me to every doctor who came in contact with me. “You know,” I said as the IV dripped, “my daughter’s first birthday is on Monday, and if you don’t fix me I may not be home for it.” I remember one doctor said, “She won’t remember.” I could feel my Jewish ancestors rise up in my blood to reply, “But I’ll remember! And what kind of mother would I be if I missed her birthday because of my burned breast?”
I was released from the hospital on Monday, just in time for Helen’s birthday. I took the kosher cake I had made days before out of the freezer. Our party plans were cancelled, but Adrian, my mother, Helen and I blew out a candle.
I couldn’t go to synagogue because I wasn’t allowed to leave the house for a week, but I felt I had already atoned. A week later at my follow-up visit at the hospital, a doctor asked, “Why didn’t I see you when you were here? Were you in the burn unit?”
“Yes,” I said, “I was released on Monday, just in time for my daughter’s….”
Before I could finish, he cut me off: “Your daughter’s first birthday? Yes, I know who you are now. There was a lot of talk about you. The staff felt so guilty about keeping you here that they decided it was OK for you to leave a day early.”