Many, many years ago, my wife Leah and I brought our young son Eyal home from the hospital. He had been a patient for close to two years, after a devastating brain stem stroke. Eyal had become a quadriplegic, vent dependent, reliant on a feeding tube for all nutrition. Eyal was six years old the day we wheeled him into our home, which had been partially modified to accommodate his large wheelchair and medical equipment.
We had four other young children at home. Mealtime around our large kitchen table was “pleasant chaos.” Along with good food and sustenance, there were loud conversations, giggles, teasing, people getting up and down, grabbing something else out of the refrigerator, occasional spills, reminders about manners. Once Eyal was home, Leah and I faced a difficult question. Would Eyal come to the table? It seemed almost cruel, to have him sit, smell the aromas, and watch while all the others enjoyed their dinner.
Leah and I went back and forth. But then we asked Eyal. And he said he wanted to come to the table.
This forced us to become creative. Eyal couldn’t eat — which is, after all, kind of the point of coming to the dinner table. But is it? Whenever we gather at the table, Eyal joins us. Friday nights and Jewish Holidays we chant “the kiddush,” the blessing over the wine. We taught Eyal the words of the kiddush and the melody. We gave him the responsibility of leading us all. In Jewish tradition, it’s very simple. If you say a blessing, then there must be a subsequent action. If you say the blessing over the wine, then you need to drink the wine. But for Eyal, swallowing even a drop of wine is impossible. He silently chants the blessing, because he cannot make any sound, and everyone says “Amen,” to his blessing. Then Leah dips her finger into Eyal’s wine goblet and gently, lovingly, puts a few drops of wine on his lips.
We continue our dinner. Although Eyal cannot eat, he’s an important part of the conversation and banter. We are together and sometimes , truth be told, the food almost seems incidental.
What we have learned as a family is this: Everyone has a place at the table.