Thursday, February 13, 2014

Heartbreak

The most heartbreaking experience I have ever had was not the death of my sister. That was number two on the list. An enormous number two, but two nonetheless. Number one was my 2 year-old nephew wailing desperately for "Mommy" while my sister was in the hospital in the weeks before her death.

Every night of his very short life, he had fallen asleep cuddling with Mommy, until she was inexplicably gone. I cuddled with him, his Nana cuddled with him until he would eventually quiet down, calmed, but not consoled. Because there is no consolation for that. Not as an adult, and certainly not as a toddler who has no concept of illness or death, no way to comprehend what is happening.

When Pamela, z"l, died, I was gutted beyond belief, but I knew what was going on. I might not have understood the why, but I knew the what. I knew she wasn't coming back. I had no way of helping this tiny little being soothe his pain and terror. There are no words to explain. His suffering was solitary. I can at least talk to others who have lost a sibling, and know that they understand. A 2 year-old has no one to feel his fear, and his is the only pain that exists in the whole universe.

Today I had a doctor's appointment. While waiting, a little girl, maybe all of 3, was wailing her heart out. She was terrified, sobbing with everything she had, "Ima, Ima" while her father tried to calm her and console her (he was brilliant, by the way). Every time she cried "Ima" I felt it right in my heart. Because I heard "Mommy" with every cry. I heard a little 2 year-old boy in my arms, howling into my chest. This little girl may have only been crying over getting a shot, but her pain and fear were the same. She wanted the one and only person who was her core support. The one person she trusted most to protect her and keep her from harm. And that one person wasn't there at that moment. And for a child, that moment is the only one that exists. Thank God that little girl was going to be able to go home and be soothed by Ima.

And I was able to hold it together long enough to fall apart in the car, instead of in front of a hall full of strangers in the doctor's waiting room.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Is It Time For A Self-Exam For The Breast Cancer Industry?

In honour of October aka breast cancer awareness month, a question for my survivor friends, if you don't mind my asking - and before you read on, please don't if reading about cancer will upset you or cause you stress. That is not my intention.



What do you all think about these kinds of videos, like the one below? I haven't personally experienced having cancer, thank God; I'm just a survivor of a non-survivor, so my perspective is probably different.

Personally, I hate them. I don't see the point. How is dancing around and wearing pink supposed to bring awareness? Or in this particular video, make the patient feel better? These videos seem to me to be self-serving, with the dual purpose of the participants having a great time, and feeling great because they believe they're contributing. Don't get me wrong - there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Just don't pass it off as an awareness campaign (is there ANYONE who doesn't know about breast cancer at this point?). I resent the implication that if we would all just wear something pink and dance a flashmob, everything will be all better.

You want to do an awareness campaign? How about a campaign that lets people know that people STILL DIE from this disease?! The number of women who die every year from breast cancer, ovarian cancer and other cancers is unacceptable. The number of young women who leave behind children who have no understanding of what has happened to their mothers or fathers is deplorable. The number of families grieving their loss and struggling to carry on is offensive.

How about a campaign that forces companies like Susan G Komen to be completely transparent so we see how little of our donations is actually going to research for a cure*. How about a campaign to demand that our governments make finding affordable (dare I say free?) treatment a priority. How much money would the health care system save if we could just get a shot when that mammogram comes back showing a terrifying lump? How about we force those big-name pharmaceuticals to dedicate a set portion of their research towards certain diseases, in order to receive those government grants?

Do we need a month dedicated to breast cancer awareness? Really? Let's make October Breast Cancer PREVENTION Month. Or Breast Cancer Research Month. Or How To Do A Self-Exam Month. Or Stop Breast Cancer Month. I think we have enough awareness that there's something out there called breast cancer.**

The fact that so many people are shocked to hear of anyone dying from breast cancer ("You can still die from that?" and "I didn't know women still died from breast cancer" - actual quotes from someone upon hearing about my sister, z"l) means breast cancer research is not the priority it should be. No video with a bunch of people wearing pink gloves dancing to a catchy tune is going to change that.


*By Komen's own figures, about 21% of their total budget goes to research

** Edited to add: Male breast cancer could use an awareness campaign - Morey's family history includes his grandmother, two aunts and a great-uncle who died from breast cancer. A few years back, when Morey found a lump, he went to see his doctor, despite feeling embarrassed. He shared his feeling with the doctor, who reassured him saying Morey absolutely did the right thing, especially given his history. It turned out to be nothing, thank God, but in his case, it might not have been. (I have Morey's permission to share this story.) Men can, and do, also die from this disease. Thank you, Leah, and your cousin for reminding me that I needed to make that clearer.

In loving memory of Pamela;
the heartbreak will always be too great.






If you know of someone who is dealing with cancer, who has young children, this book, The Cancer That Wouldn't Go Away: A story for kids about metastatic cancer is a tremendous resource. Written and edited by two dear friends of mine who, with another sister, also lost a sister to cancer, it contains a guide by a child psychologist to help families talk to their children. May the day come that a book like this will no longer be needed.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Grateful and Gracious

The husband of a friend of ours is ill and in hospital. They have a subscription to the Israel Symphony, but with her husband ill, they are not able to use it. Even under the circumstances, my friends wanted to make sure the tickets didn't go to waste and that somebody was able to enjoy last night's concert in their place.

Due to their generosity and incredible thoughtfulness, we were able to have a fantastic experience last night. It was an evening of Tchaikovsky and Holst. I love Tchaikovsky, and Morey loves "The Planets" so it was a perfect match.

Some observations:

We never would have been able to experience if my friend wasn't so considerate. Sitting with her husband in a hospital room, she thinks of others.

We were doubly blessed - not only did we get to see a fantastic performance of the Israel Symphony Orchestra, the Tchaikovsky was performed by a mind-blowing 22-year-old prodigy named Daniil Trifonov. His fingers were like rubber spider legs; long, thin and moved like lightning (his whole body was long and thin, sort of stretched. He reminded me of Jack). His passion, timing and interpretation were brilliant. It was a true pleasure to witness. He was also the most gracious star performer I've ever seen: he hugged the conductor, shook hand with the first chair violin, bowed to the orchestra and only then did he turn to the audience and take his bow. And come back for an encore!

Which leads me to my next observation. Orchestral encores? I've never seen this, but within seconds, this very knowledgeable audience (every concert I've ever been to, there's always at least one person who is a first-timer and starts to applaud at the end of the first movement. Not one mis-timed clap in the bunch last night) started clapping as if at a rock concert - not applause, but clapping in unison. Trifonov came out for a few more bows, and then eventually sat down and played a cute little Chopin.


After the intermission, the full orchestra came on for The Planets. Throughout the Tchaikovsky piece (Concerto No. 1 for piano and orchestra in B-flat minor, Op. 23, for those who are wondering), I was observing the wonderful mosaic of the orchestra. There were older, stately men and women, a young woman with wildy violet hair, a male French horn player with gorgeous long, wavy hair. Blondes, brunettes, long, short, old, young, even an Asian violinist (which would not be at all unusual in any concert in the US, but she stood out here). We were wonderfully surprised to see not one, but two very obviously charedi musicians, long beards, black kippas and all. One was first chair cello (and magnificent. And for those who know him, the cellist reminded very much of Rabbi Dubrowsky z"l).

(And for the record, there were female musicians wearing pants, sleeveless outfits, and one of the movements has a female chorus. These two men did not get up and leave, fyi.)

This, by the way, is why I get upset when people say THE Charedi. Just like all Jews are not the same and do not believe exactly the same, so all Charedim are not the same. Obviously.

The conductor, Dan Ettinger, was probably the most calm, understated conductor I've ever seen. Morey gave names to some of his moves, one of which was a side-to-side sway ("rock the boat"). The other one isn't, erm, suitable for a family blog.

The concert was in Rishon LeZion, not in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. High-calibre arts can be enjoyed all over this country. It probably doesn't hurt that a lot of the musicians are Russian ;) but there are plenty of very Israel names in the bunch.

We had a thoroughly enjoyable evening, 20 minutes away, courtesy of two very big-hearted people. We are grateful.

Please daven for a complete and speedy healing for Avraham ben Ida.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Breathing

Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.

We included this pithy quote in the program guide we created for our wedding. We wanted something that would explain all the Jewish ritual to our many non-Jewish relatives and friends who honoured us by being at our wedding. It being a wedding, I was feeling shmooey, and so, on each page of the program, I included a soppy romantic quote.

Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.

This quote is meant to convey moments of awe. Moments of profound awareness of being with your "other." Moments of appreciating how much you have and how great your life is.

I've since come to realize that it has another side to it.

Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.

Moments where you are crying so hard that you can't breathe. Moments where you are hit with such profound sadness, you feel a crushing weight in your chest that keeps you from taking in air. Moments where you feel, no matter how hard you try, that emptiness will never go away, never be filled, never fade. Moments of feeling a loneliness so profound, there aren't words to describe it.

Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.

One breath taken away took my breath away. I haven't breathed normally since.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A moment in the life

Today is the birthday of the sister z"l of friends of mine. She died last year after a long battle with breast cancer.

Today is the birthday of a friend of my sister's. My sister z"l died two months ago after a stunningly short battle with breast cancer.

My friends created a book to help their sister's children cope with their mother's ongoing illness. That book went to press today, on their sister's birthday.

 My sister's friend posted a picture of a beautiful card her daughter hand-wrote and gave her for her birthday. I don't have to tell her to cherish that.

It breaks my heart that there are children who will, God forbid, need the book written by Hadassah Field and edited by Sarak Mosak Saiger, "The Cancer That Wouldn't Go Away" (http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Cancer-That-Wouldnt-Go-Away-a-story-for-kids-about-metastatic-cancer/358690442097).

 It breaks my heart that my niece and nephew will never be able to see the pride and tears in their Mommy's eyes when they would have given her a birthday card written in a child's love-filled scrawl.

Today is just a heart broken day.


Friday, August 31, 2012

Kaddish and Cohanim

Saying Kaddish - the prayer that those in mourning say - has been hard. But not just for the reasons you think. I plan, eventually, to write a blog post about my experiences of my first week saying Kaddish for my sister z"l* after shiva**.  In the meantime, I had an experience this morning that affected me very deeply and was so very special.

For two years, one of our dearest friends was fighting his own cancer. Things looked up, then they looked grim. We cried a lot; we prayed even more. We were fiercely davening (praying), saying tehillim (psalms) and desperately trying to provide assistance to his far-too-competent wife (also a beloved friend). Last year, thank God, he finally received a clean bill of health, notice of remission, and gave me the go ahead to remove his name from my tehillim list for a refuah shlema (a full healing, basically). I continued davening to express my gratitude that this friend would remain in our lives, and go on to continue getting back to "normal."

This friend is also a Cohen***. While he was in the midst of his struggle, he could not perform  his Cohen duties, which include saying a special blessing during morning services. At the same time, we moved apartments. It was only a few blocks away, but too far from our shul (synagogue) to go regularly.

This morning, I went to services to say Kaddish for my sister. As is usual during the week, I  was the only woman present. The chairs are stacked up, so it's just me, in my one chair, on my side of the mechitza (divider). Without realizing it, I had positioned myself on the other side of the mechitza from this very same friend. When it came time for the Cohanim (plural) to make their blessing, I suddenly realized that I hadn't heard him doing his Cohen duties in a very, very long time. The Cohen blessing is one of my very favourite parts of the service, and to see my friend going up to the front of the room made me smile.

Then I realized: here I am, saying Kaddish for my beloved sister who never even really had a chance to fight her cancer, while being given a blessing from a beloved friend who struggled so long and hard to come through his battle with this devastating disease. We were so scared for so long, and, Baruch Hashem, there he was, standing where he belonged, looking healthy and serene, sending out God's blessing to us all.

I was so grateful and so moved. I simply don't know how to put into words how beautiful a moment that was for me. To receive such a blessing at the moment of such devastation fills my heart. I tried to explain this to my friend, and he got it. I know Pamela would get it, too.

May the neshama of Ayala Pamela bat Avraham v'Leah be elevated.

* Zichrona Livracha - may her memory be a blessing
** Shiva - seven days of mourning
*** Cohen - priestly class.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Tisha B'Av: Now it's Personal

We're told to find ways to make Tisha B'Av, our day of fasting for the destruction of the Temple, personal to us. The Beit HaMikdash is so far removed from our experiences as Jews today, that it is sometimes hard to relate to the Kinot of Eicha.

While we think of Tisha B'av as being the memorialization of a national tragedy - the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash - we are also recalling a million personal tragedies. We try hard to identify, then, not only with the destruction of walls, but rather the upheaval of lives. Thinking about it, I realized the Jews of the time must have had their entire worlds turned upside down when the Temple was destroyed. Daily sacrifices, Cohanim, the festivals where Jews travel to reach the Temple - these were things that were an integral part of every Jew's life. We are told Hashem dwelt among the people in the Temple, and we lost that Presence when the we lost the Temple. The lives of the Jews must have been shattered.

My sister's diagnosis of cancer has turned our world upside down. Her life as a mother, her excitement in a new job, is now all completely focused on healing, caring for herself and learning how to accept each new limitation. Her husband's world is all about her - he rarely leaves the hospital, his existence revolves around doctors, radiation appointments, making her comfortable.

Her young children - an infant and a toddler - haven't seen their mother for more than a few minutes in two weeks. And when they did see her, she was too tired to do more than sleepily cuddle. They were thrust into full-time daycare, are temporarily living in their grandparent's rental apartment. Her parents, those same grandparents, have left their retirement life, dropped everything to come to Israel to help out however they can. Her father, who likes a clean, quiet home, is doing his best to contend with the chaos that children bring into a home - toys, diapers, clothes, bottles everywhere. Her mother spends a good part of the day tending to the baby.

Her sister - me - hasn't slept in her own bed in over a week. I haven't been to my own home in that time, aside from a quick 2-hour trip, where I spent lots of time snuggling with my animals, who seemed surprised to see me. Along with my niece and nephew, I have also temporarily moved into my parent's rental apartment. Shabbat was the first day my husband and I have spent together in a week, and the night was shared with the kids. I sleep with the kids, and get up with the baby every 2 or so hours. I have no children of my own, so this is very new to me.

Her brother-in-law- my husband - is basically holding down our household alone, and spending a good amount of time driving back and forth from Modi'in to Jerusalem to see me for an hour or so, and always helps with the kids.

We're not complaining; we all do these things willingly, with hearts full of love, without hesitation, and will do them as long as necessary, until my sister, please God, is well enough to take care of them again herself. But one person's diagnosis of cancer is not just one person's diagnosis - it turns whole worlds upside down, shatters expectations, and sets people adrift. No. I have no problem relating to Tisha B'Av this year. May we only hear good news.