Blow followed blow. Could I rebuild after so much loss?
I was a post-seminary graduate when my 13-year-old only brother, Chesky, started feeling lethargic.
The diagnosis: leukemia.
“Leukemia?” we asked the doctor, stunned.
“Leukemia,” he confirmed.
My family was thrown onto the cancer rollercoaster. With his positive attitude and upbeat personality, Chesky was a trooper. All he wanted was to get through this and be done. Chemo, radiation, blood transfusions, and hospital stays became part of his life. Part of our life. My parents, and us four sisters, rallied around him with lots of love and support.
He did well. He even went into remission.
It was a dark day when he went for routine bloodwork and was told the cancer was back. Three weeks later, the day was even darker when the doctor gently told my parents there was nothing more to do for him. It was up to them to decide if they wanted him to die at home or in the hospital.
It feels like yesterday that my parents came home and repeated those words to us. The way my mother broke down into sobs will forever be seared into my being.
I was all of 20 years old when I watched my brother die.
I remember clearly that Erev Shabbos morning when my father called his rav and in a tear-choked voice asked, “How do I say Vidui with such a young child?”
The rav said Vidui isn’t necessary; Chesky didn’t have a chance to do aveiros. But my brother wanted to say it. He shouted out “Shema Yisrael” twice and was niftar.
As I sat shivah, I thought the way only a naive 20-year-old can think: Many people go through a big nisayon. This is mine. From here on it will be smooth sailing.
I got engaged shortly afterwards and had a healthy baby 14 months after the wedding. Things were good. My parents had infinite nachas from my and my sisters’ growing families. Talking about Chesky was never taboo. We spoke about him, remembered him, and clearly felt my parents’ pain at his absence. Nevertheless, there was a simchas hachayim that permeated my parents’ home, even with the pain of this tremendous loss. Even with the pain of my older sister Esti still being single.
She was the most beloved person in the world. She was warm, kindhearted, funny, and on the ball. She filled her days with chasadim. She took lonely women shopping; she volunteered for Chai Lifeline and Rachel’s Place; she stepped in to help out her married friends who were in a pinch.
On a Tuesday in February 2006, eight years after Chaim's petirah, I called Esti on her office number. She didn’t answer. That wasn’t unusual. It meant she was in a meeting. But something compelled me to call her cellphone. She never answered her cell while at work. So when she did, I panicked and said, “Esti, why are you answering your cell? Is everything okay?”
And with her inimitable sense of humor, she said, “Oh, how did you hear already? I’m in the hospital. I just found out I have cancer.”
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. Please, Hashem. Not Esti. Not my beautiful, funny, beloved older sister. And then: Our parents! What will we tell them? How could they handle this?
Esti insisted on not saying a word to them until she went for further testing and had clearer results. My lips were sealed, and I played pretend. I cheerfully talked to my mother about the supper I was making, the trouble the baby was getting into, the expected weather for the upcoming few days.
I also played the pretend game at home. I went through the motions, changing diapers, singing Modeh Ani, and telling bedtime stories. But inside I was numb. I was so scared about Esti’s outcome, and worried about how my parents would respond to a second child having cancer.
By the time Friday rolled around, I was a mess. All I wanted was to bentsh licht and go to sleep. When the phone rang close to Shabbos, and I saw it was my mother, I decided not to answer. I’d spoken to her earlier that day, and I just wasn’t up to talking.
But she left me a message. “Miriam, I know that you’re busy. But I must speak to you. Please, if you can call me back before Shabbos…” I lunged for the phone. What could it possibly be? Did she find out about Esti? Did something happen?
“Ma,” I screamed. “I’m here. Is everything okay?”
“Miriam,” she said. “I don’t know how to tell this to you. I just came back from the doctor. I have cancer.”
I wanted to say: What? No, Mommy. Esti has cancer, and you don’t know that yet. She found out four days ago and is planning on telling you next week. What are you saying?
Instead, I responded, “Oh.” What else could I have said?
As an older single, Esti was living by herself. My mother felt bad telling her this awful diagnosis while she was in an apartment alone, and so she instinctively reached out to me, the second-to-oldest. Esti was at my house that Shabbos. And all I could think is Esti has cancer. Mommy has cancer but Esti doesn’t know.
As Shabbos was ending, I decided it was crazy to keep it a secret. She was going to find out in the next day or two. Why not tell her in person, so we could share the fear and worry together? And so, I told her. Together we cried, and together we were mechahzek each other.
Once again we began the cancer roller coaster ride. For those who have been there, I probably don’t need to say much more. And for those who haven’t been…well, I hope you never have to go there.
It’s hard to describe the constant anxiety I walked around with. Neither my mother, nor Esti, ever had a scan with really positive results. Sometimes the cancer was worse. Sometimes it was the same. But there were never results that gave us genuine hope.
During those days, I’d often say the world is a stage, and I was the main actress on it. Esti was in shidduchim, so we kept her illness very quiet. My mother by nature hated pity or publicity, so she kept her illness quiet as well. That meant I had to put on an act.
I couldn’t confide in my friends; I had to talk about the mundane while inside I cringed at the pettiness of it. And regardless of whether or not I confided in anyone, my four-year-old students certainly deserved a happy, fun Morah.
At home, I cooked, I cleaned, and I did laundry. I played games with my children and read them books. I hugged them good night and kissed them tons. But I look back at those days, and I get a heavy feeling in my gut. It was a very hard time.
Then in 2007, my sister Esti, at the age of 32, single and fighting cancer, became a kallah!
When she first met her chassan, Pinchas*, she told him the whole truth, hiding nothing about her disease. The easygoing, laid-back manner in which he received the news disturbed her. She schlepped him to her oncologist and said, “You must speak to the doctor and get all the details. I don’t want you to ever feel I wasn’t 100% honest with you.”
Pinchas went in to speak to the doctor and came out ashen. The doctor had told him, “I never saw anyone with this kind of cancer live for more than five years.”
Why in the world did he continue to date her? I don’t know who he spoke to or who helped him make his decision, but he said, “If I stop seeing her now, I’ll be devastated. I might as well get as much time as I can with her.”
How can I describe what a jubilant kallah Esti was? How can I describe my father’s face as he finally gave his oldest daughter a brachah before her chuppah? How can I describe the overwhelming emotions as my parents walked her down the aisle?
Esti’s zillions of friends were delighted that she was finally getting married. And the few who knew that underneath that magnificent gown and glowing face there was a very sick kallah, were truly exultant… and fearful. As we danced this night away, our prayers continued. “Please, Hashem, let her be this joyful her whole life. Until 120!”
It happened a year and a half later, at my cousin’s chasunah.
It was shortly after the chassan and kallah came in. There was lots of lively dancing going on, when suddenly there was a cry: Doctor, doctor! It seemed that someone had blacked out.
I didn’t pay much attention at first. These things happen. I was sure that whoever it was would be fine.
But then again, there was a call for a doctor. I stood next to the mechitzah with a group of women murmuring Tehillim. And suddenly, icy cold tentacles wrapped themselves around me, and I started shaking. I knew. I knew that whatever had happened, it involved my father.
But that didn’t make sense. My father was perfectly healthy.
And at that moment, my mother knew as well. She ran into the men’s side, to my uncle, the father of the chassan, and said, “It’s Elya, isn’t it?” He gave a slight nod. We all ran. Hatzolah took him to the hospital. There, they did all they could. But there was very little they could actually do. He’d been dancing with his father, and as he walked out of the circle, he collapsed and died, on the spot.
The week of shivah was surreal. I couldn’t believe that someone so alive could be dead. There were signs of him all over the place. His jacket hung over the dining room chair. The lights turned on and off on the Shabbos clocks he’d set.
My father was dead. I was never going to talk to him or see him again.
We got up from shivah on Wednesday morning. The house emptied. My sisters, aunts and uncles all left. I stayed an extra day to be with my mother.
And after everyone left, I went to my room and called a friend. I could barely get out the words through my sobs. How can I leave my mother? I asked her. How can children leave a newly bereaved widow alone in an empty quiet house? And then there were the words that I didn’t say: How can I leave a sick newly bereaved widow all alone? The pain was so intense, penetrating every layer of my being.
I got back to my house late Thursday night and jumped right back into life. As I said, I was an actress. Even so, I felt like a piece of me was missing. There was an empty hole created by a jagged knife in my center.
The play continued.
My mother and sister were fighting for their lives. And that’s what I focused on.
On a winter Sunday afternoon, eight months after my father was niftar, I was feeling overwhelmed by everything I had to get done in my house. The tasks seemed insurmountable. Then the phone rang. It was Esti. She asked me to come visit her in Passaic. I dropped everything and ran. I went to her apartment and stayed with her for a while, a bit confused. There didn’t seem to be any reason why she’d called me.
The next day, Monday, she was hospitalized, and on Wednesday night she returned her pure neshamah to Hashem.
I’m forever grateful that she called me to come over that day. It was a goodbye of sorts.
I went to be with Esti for those last two days in the hospital. As I sat there with her, there was one thing I so badly wanted to tell her: “Esti, I’m pregnant.” I’d recently had a miscarriage, and Esti knew how devastated I’d been. But how could I tell her this? “Ha, ha, Esti, you’re dying, but I’m having a baby!” It just didn’t feel right, and I never told her.
But eight months later, when I gave birth to a beautiful little girl, we named her after my sister, adding on the name Ahuvah. Because Esti, no matter what, I’ll never stop loving you.
The summer was drawing to an end, and my mother started getting nervous about Rosh Hashanah. She didn’t want to spend the Yom Tov alone, but she was too weak to travel to her married children. We weren’t sure what to do. “Ma, don’t worry,” I told her, “we won’t leave you alone. We’ll figure something out.”
Two weeks before Yom Tov, I stood next to her hospital bed and whispered, “See, Ma, you didn’t need to worry about Rosh Hashanah.” At the age of 58, my beloved mother was nifteres.
I came back home after sitting shivah for my mother and people asked me, “How do you go on? How can you still smile?”
I didn’t really understand the question. Did I have a choice? Did I want to walk around moping all day? Aren’t we all resilient? Don’t we all do what we need to do?
We’re all resilient. Hashem gives us special koach to deal with the nisyonos we’re given. And yes, that’s what enables us to rise above our pain and do what it is that we need to do.
But there’s also a time for everything. Hashem gives us time to grieve.
And truthfully, I didn’t know how to grieve. For five years, I’d just been in survival mode, coping with one tragedy after another. I never had the space to grieve because I needed to focus on helping the next person survive.
The pain was so great, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I kind of wrapped it up in a box and closed it up very tightly. I didn’t let it come out. I just pushed myself to do and do. I didn’t let myself truly mourn. But because of that, I lost out on giving myself a year to mourn and grieve and feel and cry.
So yes, maybe I looked like this strong person who could jump right back into things. But it wasn’t strength. Jumping right back into things isn’t the Torah way. And I hurt myself in the process. I became someone who I wasn’t. I didn’t like the new me. And yet, I didn’t know how to get the old me back.
I was stuck in self-pity. After all — who went through everything that I went through? Probably no one. So I took my pain and put it on a pedestal. I was higher than everyone. And no one could get to close to me.
My friends wanted to be there for me. But how could they be there if I didn’t let them? And how could I let them if I was sure they could never understand my pain? It was way more than anything they ever experienced, so I held them at arm’s length. My message was, “Don’t come too close because you don’t get me.”
Because I was so afraid of letting people know my true pain, I became very sarcastic. I’d never known that I could be so sharp and witty… and hurtful.
Like when a friend asked what my Yom Tov plans were. “Oh, I’m going to my mother… wait, nope, she’s dead. I guess it’ll be only my father — oops, he’s also dead. I can invite my sister over… oh, right, that won’t work either, she’s also dead.”
People would look at me with a shocked expression and take a step back. They felt silly and confused. Really, they’d asked an innocent question. But it didn’t feel innocent to me — it felt so intrusive. And I responded with answers that hid my pain, that kept people away from me, that ensured they wouldn’t ask these questions again.
Five weeks after my mother’s petirah my sister had twin girls. One was named after my mother, and the other was named after my sister. When I met a neighbor, she smiled at me warmly and said, “So what are the twins’ names?”
“You don’t really care,” I retorted. “You just want to know if they’re named after my mother and sister.” And I walked off without telling her their names.
Later, someone told me that my neighbor had gone home and burst into tears. I felt terrible, and I went over to apologize.
I also realized something: I didn’t want to be a nasty person — and I was harming myself by erecting so many walls around me. It was time to stop building these walls.
One day my close friend Tzirel* gently told me, “Miriam, you shoot daggers. No one knows what’s okay to say and what isn’t okay. If we try to show sympathy, you tell us that sympathy is not what you want. If we offer physical help, you tell us that you’re managing. If we try to understand you, you tell us that we’ll never get it. Really, we all want to be here for you. It’s important for you to learn to accept our empathy.”
But then she continued. “This is a part of your avodas Hashem. When you try to keep all your friends away it comes off as gaavah. You think you’re good on your own. You don’t need people to help you through this. But didn’t Hashem give you the gift of friends? You’re throwing Hashems’ gift away. ”
I responded I know you all want to be here for me. And I appreciate it. Really, I do. But you can’t understand me. None of you went through one loss, never mind multiple losses.
My very smart friend wasn’t fazed by my self-pity. She explained to me that if I put my pain on a pedestal then everything gets filtered through it. There is no empathy for others because my pain is always the worst. There was also no room for Hashem over there — only my pain and my self-absorption.
She had a good point. I also realized another thing: everyone at some point feels pain. My friends could draw on their own experience of pain to feel mine.
Eventually, I was ready; ready to accept my friends’ empathy and ready to be able to give empathy back when someone needed it.
I also realized that when I didn’t open up to anyone, when I kept my feelings closed up tightly in a box, I was in isolation mode. Emotionally, I’d be in some remote corner of the world where no one could reach me. No one could access my feelings. Even I didn’t have access to them.
And if I was numb like that, unable to connect to anyone, I certainly couldn’t connect to Hashem, either. I might daven, but there was no real feeling there. When I opened up and shared the deep pain inside of me, I felt lighter, like I’d just shed a couple sacks of potatoes. I was able to connect to Hashem much more.
Relearning how to connect with my friends didn’t mean I had to answer every question that came my way (and there were plenty of gossipy questions). But I learned that I could decide how much I felt comfortable sharing. It’s still a learning curve, and I’m not great at saying, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about this”— but I’m getting there.
I often get phone calls asking for advice on how to deal with a friend who has a very sick parent. If you have that sort of close relationship, you can share what I’ve learned: Don’t be scared of vulnerable conversations; share what’s on your mind. You don’t want to be left regretting opportunities that will never come again. Share what you want the other person to know.
I wish I’d known this. I remember sitting in the hospital waiting room with Esti when she told me, “It doesn’t really matter — I’m going to die anyway.” I didn’t know how to reply to that. Should I say, “Don’t be silly, of course you’re not going to die”? Or maybe, “You don’t have to worry — you’re such a good person, I know you’ll have wonderful Olam Haba.” Neither seemed quite right.
Looking back, I wish I’d said, “Esti, I’m so scared of you dying. How will I go on without you? I’ll miss you so, so much.” That would have been a beautiful, open moment for us.
Then there was the time my mother called me up, hysterical, after getting back test results. The doctor had told her, “I’ll do everything I can, but the cancer is everywhere. You don’t have much time left.” I still remember exactly where I was standing, and the confused thoughts that raced through my head. What should I say? How can I comfort her?
How I wish I hadn’t tried to comfort her. I wish I’d just said, “Mommy, I’m so scared. I can’t imagine how you feel. I wish I could be with you now.”
These opportunities are lost. I can never get them back. But I learned from them.
Learning to share my feelings openly also taught me how to better express sincere appreciation to those who have helped me out. Instead of saying a simple thank you, I now say, I was really fearful of how this would work out for me, or I was really afraid about the struggles my child was having. You’ve helped me so much. I would have been lost without your help. Thank you, I appreciate it so much.
And I see that when I can express myself more honestly, I feel so much better inside. There’s a certain serene feeling inside of me when I can be so honest with someone. There’s something so right with letting my inside peek outside. And it makes people feel good. Not fearing being emotionally open seems to really help my bein adam l’chaveiro.
I also try to grasp the opportunities I have. My grandmother lives a two-hour flight away. I haven’t seen her in a while, so I just booked tickets to go visit her. It isn’t easy for me to leave my family, lose out on work hours, purchase a plane ticket. But I know that spending precious time with my bubby is an opportunity I don’t want to miss.
When a person goes through terrible suffering, it’s easy to scream and say, “Hashem, why? What are you doing this for?” But I believe that most people going through nisyonos will come around and recognize that fighting Hashem doesn’t help. We need to rely on Him more than ever. And if we so choose, we can see how much He helps us, even during our most painful moments.
I can’t possibly understand why Hashem took so much of my family from me. But I know that there’s a reason. Not just for the losses, but for each experience I went through. They were all tailor made for me. If my sisters would be writing this, they’d have a slightly different story. Because with all the similarities, we each have our own story.
When I started turning to Hashem more and recognizing all the good that He was doing for me, I saw how He was taking care of me. Because I see all the kindnesses that He has done for me, I can accept that I don’t understand His ways. I know that He cares about me. And even in painful times, He does what He can to help ease my pain.
Overcoming my guilt also helped me get to this place. Because, no matter how dedicated a child may be to a parent, after a parent dies there’s always guilt. And in my case, I was sure the guilt was warranted.
My mother clicked well with her doctor, and he really cared about her and wanted to see her cured. Unfortunately, he moved out of state, and my mother stayed with the practice, switching to another doctor. It took us too long to realize that this doctor couldn’t care less whether my mother recovered or not. I finally woke up one day while visiting her and said, “Why are you still with this doctor? He isn’t taking your illness seriously enough.”
My mother’s simple answer was that she was too weak to start looking for a new doctor. I did it for her. And I found a doctor that was kind, caring, and competent. She did switch, but at that point it was too late.
If only I would have realized earlier that my mother’s doctor wasn’t good!
I spent the last few days of my mother’s life with her in the hospital. The second night I was sleeping next to her, sitting up in a chair, she woke me up at around three a.m. She was having difficulty breathing because of the water around her lungs.
“Miriam,” she said. “I can’t do this anymore. You must do something.”
I said, “Ooish, Ma, I feel so bad. I wish I could do something,” and promptly fell back asleep.
Baruch Hashem, my aunt was there. She went to the nurse and asked if there was anything to be done. There was. The nurse gave her something, and she felt better. My mother was dying, she was miserably uncomfortable, and I just went back to sleep. How awful was I? My mother suffered more, all because of me.
I tormented myself with these thoughts until one day my dear friend Henni said to me, “You know, you don’t really believe in Hashem.”
“Yes,” she said. “You attribute too much power to yourself. Your mother didn’t suffer one second more than she was supposed to. She didn’t live for one second less than she was supposed to. You not finding a different doctor, or you falling back asleep at 3:00 in the morning after a few crazy days doesn’t make you a terrible daughter. It makes you human. Give control over to Hashem. Because after all, He has it anyway.”
That conversation was a big eye-opener. She was right. I really didn’t want to be in control of my life. I feel much safer letting Hashem have full control. And the more I gave control over to Hashem, the more I felt how much He cared for me.
I used to run my life like a clock. This is my schedule for the day and nothing can get in my way. But what happens when my plan is challenged by a sick child? I used to panic. I can’t take off. What should I do? Help!
Today I can take a deep breath and say I thought today I was going to do these errands and work for x number of hours. But Hashem is telling me that no, today I’ll stay home and take care of my sick child. Because I’m not in control. I didn’t make my child sick. It’s Hashem’s plan, and it is the best plan. Why fight what’s best? It’s an approach I work on constantly.
Shortly after she got married, Esti and I were schmoozing on the phone, and she let out a sigh and said, “Oish, I wish I could have just one child. I know I can’t have a big family, but I’m feeling strong, and I wish I could have just one baby.”
Now, whenever I feel overwhelmed by responsibilities as a working wife and mother, I hear Esti whisper, “Just one child.” And I look at my children, and I’m so grateful for them and the chaos they bring. I remember how Esti wanted to experiment with cooking delicious dishes for her new husband, but she had no energy. Her pots remained as shiny as the day she got them. And then I take a deep breath and say, “Hashem, you’ve showered Your brachos on me. Thank you.”
When I was in the shloshim for my sister and the year of aveilus for my father, I was on my way to pick up my children from playgroup when I stopped for a school bus. The driver motioned with his hand, and I assumed he was telling me to go ahead. I thought he was being nice by letting me go before he turned, saving me sitting in traffic.
I started going, and he lurched forward and began beeping like a madman and yelling at me for the audacity of continuing when the bus had the stop sign out. He didn’t even give me the chance to say, “I’m sorry. I thought you waved at me to go. I’d never bypass a school bus stop sign.” He just yelled and yelled and yelled.
I don’t need to tell you what a sensitive state I was in. I pulled over to the side of the road and cried. My thoughts went to what a horrible person he is. He might look frum but he obviously majorly lacks middos. He has a huge temper. Nebach on his wife and children. He must be an awful husband and father.
It took a long time, many years, for the resentment I felt toward this nameless person to dissipate. But one day I realized that just as he had no idea what my story was, I had no idea what his story is. It could be he was also having a very hard time with something in his life. Maybe he had a sick parent or child. Maybe his shalom bayis was suffering terribly, and he was petrified of what would be. Or maybe he really did have a temper that he needed to work on.
I couldn’t, shouldn’t judge him for lacking. We all lack somewhere. And that helped to bring me to a place of no judgement.
I was recently at a wedding. As I finished the conversation that I was having, I turned around and saw a beautiful scene: grandparents with multitudes of grandchildren ka”h, all standing around them, smiling beautifully as the photographer captured the moment forever.
The pain bubbled up in me fiercely. My parents never made it to a grandchild’s bar mitzvah. Forget about a wedding. I want my parents to be with me as I, im yirtzeh Hashem, marry off my own children. And I really want my brother and sister in my life. I wish they had children. I wish so badly…
Looking at that beautiful scene really hurt.
The hurt will never completely go away. And I won’t fight it. I’ll share it. I’ll write about it. I’ll accept it. Because this is what Hashem has chosen for me. And I won’t fight Him anymore.
During one of the shivahs, a chashuve person explained to us that before being born, our neshamah knows all the challenges it will have. And it accepts those challenges.
“But does a neshamah understand emotions?” I countered. “Did my neshamah understand the pain, the hurt, the yearning and longing that would become part of me?”
“Yes,” he answered. “The neshamah understood that.”
“But what if the neshamah says, ‘No. I can’t go through all of that?’” I asked.
“Then the neshamah wouldn’t be born. But it never happens like that. Because the neshamah can see the larger picture. It can see what is best.”
My neshamah understood that this suffering is the best thing for me. It accepted the challenge. And so do I.
When Covid hit and I heard about loss after loss, about young fathers and young mothers leaving behind spouses and children, I felt the tangible pain of those who lost a family member. And one day I said, “I have what to offer,” and decided to share my story. I feel confident that at this point in my life, I can be mechazek those suffering from loss.
If my story leaves you feeling depressed, come visit me. You’ll see a happy home. You’ll see me talking and laughing with my family. You’ll see that I have a life full of brachah. (And if you’re willing to find it, I am sure that your life is full of brachah as well.)
Yes, I have a lot of pain. And sometimes it may get triggered, and it will hurt so badly. But my parents had a home that was permeated with simchah. And I’m determined to carry that legacy forward.
Please don’t let my story bring you down. Please find the uplifting parts in it. Because if you can, I’ll know that I bared my soul on these pages for a reason.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 751)
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