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In Her Shoes

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t was several weeks before my younger sister’s wedding and my wife Tamar and I had booked tickets to fly in from Eretz Yisrael with our three little boys ages seven five and two.

We hadn’t left Eretz Yisrael in five years and we were really excited to finally visit our relatives in America. In advance of our trip Tamar being the perfectionist that she is had prepared meticulous lists of where we would go whom we would visit and what we would do. Everything had been planned perfectly with no detail overlooked.

As part of our trip preparations Tamar who was three months pregnant at the time went for a checkup and ultrasound. With three complicated births and a miscarriage behind her she wanted to make sure everything was okay before she boarded the plane.

When she called me at work to tell me that the ultrasound technician was concerned about something and was sending her to the hospital for further testing I told her I was coming right over.

“I’m fine Aryeh ” she assured me. “You don’t have to leave work. I don’t think it’s anything serious.”

I’m the type of husband who’s there for his wife though and there was no way I was leaving her to deal with this by herself. “I’ll be there as soon as I can ” I said.

The first doctor we met with at the hospital told us very nonchalantly that Tamar had placenta previa a condition that would necessitate a caesarean delivery. Having been through a caesarean before Tamar didn’t think it was such a big deal.

“We’re supposed to fly to America next week for my sister-in-law’s wedding ” she told the doctor. “It’s okay for me to travel right?”

The doctor looked at her strangely. “No ” she said. “You’re not going anywhere right now.”

That’s when we started to realize that something was very wrong. But we didn’t yet understand the full gravity of the situation.

“I guess you’ll have to cancel my ticket and take the kids yourself ” Tamar said glumly.

“Are you kidding?” I exclaimed. “I’m staying right here.”

“You can’t miss your sister’s wedding!” she protested.

But within a very short time missing my sister’s wedding became the last thing on my mind.

After that meeting with the first doctor we were sent to confer with two specialists in the department who informed us that not only was the pregnancy at risk Tamar’s life was actually in severe danger because the pregnancy had invaded surrounding areas and compromised major blood vessels (a rare condition known as placenta percreta). They urged us to terminate the pregnancy but added that even if we did Tamar would probably not survive the procedure.

We immediately called our rav who advised us to stay put and follow the instructions of the medical staff. “They know what they’re doing in that hospital ” he said.

That evening I left Tamar in the hospital and went home to take care of our kids who had spent the afternoon at the home of Tamar’s sister who was due to give birth that week. When I finally got into bed at 1 a.m. I burst out crying for the first time in my adult life and continued sobbing for an hour and a half. “Ribbono Shel Olam ” I screamed “just fix it! I don’t know how You’re going to do that but fix it! My children need a mother! I need a wife!”

With Tamar in the hospital and major medical decisions needing to be made we desperately needed someone to support and guide us through the decision-making process and stabilize the environment for the kids. We needed a mother. I called up my mother and said “Ma I need to you come.”

Never before would I have dreamed of making such a request. Tamar and I had never asked for any financial support from our parents, and from day one we had worked hard to support ourselves, first as a young couple and then as a growing family. We weren’t the type to ask for help. And my mother was marrying off her first daughter two weeks later. But she dropped everything and came for a week to help us get through Tamar’s surgery.

The surgery didn’t happen that week, however. So rare and complex was Tamar’s condition that the doctors at the hospital couldn’t agree how to proceed. Some felt that the surgery should be done immediately; others felt that it would be safer to operate later in the pregnancy.

I sought guidance from a leading medical referral askan, who urged us to see a top specialist at a different hospital and follow his recommendations. When we first met this specialist, a frum man with a long beard, he assured us that we had nothing to worry about, that everything would be okay. But ten minutes later, after he had reviewed the ultrasound images carefully, his tune was very different.

“Sometimes we have choices,” he said soberly, “and sometimes we don’t. This is a situation of pikuach nefesh. It’s not something you get to decide. You need to be in surgery within the next 24 hours.”

Surgery meant we would lose the baby, and probably any chance at having more children. Hopefully, Tamar would survive.

Considering the danger to Tamar’s life, the rabbanim we spoke to told us to proceed with the surgery immediately.

But the surgery couldn’t be performed immediately, due to a silly technicality. We had entered the second hospital through the public healthcare system, and a new hospital protocol blocked us from hiring a private doctor of our choice within that hospital. We needed a top surgeon, however, and we weren’t willing to have the hospital assign a random surgeon to us.

The medical referral askan who was guiding us told us to go home and wait until he could arrange a surgery date. For the next three days, we waited on tenterhooks while he tried pulling strings to circumvent the hospital’s policy, but to no avail. The hospital steadfastly refused to allow us to use a private doctor.

With Tamar’s life in jeopardy, the askan advised us to go back to the first hospital. He gave us the name of a specialist he trusted at that hospital, and we arranged to see him privately.

This specialist, Dr. Gordin, had a slightly different take on the situation.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” he told Tamar. “Your condition isn’t simple. You have no choice but to do surgery, because you’re liable to suffer fatal internal bleeding at any moment. But the surgery itself can cause a life-threatening hemorrhage, so I’m not sure that it’s wise to rush into it right now. It may be better to wait a few weeks and see how the pregnancy continues to develop. During that time, we’ll keep this a contained emergency by having you under close medical supervision.”

Our rabbanim spoke to Dr. Gordin and conferred with other doctors extensively regarding our situation. The psak they issued was based on the fact that not enough research existed about Tamar’s condition to conclusively determine which was more dangerous, doing the surgery immediately or waiting until later in the pregnancy. “Wait,” they instructed us.

So we waited.

Tamar had to be on complete bed rest for the remainder of the pregnancy. How long that would be, no one knew.

Often, I would think to myself what I would do if the worst happened. Would I stay in Eretz Yisrael and raise my kids alone? Would I go back to America and move back into my mother’s house? Would I be on my own for the rest of my life? How would I raise my kids properly without a mother?

At a certain point, however, I realized that there really wasn’t any place in this situation for me to think about myself. I just had to go into emergency mode and block out the future.

In any event, I didn’t have much time to think. I had to be father and mother to our three kids, run the house singlehandedly, and take care of my wife — all while knowing that she and our unborn baby could die at any moment.

With expenses rapidly mounting, the salary from my full-day computer job wasn’t nearly enough to pay the bills. To supplement our income, I began doing data management at home early each morning from 3:45 a.m. until 6, when the kids awoke. I continued with that schedule for the next five months, sleeping no more than three-and-a-half hours a night, and often less.

Tamar was supposed to be hospitalized until the surgery, but because we live close to the hospital, Dr. Gordin allowed her to go home for several days at a time during the first few weeks, on condition she stayed in bed the entire time. When she was home, I tended to her every need, while keeping our rambunctious boys away from her. (“Don’t jump on Ima! Don’t jump on Ima!”) But for most of the next four months she was in the hospital. During that time I went to visit her almost every day, and I also brought the kids to visit her several times a week. Who knew how much longer she’d be around?

Tamar had always been a doer, and being forced into total inactivity was torture for her, especially since she knew her body was a ticking time bomb. She davened a lot and said plenty of Tehillim, but there’s only so much davening a person can do, and much of the day she spent watching videos, just to keep herself sane. To keep her occupied, I made sure to keep bringing her books, recorded shiurim, coloring books, and wool for crocheting. The nurses in the hospital taught her to crochet, and she made four blankets, one for each of the kids, including the unborn baby.

No matter how much I did, though, it was never enough. Tamar wanted to see the kids every day when she was in the hospital, and I simply couldn’t arrange that. Bringing the kids to see her meant rushing home from work at 4:30, picking up the kids, feeding them supper (sometimes fish sticks and French fries, sometimes meals from our friends and family), bathing them, dressing them in clean clothing, taking them to see her (“Don’t jump on Ima!”), bringing them back home, putting them in pajamas, getting them to sleep, and then cleaning up the house and dealing with the laundry. Oh, and also dealing with the kids’ fears and giving them much-needed reassurance.

“So do you think you can bring the kids today?” Tamar would ask.

“I can’t,” I would say apologetically. “I already brought them three times this week.”

“Oh,” she would say. “Don’t worry, I understand.”

You know when a husband asks a wife what’s bothering her and she’s says, “Nothing’s wrong”? “Don’t worry, I understand,” was in the same category. Tamar was laying in the hospital, bored, lonely, and terrified, and all she wanted was to spend time with her kids before she died. I felt like an ogre saying no.

With me in constant giving mode and Tamar in constant receiving mode, I felt as though I hardly existed anymore. It felt very selfish, but there were times when I just wanted someone to ask how I was feeling.

Everyone around us was offering to help, but the thought of taking help was anathema to us in the beginning. Seeing that I wasn’t managing, however, I called up my grandfather, who’s a distinguished and wise talmid chacham, and asked him what to do.

“Your avodah right now is to ask for help and take it,” he said. “Part of this nisayon is having to accept help from people.”

Humbly, I went back to the relatives, friends, and neighbors who had offered to help and said, “Yes, I need help.”

At the beginning, Tamar and I wanted to keep her condition private, so all we told people outside our immediate family was that she had to be on bed rest because she was having a dangerous pregnancy. After a while, however, keeping the details of the condition private became totally impractical. We needed tefillos, we needed brachos, we needed help.

The outpouring of chesed we experienced while Tamar was hospitalized was just incredible. Our relatives and people in the community did everything they could to lighten our burden. Neighbors and friends invited our kids over to play. One woman in the neighborhood came in a few times when I was out of the house and cleaned. Another woman came every Shabbos afternoon as well as several times during the week to take the kids to the park.

Lots of people sent us meals, but there was one woman in particular who outdid herself in this regard. She and her husband have very little money, but twice, she made us an entire Shabbos from start to finish. Every single thing she prepared for her own family, she sent us as well, down to the soup croutons, salad dressing, and grape juice. When her package arrived, you could see that she had put her whole neshamah into it. It was a whole different level of chesed, and we found it truly comforting.

All along, Tamar was able to turn to other women for support, but since men generally balk at talking about their feelings — what feelings? — I had a much harder time getting the support I needed. The only people I felt I could really talk to were my mother, my brothers, and two friends, one of whom would take me out for shawarma once a week. One of my brothers called or texted me practically every day to find out how I was doing, and I really, really appreciated that.

I needed more serious help, however. With the encouragement of my rav, I went to see a therapist who taught me how to process my emotions so that I could continue functioning. Growing up, I had internalized the socially accepted notion that the only emotions a man can experience are anger and stress. I had to learn that it’s okay to be afraid, it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to be in pain — and if we fight our emotions or run away from them, they get stored in the body and destroy us from the inside.

I’m the type of husband who likes bringing things to his wife and making her happy, so it wasn’t easy for me to say no to her, especially considering that there was so little I could do to comfort her under the circumstances. But I wasn’t Superman, and I couldn’t do it all.

It took tremendous work on my part to recognize my own limitations and be willing to accept help. It took even more work on Tamar’s part to acknowledge that I, too, had needs, and that just because she asked for something didn’t mean I had to drop everything and do it for her. She was so unused to being helpless and dependent that it was hard for her to ask for things, and when her requests were met with refusal she felt very hurt. This, in turn, made me feel inadequate as a husband.

Eventually, however, we both came to understand that it was okay for me to say no sometimes. Love, we learned, doesn’t require you to always say yes — it requires you to care about the other person enough to do what’s right, even if it’s uncomfortable.

At one point, we spoke to an adam gadol and asked him what the Ribbono shel Olam was trying to teach us through this experience. “The message,” he said, “is that right now you need to stop looking for deeper messages and just take care of yourselves physically.”

Initially, Dr. Gordin had told us he was planning to let the pregnancy go to a maximum of 23 weeks of gestation before operating. As the weeks went on, however, he extended this deadline again and again. “I can’t believe you’re still here!” some of the medical staff exclaimed to Tamar in horror each morning when they saw her.

“Even if your baby lives, it will be very, very sick,” one high-ranking doctor warned her during rounds. “Don’t wait to do the surgery.”

In the end, Dr. Gordin waited until 35 weeks of gestation to operate. The surgery was scheduled for Sunday, so I spent Shabbos with Tamar in the hospital, well aware that this might just be her last Shabbos in this world.

As expected, the surgery resulted in severe internal bleeding. Tamar lost 60 percent of her total blood volume and required four transfusions. But she made it out alive — and so did the baby!

After the birth, Tamar was thrilled to be able to move around and do things again. To everyone’s shock, she actually came to the bris, which was held right on schedule. I wanted her to be brought in a wheelchair, but she refused, so excited was she to finally be back on her feet.

I was so, so happy to have my wife back — and to finally be off the 24/7 duty I’d been on for the past five months. But then, two weeks after the baby was born, Tamar started having severe anxiety attacks. When these attacks hit, she would freeze up and go hide in her bed. She was afraid to be left alone, and couldn’t function at all.

I, on the other hand, was ready to move on with life. The danger was past us, we had a baby, he already had a bris and a name — could I please take a break? For five months, there had been a valid reason why Tamar couldn’t function. Now, I had to continue being Abba, Ima, and everything else, but for no good reason. That was much, much harder.

It’s been about Tamar for so long, I thought crossly. Can it be about Aryeh for a change? Can it be about the kids for a change?

I knew it wasn’t fair to think that way. But emotions aren’t fair.

Tamar was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She went for help, started doing a lot of exercise, and slowly, life returned to normal.

It’s a different normal, though. Tamar and I are still young, yet we’ll never have another baby. Each milestone our baby reaches — he’s now almost a year old — marks the last time we’ll reach that milestone as parents. We live in a small apartment with minimal storage space, yet Tamar can’t bring herself to give away any of the baby’s outgrown clothing.

And then there are the comments. When random people see us with our four boys, they often say things like, “next time you’ll have a girl,” or “these kids need a baby sister.”

These people have no way of knowing what we’ve been through, but still, their comments rankle. Why is it any of their business to tell us what our family should look like?

Overall, though, Tamar and I are beyond thankful. We have an adorable baby, against the predictions of the doctors. Tamar is back to her capable, efficient self, and we no longer need anyone’s help. My children have a mother, and I have a wife.

Because of what Tamar and I went through, our relationship is stronger and deeper than we could ever have dreamed. We have learned to appreciate life, family, and community. We have learned about fear, anger, sadness, and pain. But we have also learned the meaning of real happiness and gratitude.

Having stepped into my wife’s shoes for several months, I appreciate her today in a way that I think few husbands appreciate their wives. I know what it’s like to juggle kids, a house, a job, and a spouse who leaves socks on the floor. I know how she feels at the end of a long day of doing everything for everyone. Most importantly, I know how to say, “I can’t do it all. I need you.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 686)

The narrator can be contacted through LifeLines. To have your story retold by C. Saphir, e-mail a brief synopsis to lifelines@mishpacha.com or call +1.718.686.9339 extension 87204 and leave a message. Details will be changed to assure confidentiality.



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