While we hold our secrets close to our hearts, sometimes they slip out. Five stories
My dear friend, Sarah, was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer shortly after the birth of her second child. She didn’t want to worry her elderly parents, so she didn’t tell them. Nor did she tell her siblings who lived near them so they wouldn’t even accidentally find out. She certainly didn’t tell her friends.
Only her husband, a few siblings, and I knew. And the only reason I knew was because we were working together on our older friend’s sheva brachos shortly before she was scheduled for surgery. As we were preparing the day before the event, Sarah casually mentioned that she wouldn’t be there the following evening because there was something important she needed to take care of that couldn’t wait.
That’s all she said. But at that moment, I knew. I knew she was sick. I even knew she had cancer. I knew that the reason she wasn’t attending the party was because she’d be in Sloan Kettering undergoing a procedure. To this day, 25 years later, I still don’t know how I knew all that.
Sarah was sick for three years, in and out of the hospital for treatment, making up stories each time so her parents wouldn’t suspect anything. They didn’t live nearby and she made sure to schedule her visits to them with enough time between chemo sessions so she could keep up the charade.
It worked. They didn’t have a clue. Though she did tell me once, after a visit, that her father had asked what happened to her eyebrows. Since the chemo caused all her hair to fall out, she had no eyebrows. She penciled them in, but, I guess, not well enough. Still, despite questions like that here and there, neither her father nor her mother ever guessed what was really going on.
Which was exactly what Sarah wanted. She derived satisfaction, even strength, I think, from knowing she was protecting her parents. That’s the only way I can explain how she pulled off seeing them as frequently as she did while hiding the way she felt.
I knew she was often in tremendous pain. She suffered debilitating headaches for a while, a consequence of the cancer or the treatment — I’m not sure which; the treatment itself was so brutal. She assured her parents that her head pains were due to an eye infection that the doctor said would take time to heal. After chemotherapy treatments, she recuperated in her brother’s spacious basement apartment. She didn’t want her young children to see her sick either.
For those of us who did know the truth, it was torturous. I felt like a powerless bystander witnessing my formerly vibrant and fully alive friend slowly wither away. Even watching her rally and pretend everything was fine was painful to see. But, I reasoned, if she could put on a smile for one and all, how could I not? And if she could manage to keep her painful secret, how could I not?
During the last year of her illness, the rest of her siblings and their children were told. Sarah was so sick at that point that she required full-time care, and her looks had so radically deteriorated, only a blind person wouldn’t have noticed. In the two months that I didn’t see her (from the beginning to the end of the summer), she looked like she’d aged 25 years. It was then that she agreed to share the terrible news with her parents.
Sarah told me afterward that her mother was upset she wasn’t told earlier about her illness. “A mamma’s trerren” (a mother’s tears), she had remonstrated, are so powerful. Had she known sooner, she would’ve broken down the gates of Heaven on Sarah’s behalf.
Still, it was three years of not living in Gehinnom like the rest of the family, three years of not suffering while being forced to helplessly watch their youngest daughter in her torment, three years of permitting Sarah to feel in some ways like she was still a normal member of society — without people babying her and being overly solicitous of her (something she never ever wanted).
It was a hard call to make, and an even harder act to follow through on, and definitely not the right decision for everyone and every family.
But for Sarah, I believe, it was this sense of mission to spare her parents intense suffering that helped her to live and thrive as successfully as she did until she finally did succumb.
With her whole family around her.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 732)
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