As Told to Rochel Burstyn
When four frum women in Detroit were touched by trial or tragedy, they used the experience as an impetus to better the lives of others
A Cancer survivor and her busy mother, a mother of a thriving preemie, and a grieving young mom got together in Detroit, Michigan; the shadows of their experiences sparked ideas which swirled together, growing, taking form. Together, they share their stories…
here it was again. I rested my hands on my bump. After six kids there was no doubt.
But… how could I be in labor?
In the ER they administered magnesium but the contractions came faster harder.
Dr. Horowitz studied the printout recording of my contractions with a worried look.
My doctor was nervous? I started panicking. I didn’t know anything about preemies never had reason to do research didn’t know the survival statistics.
“Looks like your baby’s coming. We’re giving you steroids to help his lungs grow faster.”
Before I could respond the steady clop-clop of the baby’s heartbeat that filled the room changed pace. Nurses appeared expressions grim the doctor shouted for an ultrasound and someone quickly explained: The baby had turned sideways and he was so small — now a caesarean was necessary.
Everything became a blur. I was prepped then wheeled to surgery where my mother sat by my head and spoke soothingly reminding me that my precious baby was about to be born that Hashem was with me that this was a spiritual moment telling me names of people to daven for.
And then he was lifted out into the world all three pounds and 16 inches of him… 11 weeks before my due date.
The next day sore but eager to see my baby I was pushed in a wheelchair to the NICU. The baby looked half-baked like an almost-baby. I wasn’t allowed to hold him until the next day.
At first I couldn’t figure out how to pick him up; my hands looked too big. The nurse lifted him into my hands showed me how to hold him and tucked him inside my shirt his skin on mine. Terms I’d never experienced before became part of everyday conversations: jaundice bilirubin lights heart monitor oxygen incubator.
Each day I’d get my kids off to school then rush to the hospital to hold Baby switching shifts with my mother or husband so I’d be home for baths and supper time. Days turned into weeks.
And then — a miracle! The day arrived! Baby could breathe on his own hold his body temperature and drink from his tiny bottle. He could come home! My kids were breathless with excitement my husband and I euphoric.
Even though Baby was home the scare wasn’t over. One day I walked past him small in his infant car seat and I screamed. He was blue nearly lifeless. I grabbed him instinctively blew into his mouth and pressed his chest while yelling for my daughter to call an ambulance. Baby started breathing minutes before the ambulance pulled up. He’d contracted a dangerous virus and was hospitalized with steroids a nebulizer and medication for yet another week.
Afterward my husband and I and our three oldest kids took a CPR class. Now we’re always prepared though hopefully we won’t ever need to use this knowledge.
sty stirred and opened her eyes.
“What did the doctor say?” Her voice was thick and groggy.
My heart sank. Even though I’d prepared for this moment, assuring the surgeon that I would tell my daughter, words still eluded me. How do you tell your beautiful daughter that the doctors were wrong, that the tumor they’d said was benign and claimed could be removed with surgery, was worse than they thought and could not be taken out?
“It doesn’t look good,” I told her.
“It’s good I didn’t come home for Pesach,” Esty said. “Because I would have seen the doctor about that weird pain in my arm… and then I wouldn’t have finished seminary.”
It’s true, she wouldn’t have gone back — and it had been such a wonderful year. And look at her. Fresh out of seminary, so inspired, so comfortable with herself and her Yiddishkeit. I’d watched as she’d been wheeled in for surgery, her iPod blaring the recorded bitachon lectures of her seminary teachers.
The doctor called a few days later with the exact diagnosis: Ewing sarcoma of the chest wall, a soft-tissue tumor lodged near her armpit. Cancer.
Outwardly, I remained strong, saving my fear and dread for my tear-soaked pillow.
Instead of typical post-sem milestones, like camp and a job, the treatment protocol began: weeks of consultations, scans, and tests. Then chemotherapy and radiation.
When Esty realized her hair was starting to fall out, she tearfully asked me to give her an “upsheren.” She didn’t want the long strands to get all over the place.
A year of treatments followed: appointments, running to doctors, racing to the emergency room at the slightest hint of infection. In between treatments and appointments, I gave birth to my 11th child, who brought comfort to Esty. She held her younger sister for hours as she recuperated.
At first we wanted to keep our struggles private. We didn’t want people to talk about us, wanted to avoid that “nebach” look, but Esty’s sem friends were calling and were perplexed that she wasn’t calling back. Finally, we decided it wasn’t a secret. It was a relief to talk openly about our difficult nisayon.
Esty’s friends, eager to help, spent the long nights with Esty in the hospital. In the mornings, my husband davened early, then went to the hospital while I got my other kids off to school. Daily, the kids said, “Bye, Ma! I love you! Are you going to be home when I get back from school today?” I knew they needed me, but I couldn’t always be there; I tried to be consistently honest so they’d know what to expect. I’d spend the day either looking after Esty as an inpatient or sitting in the clinic waiting room, awaiting checkups and blood transfusions.
Despite the fact that my mind and body were always being tugged in two directions, my household limped along. Errands were done. Hot dinners were delivered every night. Once, I told the meal coordinator, “Sometimes I’m home, so I could—”
Before I’d even finished, she told me it was easier to organize a roster of meals without interruptions and if they made a meal when I wasn’t busy with Esty, and I had a chance to simply breathe, they were perfectly happy with that.
My babysitter insisted I send my baby to her full-time. Months later, when I offered her money, she refused it. The principal urged me to take off the year, but held my job.
Between the carpools, neighbors, big brother/sister programs, other chesed programs and organizations, we were covered. The Tehillim said, donations made, and mitzvos undertaken in Esty’s merit were also greatly appreciated.
Finally, baruch Hashem, Esty had her last treatment. Life is supposed to go back to normal and we’re trying… but it’s not as simple as it sounds. We’ve all been through so much.
Sheina Rivkah Bennish
’m huge. I feel like a beached whale.
I said these lines with joy and anticipation. I was 42 weeks along and hoping for a natural birth after my complicated caesarean with my oldest, my three-year-old son.
Monday morning, I woke up feeling surprisingly well-rested and energized. It was the day of my scheduled induction and I was so ready to give birth, to fill my apartment with baby clothes, diapers, the darling sound of a baby cooing, the smell of a freshly shampooed baby, to watch my little boy become a big brother.
At my appointment, the doctor took out the Doppler, moved it around my stomach while I waited for the sound I’d come to love.
A nurse rolled in the ultrasound machine, and then my perfect pregnancy shrieked to an abrupt end.
“I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat.”
Total shock. Horror.
At the hospital, I began labor and after 12 hours, I naturally birthed my beautiful daughter, eight pounds, five ounces. There were no calls of congratulations, no newborn cry. The room was silent.
It was the second day of Chanukah but there were no miracles in my room. My baby had ten perfect fingers, ten perfect toes, was healthy in every way, except… her heart didn’t pump.
A red-eyed nurse washed the baby, wrapped her in a blanket, put a hat on her sweet head, and placed her in my arms. She was gorgeous, the baby I’d longed for, the baby I’d been praying for, and every fiber of my being ached with my new reality. She wasn’t coming home with me.
The nurses offered professional photography, free of charge.I held my baby for as long as possible.
Without her lungs breathing in oxygen, her skin turned bluer by the second.
Then the chevra kaddisha came. The nurse held me as I watched the men cover my baby and wheel her out of the room, taking her to her final resting place. Then the nurse left, too, and the delivery room was empty, hauntingly quiet.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. My arms longed to hold my baby, I was ready to nurse, prepared for the late-night feedings; I wanted to watch her grow, celebrate the first time she’d roll over, her first tooth, her first step.
My friends visited, not knowing what to say; they made meals for my family. Well-meaning people reached out, some by telling me about their first-trimester miscarriages. I realize they were trying to connect with me, to share their painful losses, and though I appreciated their efforts, it somehow made me feel lonelier than ever. I simply didn’t know anyone else who had buried a perfect full-term baby.
Others tried to reassure me, “You’ll have more children.” That hurt. I wanted this baby. I loved this baby.
It seems as if babies are everywhere, that Hashem punished me alone. I feel empty, undeserving, enveloped with a constant raw, gut-wrenching grief as I mourn for my precious daughter and what should have been.
Emunah is a daily battle. Why would Hashem give me the greatest gift, and then snatch it away at the last second?
It’s hard work to smile, to remember that I really am blessed, to focus on what I have.
I can’t imagine ever being happy again.
‘m done with taking.
Every day I’m feeling stronger, and I’m overwhelmed with appreciation to Hashem, my family, my community. Now I want to give back, pay it forward.
When I heard that Devorah Seyburn had a baby 17 weeks early, I called her to see how I could help. I heard the hesitation in her voice and I understood; she was overwhelmed and needed the help, desperately, but didn’t want to be a burden.
I told her that what goes around, comes around; that those taking today will give tomorrow, that it was my turn to help — please let me!
Devorah saw I meant it. Everyone can see I mean it. Now, much to my delight, many people feel comfortable asking me for help whenever they need it.
aby had a bris! My grandfather’s name fits him perfectly: Tzemach means growth and Naftali alludes to swiftness. Baruch Hashem, Tzemach Naftali is meeting his milestones and is growing into a cute, chubby baby. The only lingering symptom of his early start is asthma-like breathing when he has a cold.
Things have settled down. In retrospect, I’m amazed that my house kept functioning during those months when I spent so much time in the hospital — my family kept eating and wearing clean clothes, my kids went off to school regularly, homework was done. I’m so grateful to my parents and mother-in-law, and my wonderful community.
My breath catches when I remember how a friend bought me lunch one day. It might sound like nothing, but after subsisting on grab-and-go meals for weeks on end, her tuna sandwich and milkshake enveloped me with warmth I can barely explain.
One day, I heard that an acquaintance, Devorah Seyburn, had a preemie. Wanting to share that warmth, I called and offered to bring her lunch.
Devorah said, ‘Only if you bring one for yourself, too.’
Armed with two lunches, I made the familiar drive again, so grateful that Tzemach was home and thriving, so eager to pass on what I’d received. I gave Devorah her lunch.
“Oh, that looks good,” came a wistful voice. It was another mother, also holding her baby.
I gave my lunch to her, and as I watched the two hungry mothers dig in, I couldn’t stop the smile that spread over my face. The beginnings of an idea sprouted.
In subsequent conversations with Devorah, I’d hear her mention Esty, who was picking up her groceries and running her errands. A girl who wants to give, I thought. I must contact her.
Sheina Rivkah Bennish
’m in tears. The end is in sight.
I’ve felt like I was in a bottomless pit, that everyone got their happy endings except for me, but I’ve been offered a lifeline. Miriam just asked if I want to work on her idea in honor of my stillborn baby. The opportunity to give to others who are in pain, to channel my sorrow into something meaningful, to do chesed that my daughter will never be able to do, has given my life new light.
I’m jumping into this project with all my heart and soul, giving it everything I’ve got, wishing away every mother’s pain, hoping to help, even just a tiny bit, to bring comfort to every worried mother.
And Then There Were Four
o a cancer survivor and her busy mother, a mother of a thriving preemie, and a grieving young mom got together in Detroit, Michigan; the shadows of their experiences sparked ideas, which swirled together, growing, taking form.
Jobs were divided: Sheina Rivkah compiled the volunteer database, created an online presence, and began fundraising. Miriam emptied her freezer for the program’s use, provided coolers, designed business cards and fliers, and posted them around town. Her hospital chaplain husband pitched in with raising awareness — he urges patients to call his wife.
Tova is the technical coordinator. She often hears about hospitalizations first and galvanizes the others into action. She inquires about kashrus, allergies, and other considerations. Sheina Rivkah then taps into their large database of volunteers and finds a cook and a driver. Esty, ever reliable and brimming with ideas, is always available for errands, the many pickups, drop-offs, and odd jobs involved in any flourishing chesed organization.
The fact that each woman comes from different segments of the community helped get the word out: Any parent with a child (or any loved one — they’re not fussy) in the hospital can receive a hot, nutritious lunch, straight to the child’s bedside. Confidentiality is assured; once, a volunteer cook made lunch for her own neighbor, without either knowing the identity of the other.
To some, this initiative might sound small, but for Detroit, this was a game-changer. Nothing like it had ever been done before.
The program has flourished, surpassing everyone’s expectations. Local caterers Jerusalem Pizza and Y2K pledged meals, and Papergoods Plus donated paper goods, wrapped beautifully in individual sets.
Care packages are prepared for parents, and gift packages for sick kids. A microwave, kettle, and toaster oven were purchased to be used by those with longer stays.
Giving can be a route to healing. Sheina Rivkah admits that working on the lunch program is bittersweet. Though she’s proud that she’s managed to turn her pain into something positive, each lunch is a tangible reminder of why she’s doing it, of her loss. Still, she’s glad to be setting an example for her son how to handle the punch-in-the-gut curveballs that get thrown at us in life.
Sometimes the group runs into an issue: parents who wave away their offers, not wanting to accept chesed, hating to inconvenience anyone. That’s when Tova uses the sensitivity sharpened by experience to reassure them that it’s genuinely not a bother; she promises that people are sincerely glad to help in a tangible way.
Miriam also remembers how awkward she felt accepting help when Tzemach was born. But she found that it was her acceptance, her willingness to take graciously back then, that enhanced her ability to give back now with more compassion and appreciation than she could have ever imagined. Whenever Miriam cooks or delivers lunch for a parent, she finds herself smiling — her entire day has a special lift.
The ladies often reflect on the fact that they’re not helping the same people who helped them, but those they’re helping will perhaps later want to pay the chesed forward to yet other people, and the ripples of giving will spread through the community.
As Esty says simply, “Chesed is the essence of Klal Yisrael — we need it to survive.”
*Tova and Esty’s names have been changed.
(Originally featured in Family First Issue 502)