I had called Esti on her office line on that Tuesday afternoon. Oftentimes when she was at work she didn’t answer the phone. It meant that she was probably in a meeting. During the workday she never answered her cell phone. So it didn’t make much sense that I even tried calling her on that phone. But what made even less sense was that she answered.
“Esti,” I said, “why are you answering this phone? How come you’re not at work? Is everything okay?” And Esti, with her typical dry humor responded, “No, how did you hear already? I’m at the hospital. I just found out that my cancer came back.”
Looking back, I can tell you that I was very, very scared. But I think I became numb, and this helped me to continue functioning. She had made the decision not to tell my parents anything until she met with the doctor and had more details of her treatment plan. It was a very hard week for me. I was nervous and scared, and it was hard to pretend with my mother that everything was fine and normal.
By the time Friday rolled around, I was exhausted. I wanted to bench licht, plop on the couch and fall asleep. All I wanted was to run away from this nightmare. So when my mother called me close to Shabbos, I decided not to answer her call. I simply wasn’t in the mood of talking. But her message went something like this, “Miriam, I know you are busy. But this is an emergency. I must speak to you right away. Call me when you get this message.”
So I lunged for the phone and said, “Ma, is everything okay. What is going on?” And she responded, “Miriam, I don’t know how to say this. But I just came back from the doctor. I found out that I have cancer.”
The doctors were afraid that it had spread to her lungs. She was overpowered with fear as she awaited the results. Each time I spoke to her, I heard the fear in her voice. I felt so bad for her. And yet I knew something that she didn’t know yet. I knew something that would be even harder for her to deal with. I knew that my sister Esti had a really bad diagnosis, and it was going to devastate her.
Shushan Purim that year was the day of Esti’s appointment. Together we sat in a sterile, white, eerily silent room in Sloan Kettering. After what seemed like an endless wait, the doctor walked in. “Is this terminal?” she asked. “Am I going to die?” And without missing a beat he responded, “I never saw anyone live more than five years with this.”
I came home sad, scared and devastated. I wasn’t home too long when my mother called. And she sounded good. Really good. She was so relieved. She had just gotten back her results. No, it hadn’t spread to her lungs, and it looked like she would be okay! Although I was so happy for her, I couldn’t help but think, Ma, you have no idea what kind of phone call you are getting tonight.
It wasn’t too much later that she called me up hysterical. In a panicky voice her words burst forth, “Miriam, is Esti going to die? Am I going to lose another child?” I remember holding the phone and thinking, I am only 28 years old. How in the world am I supposed to know how to answer such a question?
But at that moment I made a decision. I decided that I would do whatever I possibly could to ease as much pain as possible. I will do anything I can to bring a little more comfort to my sick family members. I didn’t realize it, but essentially I was saying, “Hashem, I will let you have control of my life up until a certain point. I don’t much like what you have given me until now. So you can still control my life a little bit. But I will take over the rest. Because I need to make sure that my mother and sister have as little suffering as possible, and I trust myself more than I trust You.
There are many examples of where this attitude came in to play.
Whenever Esti had an emergency, she had an amazing support system of friends and relatives that would be by her side in seconds. But I was stuck feeling helpless in Lakewood. I needed to feel as if I was in control. So in a frenzied state I would call this friend and that relative. I had to feel like I was doing something, when in reality there was nothing I could do. The most beneficial thing would have been for me to daven. But I was so worked up, I couldn’t even sit still to daven. I had to take action to feel as if I could make a difference.
Shortly after she got married, she confided to me her desire for just one baby. “I know I can’t have a big family,” she said. And then her voce turned pleading, “But I wish I could have just one child of my own.” Immediately I went into high-speed doing mode. I called A Time and Bonei Olam for her. I wanted to get the process going – to see what I could do to help Esti have that baby.
Most sisters would make that initial phone call to help out a sick sister. There was nothing wrong with the fact that I wanted to help her out. The problem was that I “forgot” that Hashem is in charge. My mindset was what I could do. This is up to me. Once again my anxiety to provide her with a solution prevented me from davening.
My mother was in the hands of a really capable and caring doctor. One day he came to my mother with the news that he had accepted a job out of state. My mother asked him which doctor from the practice he would recommend for her to use going forward. He mentioned one doctor’s name, and that doctor became my mother’s new doctor.
But he was not a good doctor. He didn’t care. He didn’t invest enough of himself into his patients. And my mother started deteriorating under his care. It took a while until we realized that this doctor wasn’t doing enough for my mother. His cavalier attitude really seemed to be hindering my mother’s recovery. One day it hit me with a jolt that this doctor was not working. I said, “Ma, why are you still using this doctor? Let’s switch.” We did research, and my mother switched to a different doctor who practiced out of a different hospital.
After my mother’s petirah, I was left with such anger at myself. I thought that if I would have taken action earlier and my mother would have switched doctors sooner, then maybe she would have lived a few more months. I berated and scolded myself over and over again. I forgot that death is not in my hands, but in the hands of Hashem.
My mother was really not well. Someone had to go be with her. My sisters had both gone recently, and now it was my turn. I flew in and went straight from the airport to the hospital. I stayed there with her that night. The next day I was with her most of the day, only leaving to care for my baby. The following night I stayed with her again. I fell asleep sitting up in a chair right next to her bed.