Category Archives: Finding resilience

Finding Hope

Recently I was talking to a few friends, and the conversation turned to the word hope and its definition. I realized that for me the definition of hope is recognizing that regardless of what comes my way, I can be okay. I might have to work through the emotions of sadness, anger fear… but at the end I can be okay.

A few weeks before my mother died, she called me up. She had just gotten off the phone from the doctor. He had said to her, “I will do my best, but the cancer is all over. I don’t think that there is much I can do.”

She was scared, and she was devastated. She really didn’t want to die. I was on the way out to the grocery store when she called me up with this bitter news.

Once again I was left holding the phone, wondering how I was supposed to know what to say to my mother who was young, who wanted to live, but had just been given a death sentence. I answered something that was probably not so appropriate, but I had nothing better so say. “Ma,” I said, “you have three up there and three down here. Why are you so afraid to die?”

She answered and said, “I am not so afraid to die. I just feel so bad for the three of you down here.”

In her fear and in her pain she was focusing on how the three of us down here, still in this world, and her concern for us. She knew that we would be immensely affected by her passing. She knew that we would suffer terrible pangs of loss. She knew that continuing onward would be a painful journey for us.

Today I wish I could continue that conversation with her. I would tell her that yes, her absence and my father’s absence have left a terrible void in me. I feel bereft and lonely. I feel as if I am left without guidance. I miss them on a daily basis and even more so when there is a simchah or a yom tov.

But I yearn so deeply to continue the conversation with her.  I long to tell her how much she and my father have given me. Although I constantly mourn their absence, they haven’t left us with nothing. It is from them that I learned that we can go on, even with pain. We can go onward and feel joyful despite the pain that can arise at any given moment.  They left us with the gift of continuing onward. They have left us with the gift of hope.

What Does Hashem Want from Me Now? Learning to Let Go

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.

Beach Lessons

A few summers ago a friend called me up with what I thought was a preposterous idea. She wanted me to take a morning off and go with her to the beach. My morning schedule rose before my eyes. After the kids are off I need to clean up the bedrooms, clear up from breakfast, wash laundry, take care of some bills and phone calls, run a few errands, start preparing supper, etc.

For me it simply made no sense. There was no way I could just take a morning off. And then I stopped myself and thought it over. I work hard. Each day is a full day, centered on my family and their needs. Isn’t it okay to take some time for myself?

Suddenly I had visions of a beautiful sunny sky. Sparkling blue water and waves crashing at the shore. And I would be there by myself. At a private beach. With just myself and my friend.  No children going too far out, no toddler moaning because of an overturned sand castle and no baby crying for his bottle. This would be a vacation for me. A onetime, three-hour vacation. I decided to go for it.

And so the next morning I waved a cheery goodbye to my older children, dropped off the younger ones, and then I was ready for my well-deserved break. I quickly threw together my bathing cap, towel and water bottle, and we were off.

I felt like a young child as we parked the car and ran into the sand. It felt delicious to have the warm sand between our toes. We laughed and giggled as we came closer to the water. And like carefree children we shrieked in delight as we jumped into the crashing waves.

At first I felt a little intimidated by those large waves and hung back closer to the shore. I watched and admired my friend’s fearlessness as she gracefully jumped into each wave. Determined to make the most of my well-deserved break, I caught up to her and commented on her bravery for jumping into these large roaring waves. She laughingly replied that there is no need to fear; you just have to decide if you will let the wave ride you or if you will ride the wave. And then she jumped right into the oncoming wave.

For me the light moment suddenly took a more serious turn. How right she was. But not just about the waves in the ocean – also about the waves in our lives. We all have those bad days, those difficult moments and painful revelations.  It is so easy to sink into self-pity; it’s so easy to moan and groan about life’s unfairness. But it’s at such moments that we have to take an honest look at ourselves and ask, “What does Hashem want from me now?” It is at moments like these that we must draw strength from our realization that everything is from Hashem. If we trust in Him and do what we know He wants us to do, then we are not letting life’s waves ride us, but rather, we are riding the waves.

In between bobbing in and out of the waves I shared this thought with my friend. Before she could respond she went back down and under that strong, strong surf, only to resurface a moment later.

When she came up again, she laughingly said, “You see? At times you think you are going under, but you always come right back up.”

How true! Don’t we all feel like we are drowning sometimes? Aren’t we all familiar with that feeling of suffocation when painful waves of challenge overcome us? But as believing Jews, we are resilient. As long as we look inward, we are riding the waves, and we will come back up.

We continued frolicking in the ocean a little longer. We then came out and lay under the sun’s warm rays. We were peacefully relaxing as the seagulls flew around us, and once again I thought of Hashem’s strength. Only nine months before, Hurricane Sandy had rolled in, and these waves had turned ferocious, destroying almost everything in their path. Today the beach was a safe place to be. Today the sun was shining and beautiful. But Hashem could have just as easily made the weather cloudy and rainy, keeping us indoors. It really is true. We need to draw strength from Him because He can make anything happen. He can change difficult situations instantly.

We got home, and I went straight back to the mundane. But I felt light and invigorated. This vacation had done me good – in more ways than one.