June 17, 2000
I know I left you all in suspense (unless I happened to see you personally) about Timmi's trip to London. Well, it wasn't terrible but it wasn't worth it either. Unfortunately, the organizers of the trip, a secular group from the Tel Aviv area, not only failed to take account of the needs of religious kids but nonetheless very vigorously convinced Timmi to join the trip anyway. They actually gave her a hard time about missing the plane and not eating the unkosher food! They were aggressively defensive about the subject, for example asking Timmi why she wasn't eating particular food and when she said because it wasn't kosher, replying, "Well, no one said it would be kosher", or saying "What, you expected an entire planeload of people to wait just for you?" (after she was told by the organizers to come as soon as Shabbat went out and that they would delay the plane as they had done in the past). These are only two examples of incidents that happened again and again during the trip. Because Timmi is quite sensitive to this kind of thing, it definitely lessened her enjoyment of the trip. However, she does have some good memories, most notably of the stage production of "The Lion King", which totally bowled her over. She is looking forward to getting back to London under better circumstances.
Some good news is that she has removed another pain patch, which may well be a sign that her tumors are indeed shrinking. Also, the GVH is still not too strong, so if things stabilize around where they are we will be in pretty good shape. Her mood is still uneven, dependent very much on the circumstances of the moment. It's sometimes overwhelming dealing with family dynamics, as normal sibling sparring takes on dimensions way above and beyond the seemingly petty cause for the conflict, and as everyone's emotional state becomes more fragile with the wearing-down effect of the illness on Timmi herself and on all of the family.
Don and I are looking forward to a few days' vacation that a wonderful anonymous person from the community has offered us as a present. We're going very soon (a week from Monday), to take advantage of the fact that Timmi is in a relatively good place physically. We know from experience that although we fervently hope things will stay this way or even improve, we can't make plans counting on that. We have reservations at Mitzpeh Yamim, a natural-health-spa type of place near Rosh Pina.* From my point of view, the present couldn't have come at a better time. I'm feeling better than I have in the past month, physically and emotionally, so I'll be able to take advantage of the trip, but still feel desperately like I need a rest. (Sometimes I feel like the proverbial woman in the transition stage of labor, who looks at the other people around her and says, "OK, I've had enough - I'm going home and the rest of you can finish this.)
Shabbat Shalom to all.
* Rosh Pina – A town in Israel’s north.
July 4, 2005
Three weeks ago we celebrated Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that falls seven weeks after Passover. In Biblical times, Shavuot was an agricultural festival, at which the people brought offerings of the first fruits of the harvest. Jewish tradition tells us that Shavuot also marks the time of year that the Torah was given to us on Mount Sinai. Since the Jews were expelled from their land after the Romans destroyed the Temple, we have emphasized this second aspect of the holiday. Observant Jews stay up for an all-night marathon of Torah study, in memory of the vigil held by the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai in anticipation of receiving God’s word. In order to do this, we need to keep our energy up by force of will, and push through our tiredness to the morning’s sunrise. And every year we discover anew that we have within ourselves a source of strength upon which to draw when we seem to have run out. I believe it is God that keeps replenishing that source.
Sometimes it seems as if my own life has consisted of one marathon after another. When I first moved to Israel with Don and three babies, for example, it took two long, exhausting years before we were living a “normal” lifestyle. After I started my year and a half-long legal internship in Tel Aviv, it felt like forever before I received my license and was freed from the drudgery that in the United States would be the province of a legal secretary. During my career as a lawyer, there were periods during which I worked until the early morning hours, several times a week - during one of these stretches, I was in my last trimester of pregnancy. Then there was the five-year period during which we moved four times, each time to a smaller apartment and twice with more children.
None of this, of course, compares to the six and a half years of Timmi’s illness, which was itself made up of successive mini-marathons. Immediately after her cancer was diagnosed, Timmi underwent six months of intensive chemo, then a bone marrow transplant, then the GVH* that resulted from the transplant. During Timmi’s remission, there were constant emotional crises to cope with – Timmi’s, her siblings’, and our own – as well as the lingering physical effects of her treatments. Then, of course, came the relapse, with its renewed treatments and crises. And then, Timmi’s slow and inexorable decline, her death, and its overwhelming emotional aftermath.
Many people have asked me how I managed to go on functioning in the face of the horror of seeing my child in agony, putting her through painful treatments, learning helplessly that her cancer returned despite everything she went through, and losing her. The fact is that many times I’ve felt as if I couldn’t continue.
But over the course of an unusually difficult life, God has always sent me someone or something to give me the strength to face the next set of challenges. After barely making it through elementary school as the scapegoat of an extremely cruel class, I was given the opportunity to go to an excellent high school,** where I made real friends for the first time in my life. Soon after my father died, I was fortunate enough to develop a few deep friendships that have lasted to this day. I left my stressful corporate law job after having my seventh child (enough!), without knowing where I would find my next job (and, indeed, if anyone would hire a mother of seven); as soon as I got home after informing my boss of my decision, the phone rang and I was offered the government job that I held for the next seven years.
And as impossible as it may have seemed, God also came through to help me through the worst of all crises - Timmi’s illness and death. Five years ago, for example, when I thought I might collapse from the strain of Timmi’s deteriorating condition and the accompanying family stress, that anonymous friend gave me the present of a vacation. The rest I got during those few days sustained me when shortly afterwards she suffered her last, massive relapse. And, most amazingly, three years ago on Shavuot(!), a friend who is a spiritual healer saw Timmi as we sat together in synagogue, and gave me a message from her. This encounter, which I’ve described at greater length in “Healing” (August 2004), marked the pointed at which I began to emerge from the deep depression that had gripped me for more than a year.
Just now, I’m running yet another marathon. For the first summer of my MSW program, I’m taking six courses – each of which is normally given over a fifteen-week semester – in six weeks. As soon as I finish one paper, the next is due (I need to hand in seven serious papers over the remaining three and a half weeks of the summer program!). This would be hard enough under normal circumstances, but I must also contend with the energy crashes that have plagued me periodically since Timmi died. When these crashes seize me, I feel as if I’ve come up against a wall that’s preventing me from moving forward – or as if my tank is completely empty and there’s no “fuel” left to go on. Just before starting this program, I was still crashing so regularly that I wasn’t able to work outside my home more than five hours a day. (Now I have six hours a day of classes alone, without homework and papers.) Even worse than the crashes themselves (which haven’t been so bad so far) is my fear that I'll crash in a major way and be unable to finish the program. This anxiety can itself be enough to paralyze me. If I fail to finish the program, what will I do with my life? The only meaningful future I can really imagine for myself is one in which I help other families to remain whole as they go through the hell of a child’s life-threatening illness.
In order to combat this anxiety, I draw strength from the Shavuot custom of studying through the night, which teaches me (among many other things) that we human beings are capable of pushing ourselves far beyond what may seem physically or emotionally possible at a given time, at least so long as we have faith that our efforts are in the service of a greater cause – that the Torah is waiting for us at the end of our vigil.
God has not failed me yet; there is no reason to believe that He'll fail me now or any time in the future. I may tire along the way, or stumble, or even crash. But if I look hard enough, I believe, I will always discover that He has given me strength to pick myself up and finish each marathon – and go on to the next.
*GVH – Graft Versus Host Disease, in which the transplanted bone marrow attacks the patient’s body.
** Hunter High School, a city-wide, selective public school for girls in New York City.