Parenting

Don’t Be Afraid

Ribbons of scarlet and gold stretch themselves out against a backdrop of blue-tinged clouds. Awed by the magnificent display of heavenly artwork, I sense my Father’s presence so closely I want to reach out through the little airplane window and touch His glory. “I am with you,” You whisper, and I nod through a haze of tears. I know. But this is really hard. Too hard, if You ask me. But You didn’t. I was in Eretz Yisrael for the very first time, helping my daughter with her new miracle baby, her first after a series of complications, when I got the call that would overturn my life. I was in a taxi on the way back from the Kosel with some friends when my phone rang. It was my daughter. “Tatty just called. He said I should tell you that Gavi is in intensive care in the hospital with pneumonia.” Jolted out of my Kosel-induced serenity, it took a while to contact my husband. Our conversation was conducted in clipped, alarmed tones. Could this really be happening? These things happen to other people, not to us. A medical emergency? Life and death? It’s rather inconvenient timing, isn’t it? We scrambled to make arrangements. I would meet him shortly at the out-of-state hospital where Gavi was fighting for his life, leaving the rest of our children under the care of our 18-year-old. Knowing she had a car and a credit card at her disposal made us feel fairly confident that they would manage in our absence.

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Nonetheless, the idea of both parents abandoning the fortress made me somewhat queasy. Gavi had checked into the hospital before Shabbos, and within 24 hours his pneumonia had spiraled wildly out of control. The doctors and nurses expressed astonishment that his condition had deteriorated so rapidly, and could offer no logical explanation. “He’s very sick,” my husband whispered into the phone in a choked voice from outside my son’s hospital room. “They have to surgically clear his lung; they can’t do it non-surgically. He can’t live without the operation but he might not live through it. “The procedure is called decortication,” he continued. “It’s not usually dangerous, but his obesity exacerbates the situation. In order to do the surgery they have to turn him on his side. They’re afraid that the pressure of his body will cause his one good lung to collapse.” After the call, my tears flowed throughout that endless day as I clung to my new granddaughter and the blessing of new life. Would I be sitting shivah in Israel? And who would help my daughter if I couldn’t? Please, Hashem, let him live, I prayed. Pouring out my heart at Kever Rachel the night before I returned home, I felt her loving arms embrace me. “Your shoulders are so broad,” I whispered. “You hear all your children’s pain and suffering and carry their burdens before the heavenly throne, pleading for an end to their tears. Please ask Hashem to heal our son, Gavriel ben Yehudis. And ask Him for a shidduch for Shimmy and a baby for Tzvi…” I swayed back and forth, allowing my emotions to surge. There were moments when my lips couldn’t move anymore, but I knew that Hashem understood my heart’s desires.

Reluctantly I left the holy site and prepared to return home to my new reality as the mother of a sick child. A few days later I flew out to be with my son, joining a club whose membership I pray will soon be terminated. This is the club of people whose loved ones are in the intensive care unit, united by a shared pain regardless of race, religion or creed. The club members are all very nice. One evening shortly after my arrival I was having an altercation with a soda machine that refused to accept my dollar bill. Take it, I inwardly seethed, desperately wanting a can of Coke Zero. “Here,” a man offered, opening his wallet and handing me a dollar. “Thanks, but I have one,” I insisted. “This machine just doesn’t like me.” “Please take it,” he begged, thrusting the money at me. I realized that in this place of suffering, we club members were enjoined to help one another and lighten each other’s suffering any way we could. At least I’m familiar with hospitals, I naively told myself as I entered the unit for the first time. My husband had never spent much time in hospitals; it must have been really hard for him. Having a medical background, both as an employee and a volunteer, I thought I’d seen it all. I’d never been more wrong in my life.

Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of my baby, albeit 26 years old, hooked up to a respirator, fighting for his every breath. He opened his eyes when he saw me, and they welled up with tears. My eyes spilled over in response, and together we created an ocean. I gave him a kiss. “Good to see you,” he wrote on a dry-erase board. “Good to see you, too,” I whispered, trying to smile bravely through my tears. Gavi couldn’t eat, drink or speak. He communicated by means of the board, and the hours I spent with him were long, harrowing, and filled with pain. After a while I began going home every few days before returning to Gavi’s side. One time my seven-year-old cried when I told her I was leaving again. “You know that Gavi is really sick,” I explained. “He doesn’t just have a cold. He’s in the hospital.” “Gavi sees you more than I do,” she cried, and I held her close as we said goodbye yet again. “If he gets better before tomorrow,” she directed me, “cancel your trip.” “You got it,” I promised, a sad smile playing on my lips. Halevai, I wished with every fiber of my being. When my friend Judy saw me at the gym she casually asked how I was doing. “Do you really want to know?” I asked, filling her in on what was going on. Her eyes misted as she listened, and she encircled me in a nourishing hug. “I’ll bet you wondered sometimes if you loved him,” she said, her words laced with love and understanding. “Hashem has a funny way of showing us things sometimes.” “Thank you for saying that,” I sobbed. Judy knew how Gavi had broken our hearts. From the time our son had turned bar mitzvah he had chosen a path diametrically opposed to everything we had lovingly attempted to plant in his heart.

Over the years I had anesthetized myself, effectively creating a barrier between me and this child who repeatedly ripped our lives apart. Yes, I davened for him, but we lived on two opposite sides of a wall. We kept in touch, talking once or twice a week and keeping neutral lines of communication open. But the wall couldn’t be breached. Until now. I love you, Gavi. “Rabbi Feldbloom,” I told my rav who had guided me for almost 30 years through the sometimes turbulent currents of my life. “Gavi is sick. I’d like to ask him to take something on for his refuah. What do you suggest? Should I ask him to keep kosher for one meal a day? To keep Shabbos for an hour a week? What should I say?” I didn’t want it to be too big a commitment he wouldn’t stick to. “Have him keep kosher,” was the response. “Keeping kosher is so easy nowadays.” I gulped and wondered if he would do it. But like a soldier on a mission, I marched back into his glass-enclosed cubicle and begged Gavi to tell Hashem that he would do his best to keep kosher when his health was restored—a plea bargain of sorts. To my amazement he nodded. “But I have to get out of here first,” he wrote. I nodded back. That makes sense. When Gavi passed his swallowing test and they allowed him his first solid food in a month, even though he was still on the ventilator, the nurse brought him some applesauce. I’m not even going to look, I thought, peeling off the wrapper and kvelling as Gavi ate it slowly.

When he was ready for a second one I snuck a peak at the wrapper, and immediately spotted an “OU” on the label. I marveled, and later sobbed when I relived the scene in my mind. His first food had been kosher. I know that Hashem is holding my hand throughout this ordeal. He connected me with an amazing family who has taken care of my every need, chauffeuring me to and from the hospital and providing me with delicious hot meals. He’s even thrown in some laughter to brighten the darkness. One night I was waiting for the elevator with several of my ICU club members. An elevator door opened and the people inside told us it was going up. “We’ll wait,” we said. “We’re going down.” “I’ll race you!” an older lady who had been standing with us challenged as she stepped inside the ascending lift, chuckling and revealing a mouth with a half-dozen spaces where teeth used to be. The steel doors slowly clamped their jaws shut. “You’ll probably end up in this same elevator on its way down,” she said just before she disappeared. I shook my head wisely as I waved, certain I’d be in the lobby way before that.

A minute or two passed, and an elevator finally arrived. To our collective amusement, the doors opened to reveal the same group we had just waved to. The woman threw her head back and exploded in laughter, putting a warm hand on my shoulder. “We were meant to be together,” I said, reveling in the freedom to laugh in this outstation of hell. “How long will it take till he gets better?” I wanted to know, pleading for answers from the powerful men in white coats. “We can’t tell you,” they replied.“Gabe has developed a very big blood clot,” I was informed a few days later. “It’s going to impact his breathing.” My heart lurched at the setback. Gavi (I could never bring myself to call him by his anglicized name) was now back on full ventilator support; they’d been trying to wean him off it before the clot appeared. I cringed as a nurse gave him an injection in the stomach twice a day, wincing as if the syringe was piercing my own skin. One week I opted to drive the seven hours to see Gavi; the other times I had gotten rides, taken a bus or flown. Prickles of apprehension crept up and down my spine; I had never driven more than an hour or two on my own, let alone attempted a longdistance trip. Taking a deep breath, I turned the key in the ignition and popped in a CD to soothe my nerves. To my astonishment, the words “Lo Lefacheid” (“Don’t Be Afraid”), the title of the first song, suddenly appeared on the screen on the dashboard. Tears sprang to my eyes. “Thanks,” I whispered, hearing my Father’s reassurance loud and clear as I pulled out of the driveway and went to pick up my friend. This woman, an angel in disguise, had agreed to make the lengthy trip with me, yet another manifestation of Hashem’s kindness.

Midway through the journey a warning light went on informing me that my engine oil was low. I panicked and quickly got off at the nearest exit, praying that the car wouldn’t overheat. Two minutes later we arrived at a body shop but it was closed. Of course it was closed—this was Sunday in America! To my relief, a woman was walking around outside the garage. I jumped out of the car and quickly apprised her of my situation. “We live right next door,” she told me,lifting the chain so I could drive onto the lot. “Come on in.” Fifteen minutes later the car had guzzled down two quarts of oil, the warning light was off and we were on our way, marveling at the hashgachah. On the drive home, we stopped for lunch and a quick Minchah. Standing outside a small store that had already closed for the day I found myself facing a stone wall, and memories, unbidden, filled my mind. Not too long ago I had stood in front of our holiest remnant, our wall, so close to Hashem, the closest we can approach until Mashiach comes. Now I was standing in some forsaken corner of the Earth, in front of an oh-so-different wall, yet Hashem could still hear me and cared about what I had to say, listening to the tefillos I hurled heavenward. Once again I am mesmerized by the colorful ribbons that stretch across the sky. In my small compact car, I make my way past graceful mountains and trees aflame in their fall splendor. My heart explodes with gratitude to my Father, Who holds my hand as I travel this uncharted path in my life. Yes, it is painfully hard, and I am desperate to resume a normal routine. But I am comforted that I am not alone as I wend my way down the long and curving road. Postscript: With Hashem’s help, Gavi has graduated to a regular hospital room. He finally shed the ventilator but is still receiving extra oxygen through his tracheotomy. As his family and friends continue to storm the heavens, we are fervently hoping for his full and complete recovery.

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