When my mother told me she had been diagnosed with cancer, I never once thought she wouldn’t get better. Even when she told me it was stage 4, even when I watched the chemo ravage her body, I always assumed that this would just be one of those down times in our family saga that we would one day look back on with sighs of relief. If you’d known my mother, you’d understand why. She was one of those women with a superhuman capacity to do everything, do it well, and make it look easy. In between raising four children, working on and off, running our household (and the shul gift shop) and making sure a home-cooked dinner was on the table every night, my mother also hosted challah-baking classes in our kitchen every few months. People clamored for a seat at our Shabbos table just for a warm, doughy slice of “Debbi’s Challah,” and her recipe was sought after by every woman within three ZIP codes. She gave leadership courses to corporate executives across the country, taught preschool in the inner city, and threw parties people talked about for years afterward. Up against a woman like my mother, a pesky little thing like cancer didn’t stand a chance. But despite the aggressive treatment, the cancer spread too quickly for the doctors to catch up with it. She passed away a little more than a year after her diagnosis.
During the shivah, I heard something I had never heard before: “She should be a meilitz yosher for you and your family.” “What does that mean?” I asked my husband. “It’s like an advocate,” he replied. “Someone who davens for mercy on your behalf in shamayim.” Before I tell you my reaction to this, allow me to give you a little background. Just a few years before, I had completely overturned my life to become an Orthodox Jew. I’d revamped my wardrobe, cleared my Saturday schedule and reconstructed my fundamental philosophies of life. I’d come to live by dictums and beliefs, and I’d happily done so. I had learned about the neshamah and gilgulim and it made sense to me. I even liked the idea of getting another turn at bat if you didn’t quite make it around the bases the first time. But when I heard what my husband said, I just couldn’t comprehend it. It was hard to believe that my mother was in shamayim wheeling and dealing for me. This, by the way, was not because I doubted about my mother’s capacity to hold sway in the Heavenly realms. In fact, if anyone could make waves up there, there was no one better qualified than she. When Mom was alive, nothing was more important to her than her family; if she sensed even a hint of a threat to our tight-knit little clan, she would immediately mobilize to snuff it out. And when it came to her children, Mom was a lioness.
Once, when a classmate bullied me at school, my mother stared her down like a sniper as the poor girl walked from the school entrance to her carpool, quaking in her Hello Kitty rain boots. No doubt, if anyone would charge up to the kisei hakavod and make a case for her kids, it was definitely my mother. For the first couple of years after she died, my sister would occasionally tell me that she’d seen our mother in a dream, or had had some experience that was unmistakably linked to her. I heard the same thing from my aunt, who was my mother’s best friend. I, however, could not relate to it. Wherever my mother was, the signal between there and here must not have been very good. Or, more likely, I thought, they believed what they wanted to believe. Not that I blamed them. I missed my mother terribly; I would have loved for something to happen that would dispel my skepticism and make it clear that she was on the other side, pulling strings for me. But from where I stood, the only connection I had left to her were my memories, and the gaping hole in my life she’d left behind when she died. Last year, my husband and I decided to move from our small, beloved out-of-town community to someplace more in-town. We needed to be closer to my stepdaughters,who lived in the city, and we wanted the Jewish resources that a larger community had to offer.
We were going for all the right reasons, and although it would be an adjustment for everyone, we were confident that the move would ultimately be a good one. Fast forward six months, and we were desperately struggling, particularly on the social and financial fronts. It wasn’t working out as we’d hoped; we were isolated, without help, slipping deeper and deeper into debt and backed against the wall. We met with our rav, who advised us to move, but we had no idea where to, or how we would even afford it. One evening not long after our meeting, an email popped up on my iPhone, seemingly out of nowhere: It was a job listing for something I had wanted to do for a number of years, but had never known how to pursue. The compensation included a house and utilities. There’s got to be some kind of catch, I thought to myself as I typed in my response. Not ten minutes later I got a call back. I chatted with the woman who would be my supervisor, just waiting for some kind of red flag signaling that the job wouldn’t be a good fit. But the hours were perfect. The location was great (I’d grown up ten minutes away from where we would live, and I knew the community well; I’d even have family nearby!). And the job itself seemed tailormade for me: honestly, I thought, feeling the tiniest flutter of excitement in my belly, if this job was as good as it sounded, I would have paid her to let me do it. But, I reminded myself, I hadn’t seen the house yet. I had just had my third baby; we would need something that would accommodate everyone.
The day I went to meet with her and see the place, I braced myself for disappointment. It just seemed too good to be true. But as I walked into the house, I gasped. It wasn’t fancy or “done,” but it was lovely. Cozy. Perfect for me and my family. Looking around at the lightfilled rooms, I could see us living here, and happily. A week passed, and the call finally came: The job was mine. We had six weeks to pack up a house we’d moved into only six months before, only this time we had to do it with a two-month-old baby—in addition to his three-year-old and five-year-old brothers. It was harrowing, overwhelming and completely exhausting. More than once, up to my neck in cardboard boxes, I questioned whether or not we would make it to moving day. Little did I know, our six-week crunch turned out to be training for the Olympics. The move was even tougher than the packing. There were endless delays, the kids were restless, and when time started running short, the movers almost left all of our things on the sidewalk until my husband convinced them to finish.
Thankfully, we managed to get everything into the house in time, but it was thrown in haphazardly; when the movers left, it looked as if a hurricane had torn through the place. My husband and I dug out two mattresses from the labyrinth of furniture, put the boys to bed and stared at each other in complete disbelief, like two survivors after a plane crash. Exhausted, I wandered into the kitchen, the only room with space to move. I absently opened the cabinets and drawers, trying to get a feel for the space. They were all empty, as expected, except for one cupboard, down next to the oven. Inside was a small card, a piece of stationery with pictures of vegetables on the margin. There was something written on the preprinted lines, and I picked up the card to read it. It was a recipe: 4½ cups flour, ⅔ cup sugar, 2 pkgs. yeast… This list looked familiar. Where had I seen it before? Then I looked at the top of the card. Recipe for, said the template. And written on the line next to it: Debbi’s Challah. I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck. It was my mother’s challah recipe. “Oh, my gosh…” I whispered. In that instant, my mind flashed through the last few months: The unexpected crisis. The even more unexpected rescue. The amazing job. The perfect house. The community right near where I grew up. And now this. There was no question, even for a skeptic like me, that she had done this for me. My mother had been my meilitz yosher. And she’d even sent me a little something just so I’d know. To be honest, it shouldn’t have surprised me. It was just like her to pull off something like this. “Well,” I said smiling at my husband across our landscape of boxes, “I guess we’re home.”