Condensed from Hapeles – Mussaf April 2014 by: E. Leibowitz
The clinic was busy as usual, filled with people of all ages. The silence was interrupted from time to time by murmured grumbling over the long wait. Yehuda would have preferred to remain ensconced in the Yeshiva, but the stomachache that had been bothering him for months compelled him to take the step. “At first I thought it was appendicitis,” Mrs. Blum riffles through the pages of her memory from five years back. “When that was eliminated and the stomach pains persisted, we decided he should go to the doctor for a more thorough examination.”
Yehuda received the shattering information alone, without any emotional preparation. “I didn’t think it was necessary to come with him for the ultrasound. After all, he was a mature 19-year-old who could go to the clinic himself.” For some reason, the hospital technician thought he was a mature adult who could handle such information – or more likely, she did not think at all. She looked at the screen and told him exactly what she saw, not giving a moment’s consideration to how you tell a patient he has a cancerous tumor in a gentler, more tactful way.
From their home in Beit Shemesh, the Blum family talks about that period – so difficult and painful, yet so full of belief in G-d.
Balance of Terror
After “the bomb dropped,” Yehuda promptly called his father. All he said was one word: come. Suddenly, the story that always happened to “somebody else” was on their own doorstep. The first days were very difficult. “For days, I sat and cried without a stop,” Mrs. Blum describes. “I refused to accept the facts. The emotions flooded me. As far as I was concerned, the world stopped at that point.
“On top of everything, Yehuda was just a step away from pre-marriage age. The thought of ‘What people will say’ was daunting. But in spite of that, we decided right from the beginning not to keep it a secret. He received unbelievable support from his friends. If you hide things,” Blum opines, “all your energy is channeled to the task of keeping the secret. How will you have enough strength to deal with the problem itself? Concealing just makes life harder. Besides, Hagaon Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky told us that if Yehuda is in a situation that requires prayers, on the contrary, we should let people know about it. Otherwise, how will they pray for him?”
The father Reb Binyamin, contacted one of the medical counseling experts involved in this area and came to him together with Yehuda for initial guidance. Even before giving names of doctors and treatment options, the advisor encouraged them to keep up routine as much as possible and make sure that the home would remain happy. “When they came home with his recommendations, I looked at them in disbelief. ‘Does he realize what we are talking about?’ I fumed. ‘How can we keep up our routine?”
Routine and Happiness
Slowly but surely, we got on track – a different track, one with a sick family member, but a track nonetheless. “The minute we got into routine, which we decided to maintain at any cost, it was easier. I can’t explain it, but reality just took shape. When there is a problem, Hashem helps – I don’t know how. Routine sets in, school keeps going, the home functions and life goes on. It wasn’t easy navigating between the home, the hospital, and work, but don’t forget – we are talking about a 19-year-old boy who can be alone part of the time.”
And… yes. Happiness wasn’t lacking in the home, despite all.
“How can you create a happy atmosphere under such circumstances?” we asked Reb Binyamin. “Rav Shach zt”l said in the name of his uncle Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l: ‘In th e23rd Psalm, it says, “Your rod and your staff shall comfort me.” How can the punitive rod give comfort? Rav Isser Zalman said that it is like a flock of sheep grazing in the field when suddenly a lion appears and threatens to devour them. When the sheep feel the shepherd’s stick slapping them, they are relieved and happy, even though the blow hurts, because it means that the shepherd is looking out for them and striking them for their own benefit, so they will run to safety. When a person receives a “blow” from Above, it hurts. But comfort lies in the knowledge of Who is striking them…
When we choose to see the picture from this vantage point, everything looks different, and we are able to put our trust in G-d and be happy.
Flowers at the Side of the Road
“When G-d gives a blow, he prepares the ‘flowers’ at its side. We saw this all the way through,” Blum explains. Not always were the flowers obvious. Sometimes they hid behind a shrub at the side of the road, sometimes we had to dig a bit to reveal them. And sometimes, we just had to make sure not to close our eyes.
The Blums got proof of this the day they received the first definite lab results. To confirm the findings and eliminate other possibilities, a biopsy was done. During those trying moments, their first granddaughter was born. “The conflicting feelings of choking tension side by side with the angelic infant created a contrasting picture of pain and boundless gratitude at the very same moment. Later on, when the new parents came to our home with the baby, it impacted the atmosphere in the entire house.
“Another ray of light was that Yehuda was hospitalized in the Pediatric Ward, not with the adults, in spite of his age, because the growth he had fit the specialization of pediatric oncology. The pediatric ward is a lot more upbeat, with medical clowns and such radiating a positive atmosphere. It may sound ludicrous, but these technical details can make a difference. The state of mind is very important in these situations.
“In the midst of this difficult period, we found the things we could draw encouragement from and focused on them,” Reb Binyamin shares “Every small thing was cause for gratitude. Of course, the positive effect of the treatment on Yehuda’s condition also contributed a lot.”
The whole story took a calendar year, though it seemed like light years. Everything went by the book and the timetable followed the protocol to a tee – another spark of light in the darkness surrounding them.
A Year of Battle
“We called a family meeting. To the younger children, we explained that Yehuda was sick, without going into details. We told them he would have to undergo treatments that would cause his hair to fall out. They knew what to expect, and that helped them cope. Keeping up the household routine was no easy matter. The fact that he was a young man who didn’t need someone there every minute helped. On the other hand, he was still a person and needed our support at difficult moments.” Much pain is woven through Mrs. Blum’s words as she relives those days. “When he would come back from a treatment, he would call me and ask me to sit with him on the couch after the exhausting hours of treatment. Usually he was there as an outpatient, only on occasion was he hospitalized for a few days. Not always were the side effects immediate. In one form of treatment, the blood count dips only a week later. During those days, he had to be in absolutely sterile isolation at home, so as not to catch any illness. On the other hand, having him home is what enabled us to keep up the routine as much as possible.
“We split the work. My husband basically took charge of the hospitalizations and I remained at home to cope with everything else. I didn’t visit the hospital even once, other than for the operation. Somebody had to keep the house functioning for when they came home from the hospital.”
At first, Yehuda underwent a half year of tiring, torturous chemotherapy sessions, with all the attendant side effects. Fortunately, there were no unusual incidents, but even the standard nausea, mouth sores, and other “fringe benefits” are enough to knock you out.
“The first hospitalization concluded on a Sunday,” Reb Blum relates. “When we were released, they gave us a list of medicines which we had to buy as follow-up to the treatment. I went into the local Kupat Cholim branch to take care of it. The druggist glanced at the prescription and said that one of the items was an injection that had to be given 24 hours after the treatment, and costs 7,000 NIS. In order to subsidize the cost, we needed a special authorization from the head of the Kupah, which required several days’ time to arrange. Now it was too late to get the authorization – what should we do?
In a remarkable show of Divine detailed oversight, just then one of the medical advisors walked into the drugstore and gave me the telephone number of someone who could cut through the red tape. First thing Monday morning, I called and explained the urgency of the matter. I was told to go to the Kupat Cholim immediately and submit the medical papers. “When the material will be in the system,” they claimed, “we will be able to speed the process. I got to the Kupat Cholim, but my branch was closed on Monday. Now I had to rush to the next neighborhood, quite a distance away, and give in the paperwork there. The race was on, and I felt the frustration enveloping me.
“‘What does G-d want from me now?’ I mused. I got to the branch and went over to the first receptionist I saw. She took my papers, asked a question or two, paused thoughtfully for a moment, and then confided in me that she was diagnosed with precisely the same growth when she was sixteen. ‘Today I am happily married, with children,’ she said with a smile. Her words gave me the strength I so badly needed at that moment. Who knows, maybe it was for this very reason that G-d sent me to the faraway branch, to that particular receptionist. Indeed, the authorization was arranged promptly and that afternoon, we had the injection in hand.”
Order in the Mind
Having clear information about what is going to happen is very helpful. Knowledge is strength. When you know what to expect and where you are headed – the protocol, as it is called in medical lingo – it puts your mind in order.
“The minute there is a crisis, you feel lost in a sea of feelings, thoughts and question marks. The unknown future casts a shadow of fear and the uncertainty doubles the stress. The minute there is a protocol clarifying what is going to happen at every stage under natural (though we nothing is natural…) conditions, everything is clearer and less threatening. Order in the mind affects the whole process.”
Little Sand Dunes
The Blums deliberated a great deal about how to cope with their new situation in the optimal manner. They decided to take it one day at a time and cope with that day alone, not to think what will be six months from now or when Yehuda gets to marriage preparations. If they would lift their eyes and see the mountain in its full height, they would be afraid to begin the trail and would give up before taking the first step. They decided to break the mountain into little sand dunes, which are easier to climb and less frightening. It is a bit like the belief experienced by the Jews in the wilderness who received their mannah each day, for just one day. “
It’s all Part of the Circle
Another policy the Blums decided to adopt compelled them to reexamine the facts and reach new conclusions. “Until then, we never took help from others. But in the emergency situation in which we found ourselves, we preferred to invest our energy in the really important things.” They feel it is important to convey the message: “When there is a problem there is nothing heroic about carrying the burden alone if there are others who can and want to help you. You may find it uncomfortable, even difficult to be on the side of the takers. It takes a lot of work on yourself to change your way of thinking. But knowing that this is the right thing to do no – to accept help when you need it – is true greatness and courage. When the story is over, with Hashem’s help, you can be a giver again, and close the circle.”
Ezer Mizion at the Side of the Road
Ezer Mizion is not just an organization. Yes, it is housed in a large, impressive building. Yes, it is run by myriads of computers. But what is it really? It is people. People who deeply understand. People who really care. People who will search every nook and cranny to find that certain something to make your situation easier. People whose greatest joy is to see you smile. And they really know how to do it.
Delicious, attractively – prepared meals delivered to the home during the hard times. Hot, reviving meals for my husband at the hospital. Retreats for the family where we had fun—yes, fun!— and could connect with others going through the same nightmare. Outings for the kids—it’s easy to forget about the other children when you’re focused on one but Ezer Mizion does not forget. There were rides to the hospital to save our energy, always given by a driver who had absorbed the Ezer Mizion ambience of empathy and was able to strengthen us for the ordeal to come. There were trained psychologists to help us get through maze of emotions that we hardly understood ourselves. There was Oranit with its musical band, stories, games, crafts and even a petting zoo, all under the guidance of trained therapists to help the younger ones deal with their nightmare. There were volunteers to help with all the sundry tasks that were beyond us at the time. Sometimes it was homework or buying school supplies or shoes for the kids. Maybe it was cleaning the house for Pesach or staying with the kids while my husband and I took a much-needed breather. In the summer, it was camp—a world of strengthening fun, fun fun for the whole family. And always, from the receptionists to the professionals, it was understanding, compassion and love.
Private individuals also gave of themselves, to complete the picture. Since Yehuda was learning in an out-of-town Yeshiva, he was barely able to attend during the entire period of his illness. One of the advisors arranged a learning partner for him that literally kept him afloat. They learned together in the hospital, and on the difficult days following a treatment, he would come to our house and learn with him there, for as long as Yehuda had the strength. Beyond the learning experience, the company of the avreich made the entire period more pleasant. Though he couldn’t go to Yeshiva because of the distance and the need to stay close to the hospital, his friends came from time to time to boost his spirits. They organized singing and came Motzaei Shabbat with guitars… Without the support of the community, we would not have made it through the same way.
A Year of Growth
“It was a very unconventional year, but when I look back, it was also a special year, strange as it may sound. I can’t say it was a sweet year, but anyone who is in the midst of such a battle and knows how to draw his hidden strengths out as a result will understand what I’m saying. It was a year of elevation and of closeness to G-d. The children do not recall it as a black, harsh year. It was difficult, but the feeling of closeness to G-d overshadowed all the difficulties.
There were gifts throughout the year. Yes, it was tough, and more than once, we were afraid that the end loomed around the bend. But if we just opened our eyes, we saw glimmers of light illuminating our way. When you get on track, you can open your eyes and be thankful for what there is – and there is a lot.
“Keeping up your optimism is not an easy task,” Reb Blum adds. “It was a constant, day by day, hour by hour challenge.”
When Yehuda lost his hair, it was very hard, both on him and on the rest of the family, though it may seem like a lighter, more technical and temporary aspect of the picture. Nevertheless, it was like proof of the illness. On the physical plane too, when the hair falls out, it is itchy and uncomfortable. “Then there are all the pitiful glances.” Mrs. Blum recalls Yehuda’s stunned look when he came home from the synagogue after one thoughtless person reproved him that his haircut was contrary to Jewish law. “Apparently, he was not aware of the situation,” Blum says, “but it hurt.” The children knew in advance that he would lose his hair and were not taken by surprise, but it still was not easy for any of them. But thanks to the massive support from those around him, and to the solid advice of the advisor, happiness prevailed in the house and gave them all the strength to stand up to the challenge.
During the course of the year, Yehuda lost a few friends from the ward. Sadly, they could have opened their own yeshiva during that time, since quite a number of bachurim were there and they naturally formed close friendships. Each loss of one of the boys in the group was another hardship. “I remember when one of the boys whom Yehuda had become particularly close with passed away. I didn’t want to tell him. I closed all the windows so he wouldn’t hear the announcement, even though it wasn’t logical. I wanted to spare him this pain. Every incident like this automatically put him in the same boat and could have led to despair, G-d forbid.
Six months after beginning treatments, Yehuda underwent surgery to remove the growth, followed by another half year of less grueling chemotherapy treatments and radiation. After Pesach he was left with just two or three treatments and in the summer, a year after he was diagnosed, this chapter of their life came to a close.
When the period was over, it was a strange feeling. The routine that held us together was no longer supporting us. It took Yehuda some time until he achieved full recovery both physically and emotionally and resumed his normal appearance . It took us, as a family, even longer to resume our normal ‘before’ routine, a routine I hope I will never take for granted.
Our lives in the world of oncology will always remain part of us. Today, we are like one family, all those who battled alongside of us. Some came out of it, some are still fighting, and some are no longer with us. But the bond between each family is strong – a bond of people joined in pain and battle. When we worked on the invitations for Yehuda’s wedding (Yes, to our great joy and gratitude, he is now married!), the number was significantly increased by these new “family members,” and they also organized one of the Sheva Berachos celebrations.
There is something very elevating in this story, in the challenges that a person goes through. “Today, when I complain, it is proof to me that we have returned to normal life… but a minute later, a signal comes up in my mind reminding me that I have nothing to complain about. The difficulty is a gift in itself and it is actually the ‘tuition’ we pay for all the wisdom we gained.”