At the hospital, Chaya Rivkah wasn’t in her usual bed. I’d arrived late, and it took several more minutes to find a nurse who could locate her.
In the doorway of the Outpatients Ward, I glanced around apprehensively. When it had last been my turn with her, about a week before, Chaya Rivkah had been too weak and nauseated to speak, or move her head on the pillow. I spotted her now at the far end of this long, crowded communal room, sitting upright in a tilted-back armchair with a book in hand, reading intently. She was hooked up to an unwieldy intravenous machine like all the others, and at her back, a ceiling-high window looked out onto a flat blue sky above the breezy Jerusalem morning.
In I walked, tentatively, into the complicated forest of plastic tubing and beeping monitors and metal poles at angles askew; feeling the eyes on me as I passed — all the people in armchairs on my left and my right, some gazing absently, others accompanied by silent or chattering family members. Some appeared to be asleep. Jews and Arabs, religious and not religious; young, old, middle-aged; the fat, the emaciated. It was a unity of chemo.
Chaya Rivkah looked up as I approached and flashed a smile, setting down her book and waving me in gaily. “Hello!” she mouthed. “How are you?” She looked ready to leap up out of her seat.
“So much is going on!” she said as I pulled up a chair. “Good news!” Her pale and fragile countenance, all newly articulated cheekbones and jaw-line…the childlike chin, small and determined….This bleached, frail flower of a face…it still took me aback. But there seemed to be a distinct hint this time of its former fullness, and elusive, flickering intimations of the young woman she’d always been. The wattage of this smile, however, packed an energetic wallop much greater than ever, and I was dazzled…. Her smile was dazzling.
“I’ve been home since Thursday. I just got back here this morning. I hung the laundry yesterday!” She giggled, as if confiding a scrumptious secret. “And did the Shobbos dishes! And…! ” She paused dramatically. “I changed my baby’s diaper!
“And I took a walk! Oh, that reminds me! I didn’t introduce you. This is George.”
I looked around.
“Here!” She pointed to the intravenous machine with a delighted smirk. “Follows me everywhere. Not a very good dancer, though.
“I ate a chicken sandwich this morning. I want meat!” She made two fists as if in a boxing match. ”Do you know how amazing it is to have an appetite again? Having an appetite is a miracle.
“On Thursday when we were going home, Shlomo Zalman was just pushing me out of the elevator door when my doctor passed by, and he looked at me and said, ‘Why are you in the wheelchair?’ I was so surprised. What do you mean, why the wheelchair? That’s when it hit me, I don’t need this! And that’s what got me started doing things again. I’ve just been saying to myself every minute, ‘Go ahead, Chaya Rivkah! You can do it!’
“All my friends….The community has been so incredible. The women at Mattisyahu. They have all our meals organized. They’ve gotten someone good for the children in the afternoon, and they’re looking for someone to come in and clean.
“Everything is just so beautiful.
“It’s an incredible thing, regular daily life.
“I’m so thankful for the times I’m not in pain. When I feel all right.
“The children…they want me to be the way I’ve always been and it’s very hard for them to understand. Sometimes it’s — hard. I’m still weak. I can’t…I’m working on myself. Trying not to be impatient.”
She closed her eyes. “Hashem, I make a commitment, bli neder. Not! To be! Impatient! Hashem, help me.
“I feel I’m a member now of some kind of elite club I never knew about before, of women. It’s amazing what women can do, working together. I never realized. I have a new respect for who we are. For what we can be.”
“Everything is just so beautiful.
“There’s one thing I’m scared of, though…death. I’m working on it. I spoke to Rabbi Leff. I’ve been reading different books about Olam HaBa (the World to Come).
“People talk about fighting the illness. But that’s not it. It’s about surrender. Not giving up, or resigning yourself, but to open yourself totally to whatever Hashem wants for you.
“I’m the one in this position right now but we’re all in the same situation. None of us knows when our time is up. It could be today. It could be tomorrow. It could be ten minutes from now.
“I see now that I’ve always – I don’t know how to describe it exactly – dismissed my friends’ love. On some level I used to discount it. As if it wasn’t…real. Maybe I felt something like, They don’t really know me.
She looked off to the side for a moment, thinking, then brightened, as if overhead, a cloud had drifted by, placing her in a column of sunlight. “You know what the last psalm in Sefer Tehilim is?”
I shook my head.
She reached for the book on the end-table. “Listen to this!” She raised a forefinger as if to say, Just wait!
She found the page and began reading aloud:
Praise God in His sanctuary, praise Him in the firmament of His power. Praise Him with the blast of the shofar… Praise Him with drum and dance…
She glanced up with a laugh. (Had I ever seen those blue eyes?) “Do you get it?” I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t getting it the way she was getting it, that’s for sure.
Praise Hashem with drum and dance. Praise Him with lyre and harp. Praise Him with organ and flute. Praise Him with cymbals clanging. Praise Him with trumpets resounding. Let all souls praise God.
Chaya Rivkah shut the book, kissed it, and leaned back upon the headrest. She looked tired now, but her face bloomed into a triumphant grin. “You see that? That’s it.” In the light from the window, I suddenly noticed her face was streaming tears. ”That’s how Dovid HaMelech ended his Tehillim.”
A nurse came by to say that the morning blood-test was inconclusive; they needed another one done immediately in such-and-such a department. Various tubes were disconnected, the nurse moved on to the next patient, and Chaya Rivkah lifted herself from the chair. She stood, fixed her scarf with a look of steady deliberateness, and in her eyes there was jubilance as she said, “What it all boils down to is love.”
In memory of Chaya Rivkah Jessel, z”l bas Muriel, niftara Yud Bet Tevet, Jan 6 th, 2004
Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are “Wish I Were Here” [Artscroll], and “The Mother in Our Lives”[Targum/Feldheim]. This article is reprinted with the author’s permission. Sarah Shapiro teaches writing in Israel and the United States.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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