December 27, 2011: Eight Shining Lights

On the seventh floor of Shaari Tzedek, as in any major hospital, is a room where cancer patients receiving chemo go for their treatments. Every day, it is filled with men and women who must sit while medicine that will make them feel horribly sick drips into their veins. Some come alone, while others are accompanied by those who love them. As the hours go by, they will feel sicker and sicker.

One cannot escape the understanding that for some in the room, the medicine will not be able to defeat the disease. That thought alone can make the room feel dark and oppressive. But incredibly, there are also many bright lights that shine in the midst of such darkness. Here are eight of them that I was fortunate enough to see:

Rav Benny. Rav Benny sat next to us during our first chemo session. He was the first to introduce himself and his calm words helped us settle down and get through that first day. Little did I know at the time that he was a well known teacher of Torah whose students numbered a few of our neighbors and friends here in Neve Daniel. Yet his warm smile to a husband who was going crazy with worry for his wife will never be forgotten, and I am sure capped a lifetime of kindness. We were saddened to hear when he passed away.

The Chesed Ladies. Every chemo session we knew that at some point they would roll in with their cart filled with goodies. They would insist that everyone — even those accompanying the patients — take something from their cart. But it wasn’t the cakes and cookies on the cart that everyone looked forward to. It was the huge smiles and cheerful way they spoke to each and every person in the chemo ward. Every person is treated as an honored guest, not a patient suffering from a terrifying disease. How they manage to sweep into the chemo room day after day to spread their cheer and warmth is something I will never know. But it is true chesed (kindness.)

The little boy in the hall. One day I stepped out of the chemo room to see a little boy about the same age as my youngest. He was seated on a bench in the hall playing a car racing game on an iPad. I found out later that his father had cancer. He desperately wanted to be there and not be there at the same time. I knew exactly how he felt. It’s tough enough to be an adult when someone you love has cancer. How much tougher for this brave little boy. I sat down next to him and whipped out my iPad. He showed me how to download the game and we just sat and raced cars, never saying a word about cancer.

The woman who was finishing a large number of chemo cycles and moving on to surgery and then radiation treatment. The chemo made her so sick she had to lay down in a bed in the next room. Her family came and surrounded her bed and softly serenaded her with sweet songs to get her through the chemo session. I have never been so moved by simple tunes. You could feel the love coming from that group.

The elderly lady in the corner. She needed chemo every week with no end point. She admitted she was ready to give up, but her family begged her to keep going. For the sake of her children and grandchildren she decided to accept the endless suffering of constant chemo. It is so important for cancer patients to know how important they are to others.

Two friends. Stella has been on an extremely aggressive chemo regime. That’s why when all the other patients went home, she would still be hooked up to the IV. The last hour of any chemo session was hell. Stella did not want anyone to see her when she felt that sick. Anyone except these two friends. We would sit on either side while Stella sat with eyes closed and jaw set. We would look at her and then up at the chemo bag and then back to her face, praying that the chemo would drip a little faster so we could get her home and into bed. By the end, I would go get the car while one of them would practically carry Stella out. It’s not easy seeing someone you love suffering, but that’s why all of us really need our friends.

Stella. Of course the eighth light is Stella herself. At different times throughout our ordeal, I have gotten drunk, punched walls, broke down in tears, and raised my arms to the sky screaming “WHY???” at the top of my lungs. Not Stella. She calmly accepted the situation and kept telling me that she was going to get through it. At times, I even got frustrated because she didn’t seem to listen to the Doctor’s horrible prognosis.

Once I suggested that we fly to Switzerland to look at mountains. Or go anywhere in the world to do whatever she wanted. But she rolled her eyeballs and told me we would travel one day when she was all better. “Hey, hey, it’s not so bad,” has always been her line when things aren’t so good, and even cancer has not altered her tune.

I don’t know how I could have dealt with the situation if our roles were reversed. But Stella is the bravest, strongest, most spiritual person I know and every day she has the light of a full menorah burning inside her.

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