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Turning Tides: Joy in the Darkness

As told to Leah Gebber

What would Rivka want her bas mitzvah to look like, now that there could be none of the big ideas she’d dreamed about?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

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It’s just a cough.

It’s just a cough that won’t go away.

It’s just a cough that won’t go away and a little fever.

It’s just a cough that won’t go away and a little fever and lingering weakness.

It’s just a blood test.

It’s just an X-ray.

It’s just a CT scan.

It’s just a PET scan.

It’s just a few rounds of chemotherapy.

Rivka was eleven and a half when we discovered a growth between her lungs and her heart. Everyone has ups and downs in life, and I’ve supported many of my family members through hard times. With Hashem’s help — and the help of my wonderful family — I knew we’d get through this.

It started off okay. Rivka wasn’t admitted to the hospital, we just had to spend three days a week there, for the chemo. And then there were the appointments. So most days, we were there. But she came home to sleep, which meant that I came home to sleep. Our family still had a framework, a structure: We could sit down together to a late supper each evening, and in the morning, I could fill a thermos with herbal tea and make sandwiches before we headed to the hospital for the day.

And really, in the hospital they had everything. A special room for studying and schoolwork, with a full-time tutor on site to help Rivka and the other patients keep up with schoolwork as much as they could. Toys and computers and balloon artists and clowns. Really, the children’s oncology ward is done so beautifully. As long as you don’t have to stay there.

 

But by the time Rivka was a month into her treatment, it was too much for her to return home each night. She couldn’t walk. She could barely stand. She was nauseated and weak and tearful, and so she began to occupy the bed put aside for her on the children’s ward, and I became accustomed to the large armchair that tipped back so that my eyes could close each night, even if I woke up with an aching back, and stiff neck.

It was only chemo, I told myself. Thousands of children have chemo every single day.

But it’s my daughter, with her heart-shaped face and slight build. With her soft, high voice, easy smile, and cheerful nature.

It’s difficult to suffer. It’s worse to see the suffering of someone you love. It’s worse to hold your daughter in your arms as her whole body shakes and she’s so weak that her body is limp. It’s worse to feel the flesh fading away and her frame becoming gaunt and narrow.

Every moment can last a year, and yet the months can slip by. Before we knew it, Pesach was approaching. With Pesach came Rivka’s bas mitzvah.

Rivka is one of the younger girls in her class, which meant that she had tagged on or heard about numerous celebrations, whether trips to kivrei tzaddikim up north, a steak meal with American grandparents, a challah-bake-with-dance combination. She and her friends had described, analyzed, and judged styles of updos, and debated just how fancy a girl should dress on her bas mitzvah.

They’d been primed for this big day with a huge school performance about the meaning of the responsibility they’d now be able to take on. It was just after Rivka started treatment. She’d had a fever that day and was in the hospital. Someone offered to arrange a live stream so Rivka could see it as it took place, but we decided it would be too painful for her.

And now Rivka’s bas mitzvah was approaching and I thought, how can I make this day special? What would Rivka want it to look like, now that there could be none of the big ideas she and her friends had dreamed about? (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 578)

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