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The One who Made Me Smile

December 30, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Wonderful, dedicated Ezer Mizion volunteers visit the  children’s wards in the various hospitals each week,  bringing with them oceans of love and devotion to these ill children, who await their visits so eagerly. The medical staff strongly encourages these visits because of the real, significant improvement that takes place in a child’s condition when he is happy. Some of the volunteers take a turn sitting by the sick child’s bed, giving the exhausted parents a chance to enjoy a break of a few hours, to relax, freshen up, and give a bit of attention to the family they left behind. Other volunteers go from bed to bed, cheering up the children in every possible way.

By Y. Weller

B’NEI BRAK, Israel–Telling a nine-year old child that she has cancer is something like dropping her in the middle of a raging battlefield, thick with smoke, giving her a rifle and saying, “Go ahead, little girl, fight!” Chances are she will start screaming and run in the opposite direction, or perhaps try to hide in some ditch. But in this case – that is, with advanced blood cancer, there is nowhere to run. She can try to hide, but it won’t stop the pain.

I was almost nine years old on that terrible day. Two days of headaches, fever and bleeding, Tylenol, vomiting, and so on. And then, I passed out.

I had been lying in bed since the morning, except for a few runs to the bathroom. Mom went out for a minute. She wouldn’t have left me alone like that, but the Tylenol was finished, and she went to borrow some more from a neighbor.

Someone knocked at the door, maybe a neighbor asking for milk, or a man coming to collect the contents of the tzedaka box – no difference. But for some reason, I thought it was of utmost importance to get up and answer the door. Maybe Mom got locked out? How? When you have 104 degrees temperature, logic is not in top form.

All I can say is that I got up somehow and shuffled to the door. There was a scent of frying eggplant in the air. Since that day, I have never been able to touch eggplant. Whenever I smell the thing, I feel as if I am back in that endless corridor, my ears burning, my head heavy and –

At this point, it is as if someone burned the memory film in my mind. Two people in an ambulance. Another mental short circuit. A clamorous emergency room. Everything is a fog.  I’m floating in the air. A lot of orderlies moving and talking. My mother bending over me. “How do you feel, sweetheart?” I murmur something and sink back into unconsciousness.

The first month of cancer. The most terrible month in my life. How is a nine year old girl supposed to cope with horrible treatments, painful tests, and the conviction that she is going to die within a day or two? Just like Zeidy died of “the illness,” just like Shoshi’s grandmother and the father from the black tzedakah flier died.  I kept picturing in my mind rough building walls covered from top to bottom with posters carrying a picture of me smiling, yahrtzeit candles, and five weeping children – my brothers. “The illness,” somebody whispers, “G-d help us.”

But I wasn’t planning to tell you what it’s like to discover you have cancer. You probably heard hundreds and thousands of stories like that. I wanted to tell you about her, the one who didn’t just light up the darkness, but simply fought back the darkness with her bare hands. The one who forced me to smile.

Another awful day. Excuse me, another routine day. I lay wearily in my narrow, hard bed, my head throbbing and my body aching. The medicine cart had been there a few minutes earlier, and then –

She burst into the room like a bank robber, a black case with a keyboard inside slung over her shoulder. “Hi,” she said in the most natural voice. “I have to practice playing my keyboard, you understand, and they said that I can do it here.” I stared at her with wide open eyes, but the girl didn’t even seem to notice. She collapsed onto the end of the bed, and considering her wide proportions, that was no small feat. “All right,” she ran her hand through her short, black hair. “My friends say I have terrible taste in songs. Want to check it out?”

Suddenly, I found my tongue, “Um, uh, who are you?”

“You’ll hear in a moment,” she pulled open the zipper with a dramatic flair, her fingers tapped lightly on the keys and she started singing in a thick voice.

“I’m not Sara Schenirer, I’m not Rebbetzin Kanievsky, I’m not – ” she wrinkled her brow, “Ummmm… Alright, we’ll skip that. But I am Sara, shara me’halev me’halev me’hallllllev – who sings from the heart, the heart, the heaaaaaaaaart.” She stretched that note like yellow cheese in a grilled toast, while I choked up, hysterically laughing.  “Are you laughing at me,” she asked, offended. “Oh, you’re not? Well, all right then. Anyway, like I said, my name is Sara, but I am shara me’halev me’halev me’halllllev –”

That was the first time I met “Sara from the heart”, a heavy, funny girl who just needed “a place to practice,” and for some reason, decided that my room in Tel Hashomer Hospital, with the IV stand and the pervasive smell of medicine, is the best place in the world for her music. I admit that I don’t understand much about musical inspiration, but it really didn’t strike me as the ideal spot.

I don’t know if she herself would have told me, but from comments I overheard from the nurses, I understood that she was an Ezer Mizion volunteer. Not that I ever thought she simply landed here from outer space, complete with her keyboard. But one thing is for sure – from the day that “Sara from the heart” appeared in the hospital with her keyboard and her thick voice, it stopped being a hospital. I mean, there were still treatments and chemotherapy, but now, real life was Sara (from the heart) and all the rest were painful side annoyances – admittedly difficult, but all quite tangential.

She didn’t let me talk much, nor did I have much energy to do so. Mostly, she would sing enthusiastically, or plan what I would do the minute I would be out of there.

“When you’ll finish with this hospital scene, a matter of a few days, you’ll see what I meant. Count on me.”

My mother simply worshipped her. Once she even hugged her so hard that Sara didn’t know what to do with herself. “A tzaddekes,” my mother said once when we were alone, “she is simply an angel.”

Once I asked her, as children do, how old she is. In response, she started singing “To a hundred and twenty…!” Years later, I learned a few details about Sara that snapped together to form a sad puzzle.

When I first met her, Sara was about twenty four years old. She came from a broken home – difficult parents, rebellious brothers, poverty. Paradoxically, in her everyday life, Sara was not particularly happy, the inevitable product of a tough, depressing life. I was her “hour of release” and she really did it with all her heart. And she had a lot of heart. She was made of pure gold, the kind that shadchanim never discover.

I finally came out of it at age 12, on my birthday. Joy, happiness, glee – all these words are too weak to describe my bas mitzvah celebration – a party that was actually also the day of my freedom. F-r-e-e-d-o-m. Freedom from illness, from the hospital, freedom for my family from three years of worry and tribulations. The party was an explosion of emotions, tears of joy and release. All the women in the neighborhood came. My brother, the clown, suggested that the bear hugs would finish off what the illness didn’t do. His comment earned him a murderous look from his older sister, but I just burst out laughing. It was such sheer pleasure to laugh, dance, jump around. I’m healthy! No more chemotherapy, no more white bed, no more nurses and doctors (who were actually pretty nice), no more davening for me. And if there are posters in the streets, they aren’t black with yahrtzeit candles; they’re pink, with gold feathers, and I appear there laughing at my brother’s joke, and everyone there is so happy…

And then, after my aunt hugged me for the eighth time, she came in – Sara.

I may have frightened some people with my screech, but I couldn’t help it. I remember running, the entire world around me swirling, while one point remained stable – Sara.

I hugged her. I hugged her for all the “Sara from the heart” and for all the “When you get out of this bed,” and for all the times she gave me hope and fought the darkness with her bare hands (and the keyboard), and for the fact that she may be the one responsible for my being here today. She hugged me back and I remember asking myself, “What crazy man would not want to marry her?”

After that, I stepped aside, and my mother tearfully embraced her. Sara was uncomfortable, as if she really didn’t understand what the fuss was all about.

When we sat down on the couch, my mother, Sara and I, I promised myself that the moment I was able to, I would become an Ezer Mizion volunteer.  I would look after a little girl, and help her not to think too much about the burning orange liquid, that awful chemotherapy. I would get her to think about the day she would come out of her hospital bed and how happy everyone would be. I would be there when it hurts, just like Sara was, and just like thousands of tzaddikim and tzadkaniyos are. After all, I have experience.

I kept my word. As soon as I could, I started volunteering. I became a regular visitor in a few children’s wards. I cheered them up with all my heart, and still, I felt that I could never be Sara, because she had a heart of gold.

The years passed, and from a lively girl, I turned into a busy housewife, and the passing years almost made me forgot my promise, almost.

When my last son began cheder and I was left alone most hours of the day, I remembered the promise I had made years ago.

I called the closest Ezer Mizion branch and asked if they had something appropriate for a woman in her early thirties who is not cut out for hospitals and such. I was told about a volunteering niche that does not require me to budge an inch. All I have to do is pick up the phone and talk to lonely women, whose loneliness is no less painful to them than serious illness.

No less painful than blood cancer – I thought to myself – and I agreed to give it a try. An older woman, said the secretary, all alone in the world. Her name is Sara.

Got it? I didn’t, not yet, though something fluttered in my mind, some old memory.

I found a quiet moment – and there were many – and called. The phone rang, one ring, and then another, a bit too slowly for my thumping heart. And then I heard the voice.


That voice! It was so familiar. Somehow older, wearier, but very familiar. The world started spinning. Memories of joy and pain danced about before my eyes. The wheel of life just completed a full turn.

“Sara,” what happened to my voice? “Sara, is it really you?”

And just like that time, so many years earlier, Sara chose to answer in her own unique way, in song. “To – a – hundred – and twenty.”

Preceding provided by Ezer Mizion


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