A Shared Load

May 16, 2024

The Chai Lifeline family carries mine

Shani Pruzansky

January 5, 2023, 11:14 a.m.

The world is caving in on me.

Everything that was once stable and solid is crumbling beneath me, turning to dust as I watch, helpless.

I’ve been diagnosed.

After two nail-biting weeks of tests and scans and so, so many questions, the final biopsy results are in: It’s malignant. A tumor. Cancer.

And through the fog that is my brain, all I can think of on this cold, cold Friday is that Shabbos will be here in just a few hours and my kids will be expecting the delicious Shabbos food they eat every week.

What will I tell them?

January 5, 2023, 11:32 a.m.

I can breathe again. Some of the enormous tension that presses on my shoulders eased.

Someone stepped forward. I was introduced to my personal Eliyahu Hanavi. Her name is Esti*, and she’s a case manager from Chai Lifeline. She speaks softly, her voice calm and soothing. She understands.

After a long conversation that feels like just a few minutes, I realize that I’m not alone. She knows what to say, and even more importantly, what not to say. It’s like having a supportive friend with the wisdom of someone who’s been there before. She assures me that she’ll be by my side, and more importantly, my family’s side, and that we’ll get through this together. We’re family, she insists.

I tell her about the food we need for Shabbos, and she assures me that my kids will have everything they can possibly want and more. Home-baked challahs and golden chicken soup with fluffy kneidlach. Crispy potato kugel and babka oozing with chocolate. Farfel and tzimmes and a hearty cholent. Everything.

“But how?” I ask the faceless woman on the phone. “It’s almost Shabbos!”

“Don’t worry about it,” she says.

“But my kids,” I whisper. “I don’t want them to know we’re taking food from someone else. I don’t want them to feel like nebachs.”

“Just leave it to me.” She laughs.

And I do. Less than an hour later, there’s a short rap on the door. I open it to find a box from Gourmet Glatt. I haven’t made any orders. What’s this?

Inside the box, I find a full package of fragrant, homemade Shabbos food, cleverly hidden in an ordinary grocery box.

I look at all the food, at the kugel and the soup, the fish and the challah, and a warm feeling spreads through me.

I’m going to be okay. I’m going to get through this. Because someone is going through this with me, and she promised to stay by my side all the way to the end.

January 8, 2023

First day of treatment. First day of having my body pumped with a poisonous cocktail that will destroy my healthy cells, make my eyebrows disappear, and leave me limp, exhausted, and sick to my stomach.

First day of Gehinnom.

I dress slowly, but without much care. Does it really matter how I look today?

My husband waits, but I flit around the house, sweeping one last pile of crumbs off the floor, washing one last pot in the sink, and folding one last mountain of laundry. Who knows how I’ll feel later? Who knows when I’ll have the energy to do all this again?

He waits, still, as I linger for just one more moment, not wanting to leave the soft embrace of home for the cold reality that will become my new routine in Sloan Kettering.

There’s a soft knock on the door and then the muffled squeal of tires. We look outside, curious, and there, on our front porch, is a box. We lug it inside and open it to find that it’s full of toys for every member of the family. Something special and fun to distract and entertain them on the first day of Mommy’s treatment.

I don’t have to ask; I know that Esti is behind this. I blink back tears of gratitude and turn to my husband.

“Let’s go,” I tell him. “I’m ready now.”

January 28, 2023

Midwinter vacation.

For the rest of Lakewood, that means skiing and snow tubing, trips to American Dream and Sky Zone, or at the very least, a special craft project to do at home.
But for my kids, it means being stuck inside with a mother who’s almost too sick to lift her head off the pillow. I watch from my perch on the couch as my kids’ boredom and irritability grows throughout the morning and despair claws at me. Does cancer have to rob my kids of everything?

And then there’s a soft scuffle outside the door. This time, I know who’s behind it even before my kids haul the box inside.

Today, Esti sent a colorful package stuffed with all sorts of activities and games for the kids to do at home during mid-winter vacation. There are ingredients for making Rice Krispies treats. A paint kit. An adorable homemade Candyland game.

My kids whoop and laugh and immediately get to work on the Rice Krispies treats. And just like that, the day is transformed into a fun vacation, just like it’s meant to be.

I snuggle into the couch and fall into a deep, blessed sleep. Thank you, Esti.

February 10, 2023

I knew cancer was no walk in the park, but no one told us how many questions we’d have. There’s so much to think about, so much to know, and so many decisions to make.

With Esti on call, though, I have a warm, listening ear on hand whenever I need one. And I need one often. I call her all the time, rambling on about my concerns, my issues with whatever’s bothering me that day, and my questions about my tumor and my treatment plan.

Today, before she hangs up, she says, “I’m sure your husband can also use someone to talk to. Let me send you Rabbi Fried’s number so he can call him.”

I hadn’t said a word to her about this. But somehow, like always, she anticipated what we needed even before I asked.

February 15, 2023

“I’m not eating this!” Zalmy pouts. He kicks the table leg hard. “There are pieces of onion all over. It’s gross!”

I sigh and try wrapping up the leftovers for my husband.

It isn’t easy to serve someone else’s food for supper each night. But right now, there’s no way I can cook for my family.

When Esti hears about the supper scene, she’s horrified.

“That’s not how this is supposed to work!” she says. “I want you to tell me exactly what your family likes to eat.”

“No onions,” I tell her. “No onions ever.”

“Okay,” she says. “Now I want to hear your weekly menu, when you serve milchigs and fleishigs and what you serve each night.”

I start to fill her in.

“Wait,” she says. “I want your exact recipes, so I can have volunteers make suppers that taste just like yours. I don’t want you to ever have a repeat of what went on tonight at your table.”

“Neither do I,” I say, laughing.

February 22, 2023

Zalmy looks at his plate of onion-less mashed potatoes and crispy schnitzel, and he smiles.

“Yum,” he says.

I’m smiling, too.

It’s one week later, and the supper scene in my house has completely changed. We’re still receiving supper boxes every night, but now they’re filled with delicious food my family loves to eat. Once a week, we’re getting takeout, ordered to perfectly match my kids’ preferences. And when the food is more “adult” than Zalmy would like, the volunteer makes sure to send over some hot dogs for him to eat.

There’s always so much food! There’s soup and salad, a protein and a starch, a vegetable and a dessert. It’s so good to know that my family can still enjoy a hearty meal each night even when their mother is too weak to carry a pot to the stove.

Thank you, Esti, for helping us to taste normalcy during a time of insanity.

June 1, 2023

I catch sight of the date on the calendar near the fridge, and I panic.

It’s June. June! And not even one of my kids is signed up for camp.

Between the diagnosis and starting treatment, everything but the absolute essentials have dropped from my life. I haven’t even thought about applying for camps yet, and now summer is already nipping at our heels, and my kids have no plans!

By now, I don’t stop to think. I just call Esti and explain the situation. “I’m almost embarrassed to ask you this, but is there any way you can help me get my kids into camp now?”

Esti laughs and assures me it’s no problem. She takes down all my kids’ information, including their second and third choices for summer plans, and tells me she’ll take care of it.

The next day, she calls me back.

“They’re all settled,” she says.

“What?” I sputter. “So quickly? All of them?”

Surely, she couldn’t get my Chani into sleepaway camp so late in the year! And Miriam wanted that job—

“I’m just curious,” I tell her. “Where are they going?”

She quickly fills me in.

She’s done it all. The younger ones are settled in day camps. Miriam was accepted for the JC job she wanted. Chani’s going to sleepaway camp. My boys will be attending the same day camp as their friends. And my older boy will be going to the mesivta camp he was begging to go to.

“You’re amazing,” I tell her. “How did you do all that?”

“It was nothing,” she says. “That’s what I’m here for, remember?”

November 21, 2023

Today was not a good day. Not a good day at all.

I’m lying on the couch, limp as the throw blanket that covers my shivering body. I haven’t been able to keep down a thing in two days.

There’s a soft tap on the door, and the knob turns.

It’s Esti.

“I came to see how you’re feeling,” she says softly. “And I brought you this.”

She hands me a frothing cup of iced coffee slush with a scoop of ice cream and a drizzle of caramel, just the way I like it.

“I also brought you this menu,” she says. She places a glossy paper from my favorite café beside me on the couch. “Look through it and let me know what you want for lunch, ’kay?”

When she goes, she leaves behind an extra-large coffee slush and a heart that feels just a little bit lighter.

December 12, 2023

Another day, another challenge.

Again, I can’t keep any food down. Again, I can barely move.

My phone bleeps with another text from Esti: I’m coming over in a few. I have something for you.

What does she have up her sleeve this time?

A few minutes later, she’s here. In her hands, she holds a beautifully wrapped package.

“It’s an at-home spa,” she tells me. “There are scented soaps inside, a face mask, some essential oils—everything you need to feel relaxed and pampered.”

I smile for the first time in days. I’m already feeling relaxed and pampered, just knowing that no matter how many twists and turns I find on this arduous journey, someone will be here for me all the way through.

February 18, 2024

I’m ready to collapse and it’s only 10:37 a.m. Why don’t girls have school on Sunday again? The noise, the mess—it’s too much for me now.

A car horn blares, and the girls rush to the door in a flurry of puffy coats.

“Bye, Ma!”

The door slams behind them, and I remember: Kids Konnect. My girls look forward to their Sunday clubs all week long. They’ve made good friends there, and there’s a feeling of family at the clubs, of knowing that they’re all in this together. They come home on a high each week, overflowing with stories about the projects they made, the games they played, and the fun they had during these precious few hours every week when they escape the shadow of illness that hangs over our home.

For me, it means a chance to curl up with a book, indulge in a nap, or make a stab at housework. It’s a few blessed hours to look after my own needs and recharge.

I thank Chai Lifeline for this gift every single Sunday.

March 11, 2024

Wait—was I supposed to buy stuff for mishlo’ach manos already?

I can’t really think clearly these days, but Miriam makes sure I remember.

“We didn’t get a thing yet!” she says. “And Yehudis’s family is totally done! Why can’t we be normal?”

I blink back tears as my phone rings. It’s Esti.

“Get your kids ready to leave,” she says. “A volunteer is on the way to take them shopping for mishlo’ach manos. And don’t worry about supper; she’ll take them for pizza.”

“Thank you, Esti,” I breathe.

“Oh—and she’s also going to get some stuff for you to send to your kids’ teachers and rebbe’im. Can you just text me a list of how many you need?”

April 8, 2024

It’s almost Pesach, and I haven’t started cleaning yet. But I’m calm. Because today, while I’m in New York for scans, Esti is sending over a cleaning crew that will tackle my house and leave it sparkling and ready for Pesach. And this is after telling me that both our cars will be professionally cleaned for Pesach this year, courtesy of Chai Lifeline.

There’s more. Last night, when I told her how my aching knees make it so hard for me to get to any stores, she told me she’s sending over a box of paper goods for the entire Yom Tov.

“Thank you,” I told her. “That would be so, so helpful.”

It’s more than just the thought of not having to schlep to the store. It’s the lighter financial load at a time when I’m not working. It’s the relief of crossing something off our list when we’re limping breathlessly toward the finish line.

And it’s the thought of knowing that someone cares and is here to share the burden.

May 5, 2024

My story isn’t over yet; it’s one I live every day. And Esti is still here with me.

From the moment of diagnosis, she’s been holding my hand and helping to make this easier in every way possible.

There are days when I feel emotionally and physically drained, and she’s always just a phone call or visit away with the right words at exactly the right moment.

It’s the medication she was able to use her connections to procure for me overnight when every drug store in a 200-mile radius, and even those online, didn’t have it in stock.

It’s the birthday gift she bought for my daughter when she knew I wasn’t up to celebrating anything but still wanted my daughter to feel special.

It’s the conversation she talked me through when my high school daughter was being bullied with the threat of having her mother’s illness revealed to the class and the way she helped me deal with the entire situation.

It’s the Big Brother she found for my Zalmy so he doesn’t feel so alone when his mother can’t give him the attention and love he needs.

It’s the extra cleaning help she sends each week, which makes me feel like I am still running a functional home.

It’s the Moms’ Night Out, where we’re treated like royalty and meet other women who know, who get it.

It’s the family events sprinkled throughout the year, the mega Chanukah extravaganza and the pool parties, the Chol Hamo’ed outings and the generous Chanukah gifts, and so, so much more.

It’s so many things, too many to count, that help turn this story from a nightmare into a difficult but passable challenge.

All those months ago, she promised to support me, to stay at my side through the end. And she kept her promise, and then some. Her support was more than a blessing; it was a lifeline.

No matter how challenging things get, there’s a sense of calm knowing that I have an anchor with an army of support surrounding us. Because someone is by my side, holding my hand and helping me through, every step of the way. After all, we’re family.

*All names and identifying details have been changed.