Take My Hand

July 21, 2022

“With Chai Lifeline, there’s no Constitution, no body of laws that dictates “what we do” and “what we don’t do.” Their motto is simply ‘If it’s needed, we do it’”

A Husband Shares His Story

When a mother becomes incapacitated, her husband becomes the full-time advocate and caregiver, and the children, all too often, become the sacrifices. Chai Lifeline was there to ensure that my children were well taken care of every step of the way. They saw to it that our home remained functional; there was supper on the table and there were new shoes to wear at the beginning of the school year. They gave us the stability that we craved and ensured that there were no secondary casualties of serious illness.

I was pulling into my parking spot near Yeshivah on a cool, crisp Sunday morning less than two years ago, when Esther, my 10-year-old daughter, called.

“Tatty, Mommy’s not feeling well. She wants you to come back home.”

Surprised, I rushed home to find my wife, Rivka, complaining that she felt dizzy and disoriented. I wasn’t alarmed until I saw her get up and attempt to walk. She was in tremendous pain and could barely make it to the other side of the room.

Hatzolah members arrived within minutes of my call, and they seemed duly concerned about Rivka’s condition. My seven children were sent to neighbors, and we rushed to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, my heart and mind racing faster than the ambulance in which we rode.

In the hospital, Rivka underwent a battery of tests within a few short hours. A team of oncologists and surgeons examined her and diagnosed her with a spinal cord tumor. The prognosis was grim. Rivka’s condition was deteriorating rapidly, and the doctors were unsure how much longer she would be able to breathe on her own. It all happened so suddenly and without warning; I barely had time to digest the full impact of what was occurring.

Over the next 48 hours, Rivka’s condition stabilized, but the relief was minimal as the outcome of Rivka’s upcoming surgery and treatments remained unknown. The next few days passed in a whirlwind of medical research, phone calls, and arrangements.

As I tried to navigate the complex field of medical professionals, treatment plans, and how to share the devastating news with my children, a close friend suggested I contact Chai Lifeline. Chai Lifeline’s case manager, Rabbi Brodsky, gleaned information about my wife’s condition, shared his medical knowledge, gave me clarity about the diagnosis and treatment protocol, guided me exactly how to relay the heartbreaking news to my children, and offered concrete assistance. In my limited knowledge, I had always thought that Chai Lifeline helped only children with cancer, affording them a once-in-a-lifetime camping experience and cheering them up while they battled the dreaded disease. I didn’t dream that this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Despite my desperation, I was reluctant to accept help. I was proud and independent, surely not one of those people that needed “chessed.” It took only a few short days to realize that no family can endure serious illness alone. After the tactful yet persistent urging of Rabbi Brodsky, we became a “Chai Lifeline family.” I use this term humbly and with utmost gratitude. Becoming a Chai Lifeline family meant that we were now supported and fully cared for. It meant that the helplessness and despondency of sudden illness were more manageable and that my family, my world, would remain whole.

We transferred to Columbia Presbyterian, where my wife underwent surgery and remained for the following 10 days to recover. During this time, my children moved into my in-laws’ home. Always one step ahead of me in figuring out how they could help, Chai Lifeline sent suppers and volunteers there to help ease the burden on my in-laws.

Rivka began her rehabilitative regimen at a rehab hospital. The physical efforts she exerted were staggering, and her willpower to overcome her disability was impressive. However, she desperately missed the kids and wanted to spend time with them. Chai Lifeline expertly arranged this by coordinating every last detail. Each afternoon, volunteers drove my children to the rehab facility, replete with games, homework, supper, and activities. We would close the door to Rivka’s room, and then, for an hour or two, we were like a normal family again. We ate supper together, and the kids did their homework, fought a little (of course), and did all the things that typical families do. Those afternoons were so special and so invigorating for Rivka—they literally infused her with the strength that was required to brave the arduous therapies ahead.

After numerous sleepless nights and painful days, Rivka was discharged from Kessler Rehab. In preparation for our arrival, Chai Lifeline cleaned our home, which was still in the state of morning rush we had left it in on that fateful day. They also set up the necessary accommodations to ensure that Rivka, who was now incapacitated, would be comfortable.

While it was exhilarating to finally step through the threshold of my own home, our long, difficult journey was nowhere near over. The children, ages 1 through 14, were confused and sad. My wife was physically unwell and emotionally drained from her ordeal, and I, who had been running on fewer than two hours of sleep per night, was overwhelmed just thinking of the daunting task at hand.

Pesach was around the corner, but neither Rivka nor I was in any physical or mental state to make the necessary arrangements. My friends and family were eager to help, but I found myself being a round-the-clock coordinator as I delegated the endless tasks that were needed before Yom Tov rather than focusing on my wife’s care and being there emotionally for my children.

At a loss, I called Rabbi Brodsky. He told me to consider every detail tended to. Chai Lifeline volunteers cleaned our car and our house, cooked the entire Yom Tov, picked up our clothes from the dry cleaners, and shopped for my kids’ socks and hosiery. With Chai Lifeline, there’s no Constitution, no body of laws that dictates “what we do” and “what we don’t do.” Their motto is simply “If it’s needed, we do it.” And do it they do. When I looked around at my family the night of the first Seder, celebrating Tom Tov together in our own home, it was hard to keep the tears from flowing. The beautiful and elevated memories we all have from that Yom Tov are indescribable.

Many months of medical appointments, chemo and radiation treatments, and siyata d’Shmaya bore slow but gradual fruit, and some progress was made. Chai Lifeline made this all possible by providing transportation to and from dozens of appointments in the hospital, no matter how far the drive or what time of day or night. They delivered delicious, home-cooked meals each and every evening and an array of Shabbos food each week that gave the expression “from soup to nuts” a whole new meaning. Dedicated and caring volunteers arrived at our doorstep each afternoon to help our children with homework, supper, and bedtime routines. Chai Lifeline made sure to send the same two girls each week so that my children would have as much stability in their lives as possible. When we had early appointments, volunteers were there at 7:30 in the morning to help our children with the morning routine and send them off to school.

There were many nights when the severity of the situation overwhelmed me. In that place of inner turmoil, I knew a listening ear was just a call away. Whenever despair overtook me, Rabbi Brodsky was there to listen and offer keen insights, helping me through the most complex and sensitive issues that cropped up.

Needless to say, as difficult as things were for me, my wife was the one who was struggling the most. A warm and understanding Chai Lifeline professional was always there to meet her emotional needs, validating, listening, and helping her find the courage and determination to get through the ordeal.

Having lost the vibrant mother they were used to overnight, the new circumstances took a toll on my children. Once again, Chai Lifeline was there for them, setting up big brothers and sisters to shower them with special attention. Our girls also joined Kidz Konnect Sunday clubs, where they bonded with children who understood them and thrived in the fun and loving environment.

Our visit to a medical center in Houston, Texas, was crucial to Rivka’s recovery. In preparation for the trip, Chai Lifeline researched and assisted us with hotel accommodations, food, and arrangements for our children. I vividly recall sitting in a specialist’s office, talking to Chai Lifeline’s volunteer coordinator and giving her myriad instructions regarding which child had to be picked up from where at what time in whose car seat; it was all no problem, taken care of before the words were even out of my mouth. The liberation inherent in being able to transfer the heavy responsibility from my shoulders to Chai Lifeline’s was extraordinary, and it allowed me to concentrate all my energies on helping my wife recover.

Last Sukkos, Rivka finished treatment, and we decided to make the trip to my parents in Chicago to spend the first days with them. We were all packed up and ready to go, but then Rivka developed a high fever and my intuition kicked in; we needed to get to the hospital. I had no idea how we would pull this off, but I told the kids to go out of the car since we were staying home for Yom Tov. At that moment, Rabbi Brodsky called to check in on us and wish us a gut Yom Tov (these case managers really have a knack for knowing exactly when to call!). I apprised him of our situation, and he told us not to worry about a thing—our kids and Sukkos would be taken care of.

Magically, they were. In just 48 hours, the entire Yom Tov, start to finish, was arranged. Some volunteers built a sukkah, others went grocery shopping, and yet another group spent hours keeping my children joyfully occupied by decorating the sukkah with them. It was simply beyond anything I could have imagined; had I not witnessed it before my eyes, I would not believe it could be possible. It was all done calmly, efficiently, and without fanfare. On Erev Yom Tov, as Rivka arrived home following her brief hospital stay, a “Sukkos package” was delivered: food for every meal and beautiful paper goods and a tablecloth to enhance our simchas Yom Tov. When Rivka received the package, she held it with tears in her eyes, tears that said, “Somebody is thinking about me and taking care of me.” We would compromise on nothing, thanks to Chai Lifeline.

B’chasdei Hashem, Rivka is in remission and slowly regaining her strength. We’ve recently “graduated” from receiving round-the-clock Chai Lifeline services to less-frequent assistance. Our amazing volunteers come only three days a week instead of six, and instead of fresh daily meals, Chai Lifeline stocks our freezer monthly with a supply of homemade dinners based on our children’s favorite recipes, so they can enjoy a taste of “Mommy’s food” again.

But that feeling of security, of knowing that Chai Lifeline is there and ready to help with anything at any time, keeps us going. The support and guidance we receive from our case manager and the chizuk we derive from the round-the-year events and programs propel us onward. And the knowledge that Chai Lifeline has kept our family whole when it could have so easily become fragmented makes us indebted to them forever.