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Joy in Crisis: My Baby Granddaughter's Cancer

March 12, 2018 | by Elana Horwitz

The certainty of God’s power stands in stark contrast to the instability and vulnerability that fill the chapters of our life.

My family and I have been coping with the serious illness of our 1-year-old granddaughter, Ayelet Hashachar bas Shoshana Bracha. It's been a roller coaster of uncertainty and emotions. And there is a lot more to come. With all the drama and stress in this unexpected situation, I continue to be surprised and comforted by moments of joy.

Ayelet's cancer is rare and aggressive.

Any person worldwide has a 1 in about 4000 chance each year of being diagnosed with breast cancer.

In a lottery in which you pick six numbers from a possible pool of 49 numbers, your chances of winning the jackpot (correctly choosing all six numbers drawn) are 1 shot in almost 14 million.

I calculated that since we're 7.6 billion people in the world and there are about 100 new cases every year worldwide of the kind of cancer Ayelet has, a person has a 1 in 76 million chance of being diagnosed with it.

There are only 1 to 4 new cases a year in all of Israel. My husband says about these unlikely statistics, "It's obvious, then, that this is a gift from Heaven."

Or as a friend of mine put it, "We knew that Ayelet was special. Now we know just how special she really is."

At this time a friend of mine is writing a fiction novel. She is releasing chapters in weekly installments, and that's making some readers very nervous. They ask: How many chapters is it total?

Wondering how many tragedies to expect? How much time do we have for the happy stuff to happen?

Guess what? We never know how much time we have for the happy stuff to happen. Or how many tragedies to expect. Or how many chapters it is in total. It's all up to the author.

In this case, the Author with a capital A. God.

Different people cope differently. Personally I like knowing facts. It calms me to understand more of the whole picture of the situation I'm facing.

My sanity and emotional well-being aren't damaged by preparing for all possibilities. I aim to connect with faith in all circumstances, humbly recognizing that ultimately they are not in my control. During the closing prayers of Yom Kippur when we recited seven times, “The Lord, He is God,” I tell myself that this means giving up control to God. I try to make this understanding last all year. Now I have a daily reminder.

Life is full of instability, uncertainty, and vulnerability. But "the certainty of God’s power,” Rabbi Eliyahu Safran asserts, “stands in stark contrast to the fundamental truth of our condition in this world."

As a merit for Ayelet, someone close to the situation has started to observe Shabbat. She asked me "why". Why do Ayelet and her parents deserve this? Why is it for the good?

I asked my husband, a community rabbi, what I should say, because in truth I don't have answers. I want to help strengthen this woman's faith, but if I say something that upsets her or something that proves false, I could damage it. My husband said to say that we don't know. After all, as a friend pointed out, even our great leader Moses couldn't understand everything God did. We need to strengthen our faith unconditionally, without knowing why or if.

Someone said, "It must all seem like a bad dream. Especially given the suddenness with which your entire life changed."

It does seem so unreal. Ayelet is just a cute baby girl. What is she doing cooped up in a hospital room and having all these procedures?

But the fact is that my entire life didn't change because there are still all the other people in my family that to whom I relate and all the other things in my life which I need to manage. My life just got more complicated and overshadowed.

I tell my daughter, Ayelet's mommy, that I'm a person who likes plans and schedules.

Now, the plan is God.

The schedule is God.

I'm trying to carry on as normal. It's not fair if I don't show interest in my other baby grandchild's crawling, or my teenage daughter's birthday, and so on. I'm still trying to be who people need me to be, while accessing my own authentic feelings.

At my local Israeli supermarket, I got the attention of the shelf stocker who is always friendly, and I told her about the baby's illness. She said, "Go right now and get a pen from the front desk and write down your granddaughter's name, and I'll pray for her when I light Shabbat candles."

I explained the situation to the head cashier, and she said, "I am already praying for this child!"

Both women identify as non-religious. But in Israel, when it comes to concern for a baby, these delineations and divisions fade away.

It helps so much to know about people praying and caring. That makes me feel very joyous.

I'm also so happy that the doctors seem to be very on top of things medically. The doctors are accessible and respectful of our intelligence and involvement. That helps, since we feel that they are on our side and we know that we're doing everything we can and that Ayelet is getting the very best medical treatment.

I would like to give special mention to Dr. Ilit Koren of Meir hospital, who was the only one to insist on the CT that revealed Ayelet's brain tumor. Although she has been practicing medicine for only four years, Dr. Ilit Koren listened to her heart and spoke up over voices that were more experienced and deeper than her own. In making that courageous choice, she saved our granddaughter's life, at least for today.

One day Ayelet was low on platelets, which is a common reaction to chemotherapy, and she needed a blood transfusion. She also vomited, which is another common chemo reaction. But she was so happy to go home that day that she started bouncing to her music!

Moments of insight into the person Ayelet is help me joyously focus, not on finding a cure, but on the girl that she is. By keeping my focus on God, when things sometime seem to be going nowhere, we realize that they don't necessarily have to. When we're truly with God, there isn't anywhere we need to go.

I truly appreciate all the prayers, all the caring and all the proposed initiatives even those that don't speak to me personally.

Even within a crisis, we can be happy. Ultimate joy comes from our relationship with our Creator. We ask in the words of a once- popular song, "Won't You help us realize the miracles that You do? Won't you help us realize that happiness comes from You?"

May we all merit full lives of authentic joy. And please pray for Ayelet Hashachar bas Shoshana Bracha.

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