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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Shared Secrets (mishpacha magaziine)

The pain was unbearable. Excruciating. It was impossible to hide from it. It encroached on every fiber of her being and left her exhausted, a shadow of herself.
Quiet. She wanted silence. Instead, the machine, the little blue monster, constantly beeped (it sounded like a scream) as it monitored the amount of medicine entering her bloodstream. And then, whenever she succeeded in ignoring the constant beeping and, after taking a pill to calm the pain, fall into a restless sleep, a doctor or a nurse, or a technician would appear, and with a forced smile say, "Good morning (or good evening, or good afternoon) Mrs. Kohn. We're here to check your pulse (or take your blood, or bring you to another test. There was no limit to their creativity)."

Batya Kohn would open her eyes, take a deep breath, choke on her own lack of lung capacity and try to smile. She had to smile. It was her tenuous hold on normalcy, to the world that had once been.

The nightmare began four weeks ago, on a Friday afternoon. Well actually, it began even months before that, but Batya had just thought that she was under the weather, or, that at the ripe old age of twenty nine she was beginning to feel the first pangs of middle age. The doctors kept on telling her that it was nothing; that she was under too much stress and much too lonely, that she needed to be married, that being a single mother was overwhelming her and that she desperately needed a vacation.

Everyone pitied her. One of the local tzedaka ladies had arranged for Batya to spend a week at a fancy hotel in the North. Meanwhile, another local tzedaka lady arranged for families to take care of Batya's children while she was away "getting her strength back." So to keep everyone but herself happy, Batya had spent a week trying to rest, eating more than she should and gabbing about absolutely nothing with the other ladies, all the while worrying about her children – after all, they were all she had -- and wishing that she was strong enough to be home, taking care of them, instead of pretending to enjoy herself at a hotel.

But when Batya returned home, she was still as exhausted, as totally drained as she had been before the vacation. She was unable to cope with anything – absolutely nothing. She could barely prepare herself a cup of coffee, let alone take care of her family.

Batya spent that Friday morning lounging in her apartment, wondering how she would possibly manage to get Shabbos together. Actually, there wasn't very much to do. The neighbors were sending in the meals, and a local seminary girl had come that morning to tidy the apartment (Oh, she could feel the pity in their eyes). Still, she had to organize the children's clothes – iron the boys' white shirts, make sure they had matching socks, and mend her daughter's white stockings. And the shoes – oh yes, the shoes! --had to be polished.

At three o'clock, Batya she realized that she had better start doing something. After all, how long could a healthy woman (at least that's what everyone said she was) remain in bed? She quickly donned a robe and threw a white table cloth on the dining room table. She set up the Shabbos candles and started organizing the children's clothes. For the first time in a week, she was moving around instead of lying in bed staring at a book that she was incapable of reading.

It happened when she was in the middle of ironing her younger son's Shabbos shirt. Her head exploded, shattering into a million, billion pieces of agony. Her entire body went into spasms as every muscle contracted. She felt as if her entire being was in the very last stage of labor. And then she started vomiting. She couldn't stop. She vomited until there was nothing left, and then she continued vomiting ugly specks of putrid green bile, over and over and over again.

Batya somehow managed to fling herself onto the sofa. She saw everything in triplicate. Tables and chairs and toys, they were floating everywhere, intermingled with overwhelming waves of pain and a deep abyss of fear that threatened to engulf with its wide tentacles, like the enormous mad monster with its many slides at the playground on the other side of the city; the one she took the children to when she wanted to take them on a special outings. Batya lifted her hand and brought it up to her face. She saw three hands -- fifteen perfectly formed fingers -- dancing grotesquely in front of her eyes. Her hand went limp as she closed her eyes and vomited, again and again and again – and again.

When the neighbor came in half an hour later, she found Batya curled up on the sofa, her eyes closed, a puddle of vomit on the floor. "Are you all right?" she asked, ("Boy, the stress of raising those children alone is really getting to her," she thought.)

Batya gasped, "Everything hurts," and then vomited, again.

Batya was in so much pain that she could not lift her head off the pillow, so the neighbor lit the Shabbos candles for her. Se was too weak to even say thank you. She felt as if a million hammers – no heavy iron anvils – were whipping relentlessly at her brain. Every time she opened her eyes and saw the world spinning around her -- in triplicate -- she gagged and vomited, again.

The neighborhood doctor came that evening on his way to shul. "A bad case of the stomach flu" was his diagnosis, at least that's what he told her. To the neighbors he quietly clucked his tongue and said that he didn't see anything wrong, and that the stress and loneliness must be getting to her.

While the children ate their  Shabbos seudah with the neighbors that evening, Batya managed to crawl (on all fours, vomiting the entire way) to the bathroom. When the neighbor appeared a few hours later to see how Batya was feeling, she found her lying in a pool of vomit and blood. She was still vomiting.

Batya spent the next four days in the hospital. After endless tests (which although abnormal but did not point to anything definite), the hospital staff was unable to come up with a diagnosis. They concluded that Batya's symptoms were psychosomatic; she was under much too much stress.

Batya returned home to piece her life together. But she couldn't. She wanted to, she really did. But she was just too exhausted. Problems that she had always viewed as challenges to be dealt with were now impossible tzuros that threatened to overwhelm and engulf her. So she returned to her and bed in a vain attempt to get her strength back, until it was erev Shabbos – again -- and the house had to be readied and the children's clothes ironed.

This time, Batya managed to call a friend the moment she felt the explosion as her world turned black. "I'm dying," she gasped, before dropping the phone on the table and collapsing on the sofa.

Batya has no memory of how she managed to get to her friend's house. She thinks that she was carried to the car. She does have vague memories of lying on the sofa during the Shabbos meal, wishing that everyone would be silent –- her head felt as if it was on fire -- and that she would stop vomiting. She bit her lips to stop herself from screaming.

"Batya," her friend's husband gently told her, "Sometimes when we are overwhelmed by emotions and unable to cope, our bodies react this way. You must start giving yourself positive messages. If you think positive, you'll feel better."

Batya wanted to explain that although she really, truly, with all her might wanted to think positive, it was impossible for her to think. The pain engulfed her, leaving no room for such a luxury. Instead, she was overwhelmed by another wave of nausea and shut her eyes to escape the dizzying triple visions spinning around her.

When Batya started coughing up blood several days later, she didn't even bother to tell anyone. She was positive that it must just be another figment of her imagination, and that she had not yet succeeded in attaining the fine art of positive thinking. Everyone insisted that she was perfectly healthy.

When Batya went to see a specialist a few days later, everyone was positive the doctor would confirm their suspicions that Batya was having a nervous breakdown. "I'll park the car, and meet you in his office," Batya's friend had said as they pulled up in front of the hospital. Using  strength that she never knew she possessed, Batya managed to get out of the car. She was learning to see reality through the thick haze of growing blackness and to know which of the three things dancing in front of her were real, and which were nothing more than figments of her imagination, psychosomatic signs of stress and a lack of positive thinking.

When the doctor asked Batya to describe what was bothering her, all she could answer was, "Everything." She was afraid of listing all her complaints, and besides, it took all her energy to just continue breathing. "Why bother talking when no one believes me?" she wondered.

So she handed him the hospital report instead. The doctor spent a few minutes reading it. "Mrs. Kohn," he said, "you are a very healthy young woman."

"Baruch Hashem," she managed to gasp. She certainly didn't feel like one.

But within seconds of starting the examination, the doctor put down his stethoscope and, with a very serious expression on his face said, "Mrs. Kohn, you are an extremely sick young woman. We're hospitalizing you immediately."

"How wonderful," was all Batya could answer. Finally, someone believed her. She felt like dancing for joy that she was sick, and not insane.

That was two weeks ago. For two weeks, Batya had felt herself fading in and out of reality. The world around her seemed to dance grotesquely, in perfectly choreographed triplicate, turning light, and then dark, and then light again. The doctors told her that her situation was extremely precarious. Blood clots were pulsating throughout her body. Some had gone into her brain, others had paralyzed an eye muscle, while several hundred had lodged in her lungs. According to statistics, she should go into heart failure. If she was very, very lucky, she wouldn't.

*  *  *

The miracle began a few days before Chanuka -- Batya was lying perfectly motionless -- so as not to place any additional stress on the heart -- while wiggling her toes to prevent additional clots from forming in her legs, and staring into soupy blackness. A man entered the room, playing a Chanuka melody on his violin.

"Chanuka?"  Batya turned to her friend who had come to visit. The nightmare had started before Rosh Hashana.

"It's the twentieth of Kislev. Chanuka begins in another few days," the friend answered.

"The twentieth of Kislev," Batya repeated. "Next year, on the twentieth of Kislev, I'm going to celebrate! I'll make a seudos hodaya to rejoice that I'm still alive, and that I'm healthy to boot!" Batya predicted. 

When Batya left the hospital two weeks later, she was forty pounds thinner. She barely had the strength to walk from the taxi to her apartment. The next few months were in some ways even more challenging than the weeks she had spent fading in and out of consciousness. She wanted (oh, how much she wanted…) to return to normal life, but the doctors warned her that she must rest. Neighbors and Seminary students took turns helping with the children while cleaning ladies took over the housework. But Batya was happy; people believed her. She was not insane, and she couldn't wait to return to her former, vibrant self.

Whenever Batya saw the friend, the one who had been visiting her when the musician entered the room playing a Chanuka melody, she would smile and whisper, "We're going to make that seudos hodaya. Remember? The twentieth of Kislev."

A few days before Rosh Hashana, one of the neighbors suggested a shidduch, Batya laughed. She couldn't imagine getting married again. Her children were too young, and she was much too busy living-- and enjoying -- life. She had gone through too much pain and had invested too much energy in creating a warm and loving home. "No," she firmly told the neighbor, "I'm not interested. I'm very happy with my life."

But the day after Sukkos Batya found herself carefully applying lipstick and brushing her shaitel as she got ready to meet a young widower with three small children. Although she kept on telling herself that she would politely find a reason to leave at the first opportunity, she found herself strangely excited at the prospect of going out on a date.

When, after close to two months of dating, Batya found herself beginning every second sentence with, "If I decide to marry you then…" (and blushing furiously as she said those words) she came to the conclusion that she had better decide whether or not she would marry Avraham.

And so, at two thirty-five in the morning, on the nineteenth of Kislev, Batya and Avraham decided to build their lives together. They were so wrapped up in the joy of finding their soul mates that they – or at least Batya – did not notice the date.

The following morning, Batya and Avraham informed their friends of their momentous decision. That evening, the neighbors made a small engagement party. Everyone sang, danced, and cried. In the middle of the festivities, some of the ladies began started talking about everything that Batya had gone through that year.

That was when Batya remembered – the seudos hodaya! "What's the date?" she asked one of the ladies.

"The twentieth of Kislev, a mazeldik shah," was the reply. 

Batya glanced at her friend, the one who had sat by her bed; the one who had heard the musician playing the Chanuka songs. They looked at each other and smiled -- and then broke into tears.

Some secrets are too sacred to share.

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