By Judy F. Minkove
It’s 6:35 on an overcast, September morning. I’m sitting at my desk, trying to proceed with a memoir I’ve been working on for nearly two years. Outside my window, Kelly-green leaves fill my view. The wind is kicking up, humidity no doubt thickening, like my kitchen when I’m cooking for a crowd.
A family of robins perched on a dangling branch catches my eye. Suddenly, I’m privy to a wonderfully raucous reunion. The gathering reminds me of our Shabbat table when everyone’s home yakking about sports, politics and family.
Everyone except our middle child, Rachel, whose disease claimed her life eight years ago.
Huddled in their nest, these birds offer hope, even as my head swirls with angst. God doesn’t reveal His forecast for our lives and the hereafter. All we can do is hope and pray for a good, healthy life and that our departed loved ones’ souls are at peace.
Smoky clouds are gathering. Soon, raindrops will pelt the windows. But I already knew showers were likely today. Like meteorologists who predict our weather, oncologists, too, mine troves of data to foretell outcomes, and I remember that the forecast for Rachel was hopeful: Hodgkin’s lymphoma — the good kind of cancer — with high survival rates, especially for young, otherwise-healthy people.
At 24, our daughter fit that bill. She had a strong initial response to treatment; months later, her bone marrow transplant was deemed a success. She accepted a job offer in New York, where her two brothers, not far away, looked out for her.
Then the telltale cough resurfaced. Rachel needed more treatment, but that didn’t stop her from finding new purpose in social work school, typing papers every week for her classes, despite an onslaught of infections and side effects. She was determined to become an oncology social worker, focused on supporting young adults with cancer.
As her condition worsened, Rachel rediscovered her favorite childhood books. We began a new ritual: Every night, I’d sit at the edge of her bed and read one aloud.
One beloved book we’d read together was “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” by Judi Barrett. In the magical town of Chewandswallow, delicious food falls from the sky. But when the weather takes a turn for the worse, the townspeople consider the food more of a curse than a blessing and have to decide whether to leave their homeland.
Though we never discussed the parallels in Barrett’s tale, I knew we needed a miracle. I suspected Rachel knew it, too. After we’d close the books and say goodnight, I’m pretty sure Rachel recited the “Shema Yisrael,” just as I did every night. The ancient Hebrew prayer from the Torah attests to God’s existence and oneness — the core of our beliefs. In the verse that follows, we reaffirm that we will love our God with all our heart, soul and might. Reciting the prayer before falling asleep, say our sages, improves the odds that we will be protected from harm overnight, as sleep is likened to a mini-death.
But it’s hard to love God without seeing Him directly, especially when someone you adore is suffering. So, instead, I focus on loving God’s creations. I’m reminded of Jean Valjean’s final line in “Les Miserables”: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Each night, as I left Rachel’s room and wished her sweet dreams, I clung to that refrain.
I contemplate the unknown further, feeling my eyes well up again. To die is to finally know if our daughter is in what well-meaning people have called “a better place,” reminiscent of the happily-ever-after endings Rachel and I read together. Those closing words offered hope — elusive as ever, but still important to utter aloud in unison every night, followed by a kiss.
I look out the window again. A pale blue sky has emerged, sunrays brightening leaves on abutting trees. The robins remain perched on that dangling branch. It occurs to me that during an opportune moment, a hungry cat or fox could instantly end this bird family’s lives. Yet the birds continue to chirp joyfully.
The scene conjures how I feel when we’re reunited with our grandchildren, two of whom carry Rachel’s name. As they squeal with delight, I feel our daughter’s presence. With each visit to our home, the toddlers race to our den, emptying the laundry basket filled with toys and books. Moments later, I pull out the dog-eared Eric Carle book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” — Rachel’s favorite — and commence reading aloud to them. As we near the final page, when the caterpillar morphs into a butterfly, I can barely eke out the words.
It won’t be long before those precious grandbabies are old enough to read on their own. No doubt they’ll pick up other books in Rachel’s room — prized ones by Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume and Pamela Swallow, as well as Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl.” Soon enough — and maybe sooner than we’d like, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic — they’ll learn that tragedy can strike at any time, in myriad ways, and that even profound family love can’t deter forces outside ourselves.
Truth be told, I dread the uncomfortable questions those precocious children might ask. I certainly won’t have any answers, especially as COVID-19 continues to claim thousands of lives. And, though none of us can predict what will happen when our children leave their nest, sick or well — or even no longer in this world — we never stop thinking about them. I will be sure to reinforce that point with our grandchildren.
I peer out the window once more. Sunlight pokes through the clouds. There it is again: Rachel’s big, warm smile. I’ve spotted her countless times, while looking up or when I’m out for a walk and a butterfly flits into view, escorting me briefly. With each encounter, I greet my sweet Rachie and thank her for giving me permission to go on with my life. And I pray that her soul lives on, happily ever after, in the next world.
Judy Fruchter Minkove is a writer and editor for Johns Hopkins Medicine. She is working on a memoir about her daughter.