Mothers often criticize their teenagers about the crazy hours they keep, the friends they choose, and what they decide to eat, drink, wear, and do. But you won't hear a negative word out of me. I am a mother who appreciates that every moment with her son is a gift.
I'll never forget the call. My husband and I had just walked through the front door of our home in Jerusalem's Old City when the phone rang.
"Mom," I heard my son groan. "It's Yosef... I'm all right."
"You're all right?" I gasped (not having imagined otherwise). "Where are you?"
"In the hospital. I got stabbed."
Stunned that our son had become a victim of terror, my husband and I raced to Hadassah Hospital. For most of the ride we sat in silence, engrossed in our separate thoughts and fears. Words could not communicate what was going through our minds. We got to the hospital just as they were rushing Yosef into the operating room. There was no time for us to consult with anyone about his condition or to hire a private surgeon; the emergency-room staff had to work quickly if they were to save his life.
We spent the next few hours in the waiting room, praying that our son would pull through.
We spent the next few hours in the waiting room, praying that our son would pull through. We still had no idea what had happened. I found myself staring at the operating room doors, willing them to open. As time passed without relief, I got up to pace the corridors and recalled with irony that it was in this very hospital that Yosef was born. Who would have imagined that child being rushed back in critical condition, 17 years later?
At last, the head surgeon came out and led us to his office. "My name is Dr. Simcha," he said as we shakily took our seats, and at that moment I knew it was going to be all right. I knew we wouldn't hear bad news from a doctor named "Simcha," the Hebrew word for "Joy."
The doctor explained that our son had been stabbed in the lower back, and the knife had cut into one of his kidneys. The stabbing was bad enough, he told us, but when the attacker pulled the knife back out it caused even more damage. When Yosef reached the hospital, they did a series of X-rays and hurried him into surgery. They opened him up, stopped the bleeding, but could not save the injured kidney.
Later, when my son was able to talk, we pieced the story together. He had taken a shortcut home that night, through the deserted Arab market near Jaffa Gate. Although he had noticed a man walking behind him and had turned to look at him several times, he hadn't sensed any danger. But suddenly he felt something shoved into his back and saw the man run into a dark alley. In pain and knowing he needed help desperately, Yosef summoned all his strength and stumbled up the terraced cobblestone street until he reached the open plaza, where people would be more likely to pass by.
Miraculously, a student from a nearby school was patrolling the area, equipped with a walkie-talkie. He summoned a local paramedic, who applied first-aid until the ambulance arrived minutes later. When the ambulance team ran over to Yosef, they saw so much blood they doubted he would make it to the hospital alive.
I shuddered as Yosef told us the details of what had happened. I am an alert and vigilant mother. I keep cleaning fluids up on a high shelf. I turn pot handles toward the inside of the stove. I never let my toddlers have nuts or popcorn. I forbid dangerous toys such as cap guns and firecrackers. I warn them not to run near the swimming pool or open the fridge with bare feet, for fear of shocks, or talk on the phone during thunder storms. For years I tried to shield them from every possible danger, but I continued to feel anxious and powerless.
Sitting by my son's bed, I knew it was time to surrender. I saw that the reason I feel powerless is because I truly am. No matter how much I worry, no matter how much I plan, I cannot foresee the future. It is all in God's hands, and if He plans for something to happen I cannot prevent it. It is my job to act responsibly, but I am never in control.
As I struggled with my feelings as a mother, my son was grappling with his own emotions. Some of his friends were vengeful. "We're gonna go out and get them," they swore when they saw him hooked up to bags and tubes.
"This is not about them. It's between me and God."
But my son quickly cut them off. "No, no, you don't understand," he said in a groggy, morphine-clouded voice. "This is not about them. It's between me and God."
He knew clearly, from the very first moment, that this was a divine test designed just for him. The man who stabbed him was an agent, and he would surely be punished for using his free will in such an evil way. But that was God's business. As far as my son was concerned, the terrorist was not the issue.
His clarity of vision calmed me, too. Instead of feeling bitter, I grew weak with relief. All I could feel was joy that my son was alive.
I was grateful for the love and support that came from all directions. The nurses and doctors cared for our son as if he were their own. Indeed, they knew it could just as easily have been their child, attacked from behind, on a dark street, anywhere in the city. These were the times we were living in, and it was clear that these men and women, who had seen so much, were shaken by the injuries my good-looking, athletic teenager had sustained. They kept coming by his bed to make sure he had everything he needed and turned a blind eye when his friend slipped him a square of chocolate, even though he was only allowed food intravenously. They also gave much time for us, his bewildered parents, who desperately needed information and reassurance.
When we returned home from the hospital each afternoon, there would be messages on our answering machine inquiring about our son. There would be emails from total strangers. One woman told us not to worry: her husband had lost a kidney at a young age, yet he was fine and they had three healthy children. A man said that his father had lived with one kidney to the age of 98! People wrote that they had us in their prayers and were giving charity so that our son would merit a complete recovery.
I learned another lesson in love from Yosef's young friends, who were at his side at all hours of the day and night. One boy slept in a chair by his bed every night for weeks. They didn't talk much, because Yosef was tired and in pain, but he was never left alone.
I watched these boys straighten his pillow, smooth his sheets, and fix the curtain surrounding his bed, and sometimes I had to go out in the hall so they wouldn't see me cry. They loved my son and for that I loved them all in return.
Terror victim organizations sent representatives to the hospital to offer support. But my son had his own support group at hand. Many of his childhood friends were struggling with similar challenges. One had been injured in a terrorist bombing at the Machane Yehuda open-air produce market. He'd been through brain surgery a number of times and because of the damage to his brain he now had trouble concentrating and could not continue his studies. Another friend had been peppered with shrapnel when a bomb exploded in downtown Jerusalem. He was also in and out of the hospital to remove new pieces of metal that kept surfacing throughout his system.
With the wisdom of a soul much older than his years, he was bravely dealing with whatever Heaven sent his way.
When most kids their age were concerned with report cards and driving tests, these boys were coping with medical procedures, disability and trauma. Their lives had been forever altered by the darkest side of human nature -- blind hatred that fuels vicious attacks on innocent people. But as I watched them holding Yosef's hand, I knew that their humanity had not been compromised.
I realized I could learn so much from my son. With the wisdom of a soul much older than his years, he was bravely dealing with whatever Heaven sent his way, convinced it was all for the good. Who could say how this suffering would ultimately determine the kind of person he would become? A man with more humility, compassion and resilience? What piece was this in the puzzle of his life?
When Yosef was strong enough to be formally questioned, the detectives came to the hospital. Being artistic by nature, he was able to vividly describe the man he had seen following behind him and helped the police develop a composite picture. This was sent to all police stations and prisons, and it didn't take long for a positive identification to be made. Ironically, my son's attacker had been arrested a few days after stabbing him, on charges of illegal building and tax evasion. He was already behind bars!
The night we heard about the terrorist's apprehension was the night of my 41st birthday. Yosef's friends were keeping watch by his hospital bed; my older daughters were babysitting the younger children; and my husband and I were planning to celebrate with an evening out.
We were ready to leave when the telephone rang; a close friend calling to say he had just heard the news of the apprehension on the radio. Since we don't have a TV in our home, my husband and I went to a neighbor to watch the evening news. First we had to sit through a lot of talk by one politician after another, some update on a strike in another city, a weather report, and suddenly there it was: "Fauzi Natzche, a 28-year-old resident of East Jerusalem, stabbed 17-year-old Yosef Lepon, a resident of the Jewish Quarter, on February sixth. When asked why he did it, Natzche explained, 'I was depressed because I owed so much money, so I decided to go out and kill a Jew!' "
As the announcer spoke, the camera zeroed in on a pool of blood in the middle of the cobblestone street. I stared at the screen in horror. That was my son's lifeblood, there, on the stones; our private nightmare displayed for public viewing. I was seeing my worst vision before my eyes, yet I knew that he was lying safely, at that very moment, in the hospital.
Later, as I sat in the restaurant, my mind was in a daze. Here it was, my birthday. I had just seen a close-up of the spot where a terrorist tried to murder my son, filmed moments after the attack. The reporters had arrived so quickly, the blood was still a seething red. As I replayed the scene in my mind, a tremor passed through my body.
It was raw. It was shocking. But, thank God, Yosef would recover. And here I was, enjoying a night out with my husband. We were happy together, the food was good, life would go on...
The cobblestones had long since been scrubbed clean. The people pushing past us into the busy shuk had no idea of what had happened here just one year before. But though the marketplace looks the same, we will never be as we once were.
My son is left with two constant reminders that he was granted a second chance at life: the small mark of the knife wound in his back and the railroad-track scar from the operation running down his chest. He is left with something else, as well: a deepened relationship with the One above and a desire to help others.
I, too, am changed. Now I understand that we are truly powerless to control what happens in the world around us. The only thing we can control is our own response to those events. Why do bad things happen? Because we are like clay being molded to perfection in the hands of a master potter. Sometimes he pats us gently; sometimes he slaps and pulls at us with great force. But the potter's wheel will keep on turning, and he'll keep his hands upon us, until the work is done.
This article was previously published in Heartbeats; Jewish Writers at Their Best, Edited by Shoshana Lepon & in Hadassah Magazine, Feb. 2001