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Unconventional Medicine

Unconventional Medicine

Time was not on my grandfather's side. But I believed that God was. And He gave me the perfect antidote.


It was 12 years ago that I got the call from my grandfather, but the anguish in his voice struck a chord within me that still resonates today.

"I'm finished," he said with resignation, skirting around his actual diagnosis. "They give me three weeks."

What an oddity of human nature &ndash that I was forced to realign my reality with this thought, that my young, vibrant grandfather would no longer be available to speak within three weeks time. As if one can shift their reality to assimilate this token piece of information, just as one would the news of a new store opening down the street.

"They?" I asked incredulously. "And who are they to say?" I could talk the party line. This staunchly religious family representative would set things straight. Deified doctors never vexed me more than when I heard the raw fear in his voice.

Scarred by the war torn years in Europe, much of my grandfather's religious expression was channeled into his art. An intensely talented man, he poured his soul on to canvas. He did not grant me entrance into the caverns of his mind in terms of what role God played for him in this saga. Not yet.

"That's what they say," he replied. His words lackluster, his voice defeated.

I hung up the phone and sat on my bed. Sitting being the ultimate act of passivity, it gave me no comfort. And thus I passed the weekend, waiting for my grandfather to arrive home from Florida.

Visiting my grandfather in the hospital that first day, I saw that death had already curled her tenacious tentacles around him.

Visiting my grandfather in the hospital that first day, I saw that death had already curled her tenacious tentacles around him, tightly clasping the delicate bud of his soul. I wanted him to rally. I knew that his latent strength would shine, that he could outrival this disease, if only given the time.

Only time, was not on his side.

But I believed that God was.

I walked down the Manhattan avenues that evening, returning to my college dorm. The streets pulsed with the steady rhythm of life. The man playing a fast tempo on his bongo drums oblivious to the plight of my grandfather, and I, oblivious to the hobos in the doorways. But God, in his omniscience, was privy to all of our secrets, and held the key to the healing of each and every one of us.

An idea, brewing in the muddled cauldron of my mind, was taking form.

There are many healing formulas prescribed by the Jewish religion. Some choose to take a new religious commitment upon themselves, in the merit of the sick person. Others go to Kabbalists, who prescribe complementary formulas for healing the ill, based upon mystical lore. And there are still those relics whom I emulate, who are content to intone the ancient words of Psalms, calling out to God from the frayed pages of their prayer books.

None of these were my choice weapon.

One of the things that drew me to deeper levels of commitment in my religious observance was the idea of guarding your tongue. It is considered a serious iniquity to speak harsh words about your fellow Jew.

Even if he doesn't hear you.
Even if it is true.
Even if he absolutely deserves it.

This concept is so deliciously fresh in a world riddled with gossip mongering and backstabbing. Imagine an office in corporate America where no one badmouths the boss behind her back. Imagine a teacher's room where no one denigrates that daunting student. Imagine two friends meeting for coffee who are forced to focus their conversation on matter of challenge and growth in their personal lives, as the personal lives of others are completely off limits.

I found such societies to exist in the religious world, and I wanted in.

Granted, there is no utopian existence in this world. We are merely mortal beings, desperately clinging to the rungs of ascent on the slippery ladder of life. But the ideal shone like a crystal dome atop a muddy stadium-illuminated brilliance.

Guarding one's tongue from speaking badly against another is a potent and proficient tool. Many have linked miraculous deliverance in their lives to some concerted effort made in this area. In observant circles, conducting large scale projects of this sort has become commonplace.

Through a project aimed at not maligning others, I hoped to fight the malignancy that was invading my grandfather's body.

This was my choice weapon. Through a project aimed at not maligning others, I hoped to fight the malignancy that was invading my grandfather's body.

I sat on my bed that evening. This time though, my brain was engaged in active pursuit of the cells that threatened to destroy my Sabba's immune system. I mapped out a chart, dividing the day into distinct sections. Each time slot I availed to the brave person who might take it upon themselves to refrain from speaking badly about others during those hours. I wrote my grandfathers name above, asking that they have him in mind for a speedy recovery, in the merit of this undertaking.

The sign filled up quickly. I ran to Kinko's and made a copy for each participant. I handed them out, thanked them, and wished them luck.

The benefits began to accrue early. Walking through the hallways, I received enthusiastic feedback.

"Dana, I'm trying really hard. I held back from saying something and it was really difficult."

"Hey &ndash I kept my mouth shut for two whole hours. I got a lot of work done that way too. I may need to try this again. Good luck with your grandfather."

The comments kept coming. I prayed that some subtle cosmic change might result from the tiny efforts of small men.

Late that afternoon, exhaustion wove its weary net around me and I slept. My brief nap was interrupted by the ring of the telephone. It was my mother. I jumped.

"How's sabba?"

Her words were measured, calculated, lilting.

"Sabba is doing ... great."

I opened my mouth like a baby bird waiting for more. Her words gained momentum and started coming rapid-fire.

"They came to put in the shunt for the chemo. They brought out the most recent slides to double check things. Hospital protocol." Pause.

"There was no trace of disease on the slides. It seems to have disappeared. They checked and re-checked. They don't understand."

It wasn't registering. "I don't understand mommy."

Then, sounds of joy, rippling through the wires.

"They don't either. It's some sort of mystery."

Some sort of miracle.

I got out of bed and went to pray the afternoon prayer. I stood there numbly. Why was I so surprised? Did I lack faith in man's ability to curry his way into the celestial plan? Is that not what God wants from us? My capsule of self-doubt slowly thawed and the tears fell freely like newly melted ice.

My grandfather is no longer in this world and I am grateful that God granted him a reprieve. I cannot reveal all that transpired, but suffice it to say that when God returns life to a withered seed, there is abundant growth.

And when man reaches heavenward like an upturned petal, God graces him with His presence.

May 20, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 25

(25) Anonymous, May 29, 2006 12:00 AM

Why do we have the bent to gossip?

Hmm. Keeping your mouth shut can be so hard. I wonder why we all have the urge to speak about others and share gossip? And the listener is part of it too. Both are partakers in the activity. What is this drive? Controlling the tongue is self control indeed. And while sometimes it is possible and we succeed in speaking good and kind words only, given enough time and the wrong circumstances, out the gossip and put down words come again. I heard someone say the other day, "Be a good finder and not a dirt digger!" Kind of like a gold miner goes through a lot of dirt to find the gold. So must we in our relationships. Good article!

(24) chana, May 29, 2006 12:00 AM


I cried as I read this poetic account of the Power of words. I just heard a shiur from Eshter Baila Schwartz about how H' made us BTzelem Elokim, and that means that H' made all of our thoughts, words, and actions have the strength to affect the entire universe. This story shows it.

(23) annie, May 28, 2006 12:00 AM

wow. how powerful is that message? how lucky for both grandfather and granddaughter to have eachother in time of need.

(22) Anonymous, May 28, 2006 12:00 AM

Just a small word to say how much I liked Yael's story of her grandfather's illness. Maybe one of the most important things is to never give up hope even if we learn to change the nature of our hope. What I mean is that I prayed so much to save my second marriage, to no avail. But God or my destiny or the universe (call it what you will) had other plans for me and now I can say honestly that I hope for comprehension and spiritual peace for my ex-husband, because when I finally accepted the pain of the loss I was blessed with progress on the path of spiritual awareness and peace. I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though the scars remain, the spiritual awareness is greater and even if I could I wouldn't return to what was. I found Yael's story an inspiration. Thank you for sharing it with me.

(21) Paula, May 24, 2006 12:00 AM

your grandfather

I am always awed by these true miracles. My grandmother was on her deathbed when I was 4 years old. She died when I was 13. She had such strength and will to live so that I would know her love and devotion to her family. She was a real role model for me and my sisters. As I am the youngest, I have realized that HaShem gave her 9 more years so that I would have these memories. My life's path was definitely directed by her and my grandfather. Thank you for sharing this amazing story.

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