Someone recently asked me: "Don't you ever look at your child suffering, and ask yourself, 'Where is God?'" Interestingly enough, the question about feelings of abandonment during our recent challenge has actually surfaced the opposite effect. Through all of this, we have clearly seen how God has brought us closer to Him.
In 2008, our son Menchi -- at age 2 -- was diagnosed with stage-4 Neuroblastoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
After the initial feelings of shock, disbelief and sadness over a life-threatening diagnosis for our young child, a plan had to be made for dealing with the task that lay ahead. Our child's chance of survival was less than 10,000-to-1, and we knew from the beginning that the solution to this dreadful dilemma could only come from God. "If He has the power to give it, He has the power to take it away. Statistics, no statistics. God is outside of numbers.” Following this logic, we asked ourselves, "If God gave us this, what are we supposed to do with it?" The answer was not immediately forthcoming, but one thing was for certain -- this was clearly a test, and throwing in the towel was not an option.
The calendar said "January," but we were definitely feeling "Yom Kippur."
We were instantly thrown into a world of endless medical details, nerves that needed calming, siblings that needed reassuring, insurance issues to be put in order -- and most of all, quieting the inner voice that was screaming, "I don't want this!" Knowing that this was a spiritual test, "guilt" was a most unwelcome guest in this already crowded hospital room of emotions. The calendar said "January," but we were definitely feeling "Yom Kippur." Personal accountings of wrongs and misdeeds were gone over with fine tooth combs, hoping this spiritual workout would be the "magic elixir" to show God we were serious about change and we didn't need this type of wake up call.
The doctors were not wasting any time or sparing any effort to rid his body of this aggressive cancer, and we couldn't afford to postpone our "spiritual effort" either. We committed to stay focused on the positive; negative thoughts were constantly told to "Go away." The best way we found to do this was to actively look -- and share -- our evidence that God was "in the picture." This was quite difficult to do at first, but as our Sages say, "Make an opening the size of a needle, and God will expand it to a large banquet hall." It soon became impossible not to see God holding our hands every step of the way.
There is an idea in Judaism that God does not give a challenge without first setting up its solution. Just thinking about how many aspects of our situation were in place before we even began this test is mind-boggling.
Before we even knew the diagnosis was cancer, as soon as we suspected the possibility, we were on the phone with Chai Lifeline, an international organization that helps families in these situations navigate through their state of turmoil. Chai Lifeline proved to be an incredible source of support for us throughout this ordeal. The only reason we got fast-tracked with this organization -- or even knew it existed -- was due to a close friend whom we originally met while living in Des Moines, Iowa. (How we got to Des Moines, of all places, is a whole story in and of itself.)
Further, it was only because these same friends moved to Savannah, Georgia, that we later wound up moving there ourselves. We felt immediately "at home" and cared for when both of my parents became suddenly ill within the first few months after our move. Due to these difficulties we experienced, and how supportive the community had been, we knew that whatever uncertainties lay ahead could be managed. Looking back, we clearly see how God was trying to "buffer" the blow.
You have to run this race, but we'll pass you the cups of water.
During Menchi's treatments, there were so many acts of kindness done on our behalf -- from those who were close to us, the wider community, and even strangers around the world. Our neighbors pitched in with carpools and homework and babysitting for over a year. Friends constantly told me of the good deeds being done in the merit of Menchi's full recovery. Someone said at one point, "You have to run this race, but we'll be there to pass you the cups of water."
The Almighty set another big piece in place. We knew that the best oncology care was in New York and we couldn't envision going anywhere else. Since this cancer was rare, we wanted a doctor who had already handled numerous cases. We found an oncologist based in Atlanta (who was Jewish, no less) who specialized in Neuroblastoma. Only two years prior, my sister had moved to Atlanta. The doctor was located only minutes from my sister's house. This challenge of "where to go?" became clear. We would have our son treated in Atlanta, since the care was comparable and my sister could be our home base. As we quickly learned, my sister became a crucial anchor of support amidst these turbulent waters.
We witnessed firsthand the incredibly supportive and extraordinary Jewish community, wherever we went. The more entrenched we were in hospitals in different states, the more we appreciated this rare support network. We went to Jacksonville for radiation treatments and there, too, despite their being a tiny community, the outpouring of kindness was astounding. Wherever we went, God's representatives were there. He even arranged that amongst the small contingency of people who could make kosher meals for us in Jacksonville, the one person who regularly baked challah for Shabbat used a special recipe to account for the fact that her child has egg allergies -- "coincidentally the same allergies as my son!
As we travel this challenging road, the signs that God is with us could easily fill tomes. Yet one story stands out as most illustrating a broader purpose hidden behind all the pain.
After six rounds of chemo, surgery, an additional regimen of high-dose chemo preceding a bone marrow transplant and 13 days of radiation, our emaciated dear child still had scans showing the presence of cancer. What to do? There was an experimental treatment that seemed to show success, but it was only available at one place in the country: Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. Our insurance didn't want to cover it, and before the hospital would talk to us we needed to show that we had $125,000. Medically, we could not afford any delays, and our legal counsel said it was unlikely that we would win against the insurance company, given the short time frame we had.
That left one option: Make the appointment, and the money will just have to come. This was a tremendous leap of faith. We're teachers, not businessmen, and we have never even owned a house, so this amount of money is really foreign to us. And the market had crashed but a month before. Did I mention that all of this had to be done in a week?
There was no doubt in our minds that obtaining the money we needed would be a clear act of God. There was no way we could do it without Him.
We somehow managed to come up with $125,000 in a week.
I'm still not quite sure how it all happened. But one person spoke to that one, and publicized the predicament here and there, and strangers from across the globe not only started to wire money but were also inspired to pray and grow spiritually. Facebook, blogs, radio, TV -- all were elevated to tools of salvation for my son. The visit tracker on our blog read over 1,000 people in just two days. The details of this story alone could easily fill a book.
We can never underestimate the power of prayer and charity and the actions we take toward a more spiritual life. What happened next, really drives this point home. The doctor at Sloan Kettering delivered the ecstatic news that five days of scans showed no trace of cancer anywhere in his body. What changed? Nothing more had been done since the last scan, other than the spiritual upheavals created by innumerable Jews the world over.
Besides the unbelievable results for our son, the Almighty gave us another gift. Had we gotten bad results, we would have questioned the care we had received until this point. God gave us the gift of knowing that we had been guided to the right doctors and hospitals. Of course, God could have made the scans appear clear before the whole fundraising saga, but then those people who were all motivated to help would never have gotten involved. We could clearly see a direct relationship between the spiritual outpouring of that 8-day period and that set of clean scans that were taken one month later.
However, our saga is not over yet. The general consensus with this type of cancer is that clean scans do not equal remission. This cancer can still roam microscopically, undetected. So we are using a lot of money to give Menchi antibody therapy that has the dual purpose of treating whatever cancer we don't see, and has also shown promise to be effective as prevention. And now, after six months of cleans scans, thank God, we are coming closer to the belief that for our son, this antibody therapy is a purely preventative measure.
"How do you sleep at night not knowing what tomorrow will bring?" a friend recently asked.
I smile and respond: "Since when am I in charge of the future? If I'm not sleeping at night, it's because I'm not doing everything I can to fix my spiritual self. That's my role in all of this. I'll leave tomorrow up to God."
To see what you can do to help Menchi (Menachem Shalom ben Miriam), visit: www.thelandonfamilypage.blogspot.com