[The image of the beautiful heart wave above was sent to me by good friend Linda Rauch just as I was about to post this story on the blog. Linda and Chana (the subject of this story) happen to be the very best of friends. Talk about divine timing!]
In recent issues of Musings from Junie, I have been featuring people I have wanted to honour because they have triumphed over some of life’s hardest hurdles. The first was Lawrence Cooper, who literally went from agony to ecstasy in his life as a bi-sexual man. Next I featured Judith Rockert who survived the suicide of her talented son, Mitch, who suffered with schizophrenia for many years before taking his life.
The story I bring to you today affects me personally, and I dedicate this story to the Saffer-Spiro family: Rachel, David, Ariel, Chana, Jacob, and Shawndra—my beautiful family.
On Tuesday of this week, March 22, 2016, we received the best news ever: my 18-year old great-niece Chana (many of my friends know her as Hannah) was found to be cancer free! And it is attributed to the unmistakable power of prayer and the grace of Hashem (G-d). And for this, we are eternally and humbly grateful.
Chana is the kind of person who easily makes friends everywhere she goes—and beyond that, she has a light in her that lights up the world.
It’s not only because she is my great-niece that I say this, it is because it is true and is the opinion, I believe, of everyone she has ever met.
Chanalah, I honour you today, and I congratulate you on your victory! Nothing could make me happier than this news—other than to be there in person to give you the biggest hug in the world. I am so very proud of what you have accomplished throughout your illness. In spite of facing the most difficult time a person could ever endure, not knowing what your future would bring, you have inspired countless people around the world. You gave purpose and meaning to your illness. You chose to make it something that could bring goodness and beauty into the lives of others. Kol ha’kavod! Well done!
Today, I am also recognizing the whole family. Especially, my beautiful niece Rachel, Chana’s Mom.
Rachel’s strength, love, wisdom, faith, humour, and the ability to stay strong and positive—as well as real—during this time of fear and uncertainty, is truly remarkable—beyond outstanding! It is what can only be described as a mother’s love in the truest meaning of these words. And it didn’t begin with Chana’s illness. It began with the birth of her first child and continued with ever deepening devotion with the three that came afterward. Ariel, graduating university this year, then Chana, Jacob, 15 and Shawny (Shawndra), who just turned 11 on February 16th.
And together with David, Rachel’s husband, a most dedicated, world class dad, they have created a homestead for their family founded on a bedrock of love. The above pictures of the family were taken at Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah two years ago.
Let me share some of the back story with you!
This is me holding Chana 17 years ago. The photo was taken at my beautiful late sister Barbara’s (Rachel’s Mom) home in Toronto in 1998.
Barbara honoured me (which she always did) with a beautiful good-bye pool party the day before my 3,000 mile road trip to my new home, Vancouver!
When I pulled up to her house to say goodbye, a ladybug landed on the windshield. That ladybug became the story of miracles yet to come—especially the night she tragically passed away. I will share the story with you in a future newsletter.
Fast forward to Chana at age 15
Here we are in front of her house before she went off to Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist meditation and mindfulness retreat. While her friends were shopping at the mall, she was sitting somewhere in a lotus position! That girl has always been on a spiritual path seeking out the goodness in humanity and giving it back 100-fold.
Victoria visit May 2015
Chana didn’t just arrive by herself when she came to visit me. She brought with her 30 pounds of cheese! A few days before her flight, she called me to say, “Oh, by the way, Auntie Junie, I’m coming with 30 pounds of kosher chesse. I hope that’s OK.” “Seriously,” I asked? Isn’t that the size of a small child?” She explained that she was delivering it to Rabbi Kaplan in Victoria. (Don’t ask about where I kept it in the meantime!) Anyway, the good news is that it was converted into yummy cheese blintzes and an array of other goodies that we feasted on for the Jewish Holiday, Shavuot.
Chana’s visit began with her koshering my kitchen. She was a great teacher, explaining all the while the reasons things are done. I figured it was a fair exchange since she was doing the majority (okay all) of the cooking.
Above (left) we are about to have a delicious Shabbat dinner with friends.
I loved every precious moment we shared on her visit to Victoria. Above (right) we were picnicking and painting rocks at Beacon Hill Park.
Chana returned to Toronto at the beginning of June to spend the summer with her family, then she was off to Jerusalem—a long awaited dream, to begin her first year of university.
And this is where her life took a turn no one would have ever suspected in a million years! It was also where her true hero’s journey began!
Jerusalem—a dreadful diagnosis
Only two weeks after arriving in the Holy Land, she was diagnosed with cancer and her world as she knew it began falling apart. Rachel flew out immediately to bring her daughter home, a home they had just moved into two weeks earlier, still filled with unpacked boxes while they were getting the other three children settled in school. Suddenly this unexpected dread was brought into their lives.
Doctors, hospitals, treatments, fear, muddled with hope and always uncertainty flooded their home. Yet, this is what I experienced when I went to visit them in November, two months after the diagnosis. I am about to quote myself (ha ha) from a blog post I wrote while I was there. You can read the whole thing here.
“… in spite of the gravity of the situation, this is not a depressing household. Instead, it is light and love, laughter and tears that make up the day-to-day life under this roof. I can’t say it is life as usual, because of course there is an underlying fear of the unknown. People’s nerves are frayed and it can also be messy at times.
But let me tell you what else exists here: The house is filled with kids and their friends coming to visit or staying for dinner or a sleep-over.
There are relatives and rabbis, neighbours and friends dropping by to share their love and support. I have been delighting in 10-year-old Shawndra’s natural theatrical storytelling talents, and admiring 15-year-old Jacob for his humility, even though he is knowledgeable and wise beyond his years. I love my neighbourhood walks with Sprout, their gentle collie-terrier.
Sometimes after a long day, we’ve all cuddled on the couch to watch a movie and laughed a lot at the funny parts. Ariel, the oldest, has been coming home from Queen’s University on weekends and what a joy it is to see how all the kids gather around her, smothering her with hugs and kisses. That’s my favourite part—witnessing the demonstrative expressions of love and affection that are simply natural to this family.
And Hannah—well, even with an uncertain future, even though her magnificent waist-long, thick black hair has been shaved off, she continues to be a shining light and inspiration for everyone who meets her. Her faith has not wavered; her thirst for knowledge and passion for life are as fierce as ever.”
Shawnny and Sprout! I loved taking Sprout for walks during my visit. It was the walking meditation I needed.
In December, Chana had her first surgery and they waited for the results, praying to hear that everything was clear. Their life could begin to go back to normal.
They did not get the news they were praying for. The doctors explained that in order to be as certain as they could be that the cancer cells were gone, radiation was recommended.
They were crushed. Not only did they seek a second opinion, they considered alternative treatments as well as flying to New York to a top oncologist. The answer pointed in the same direction: proceed with radiation.
A “god wink”: in the midst of fear an angel of hope and promise appeared
Rachel was sitting in the living room beside herself with worry when the doorbell rang. It was a friend, a rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife), who was in the neighbourhood and decided, on the spur of the moment, to drop in.
Rachel told her the latest news and could not contain her tears. The rebbetzin comforted her and told her that this was the time to increase their prayers even more. She told Rachel that Chana was to hold a conference call and request prayers from relatives and friends and friends of friends everywhere; and to put it on Facebook. Rachel didn’t even know what a conference call was. But Chana did and in no time at all, it went viral!
How Chana used these calls is truly remarkable!
Every night from that day until this one, except for Shabbat, Chana has held a conference call where people have been calling in from many parts of the world. Not only was she asking for prayers (which everyone recites together), she has been giving inspiring talks, often reciting passages from the Torah. But beyond that, Chana has used her illness an opportunity for people to do mitzvot (good deeds). And that is exactly what has been happening.
I’ve quoted some of her wisdom throughout this post (she calls herself Chana and her Hebrew name is Chana bas Rachel Leah).
Chana with her dad. He is so happy she is inspiring good deeds at a time like this.
And look at the joy it’s giving her! We’ve been told that the joy is in the giving. Is there any question?
Here are Chana and her cousin kissing her bubby, David’s Mom, at her 90th birthday party (the day I arrived). She has been a rock in Chana’s recovery. Having survived the holocaust, she holds an inner conviction of faith and strength which has been helping her beloved family throughout.
When Chana visited me last spring, she painted the picture below and gave it to me as a gift: “Ki l’olam chasado”. It means “His Kindness is Forever”.
Let us learn from Chana’s wisdom
What good deeds and acts of kindness can we offer each day to everyone we know or meet for the first time such as a shop keeper, or even someone we pass by on the street? Hmm, pass by? Don’t pass him or her by without a smile. J And do not forget yourself in the equation!
Continue to pray please!
So…back to today! A call for continued prayer—for Chana to be healthy and vibrant and living her life to the fullest! And that each of her future medical examinations will confirm that she continues to be cancer free. Baruch Hashem. Amen.
And finally, Chana—here is how Rabbi Kaplan has honoured you—besides constant prayer from the congregation: you have inspired goodness at his school in Victoria:
The children have made a video about their good works on your behalf.
Yes, my darling, Chanalah, you are truly one of G-d’s special angels, and I adore you!
Some of my most favourite memories of acts of kindness I have received are. . .
Some of the most favourite memories of acts of kindness I have given are. . .