The Orthodox Woman I Met in the Children's Hospital – Kveller
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The Orthodox Woman I Met in the Children’s Hospital

The family room on the cardiac floor of our local children’s hospital is full of natural light, wood grain, and soothing colors. Windows on every side offer views to the outside–either the real outside, where people are not struggling to hold their hearts and their children’s hearts together, or the hallway outside the room, where just about everyone needs some kind of care.

I sat in a rocking chair in that family room–one of several, clearly not designed to offer rhythm to mothers with babies and toddlers, since no one under the age of 16 can visit the cardiac floor–and read a book. Only three people were allowed at my daughter’s bedside at a time, and she was currently flanked by her father, grandmother, and aunt.

While they visited, I rocked alone. Across from me was a closet labeled “Yaakov’s Kosher Pantry.” After I’d been reading the same three pages in my book for 10 minutes or more, a woman came in wearing a long skirt and a tichel (headscarf) and opened it, removing a loaf of challah.

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I looked up. “Good Shabbos,” I said, because it was Saturday.

Her eyes widened and she sat down. “Good Shabbos!” she said, the breath rushing out of her as she sank into the rocking chair next to me. “Are you Jewish?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Oh,” she responded, taking in my jeans, my sweatshirt, my wedding ring, and uncovered head. “But you’re not observant.”

“I’m observant in my own way,” I answered, “but I’m not Orthodox.”

She paused. “It’s OK.”

“Do you have a child here?” I asked.

“My son,” she nodded. “He’s 8 months old. He has tetralogy of fallot.”

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I knew that term. Five cardiac defects. Months of surgeries. More potential complications than you’d think could fit in a newborn baby.

I touched her arm. “How is he?”

“He’s doing so good!” she smiled. “It looks like the next surgery can be soon. He’s been here for three weeks this time.”

She had four other children at home. “I feel so bad about leaving them all to be here,” she admitted. “My husband and I take turns. Still, my oldest is 11. She’s doing so much for everyone now. I feel awful.”

I told her I had an 11-year-old daughter at home too, being passed from house to house among friends and relatives until we got home. That my husband and I, too, were taking turns each night. That our older children would be fine, that they were learning how to take care of family and how to be patient.

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She asked me about my 8-year-old daughter who was just down the hall, whose aorta had been insistently migrating across her chest, trapping her esophagus between it and the scar tissue left behind by her first surgery seven years prior. Just the day before, a surgeon had sliced the skin of her back, torn apart two of her ribs, and reached through to gently move her aorta away from its dangerous path. He sewed it to the wall of her chest to keep it from straying again.

“Amazing,” my rocking companion said.

She went on to tell me about her son’s months of procedures and hospital stays, about knowing it all before he was born and having to wait to see what would happen. She described a pregnancy of looking at her next oldest child, a 2-year-old, and realizing that she’d never given one thought to what was happening in that child’s chest, never once.

And now, hearts were all she could think about.

“My older children were miracles, you know?,” she sighed. “I never realized how much. Four children, all miracles. And we didn’t get the miracles this time.”

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I paused. The chairs rocked as we stared at the wall across from us. “Well,” I finally offered, “we have other miracles, right?”

She made a noncommittal noise. I continued, “We have the miracle of living in a city with this particular surgeon. We have the miracle of having the help we need to get through this with our other children cared for by family. And we have the miracle of finding another Jewish woman in a huge hospital to share challah with on Shabbos. Not the miracles we had before, but different ones. I’m grateful for those, at least.”

My friend was quiet for a second, then said, “I never ever thought about that. It’s true. Baruch hashem.”

We sat and rocked and talked the talk that only people in that room can talk in that way. We had never met, but as mothers linked by our children’s brokenness, we softened and released any expectations. On the street, we’d have never spoken. Even in a kosher bakery–even in Israel–her tichel-and-long-skirt and my jeans-and-t-shirt would have repelled each other like opposite sides of a magnet. But in a hospital, sick children down the hall and healthy children at home, we had all the most important things in common.

I looked at my watch and, anxious to return to my daughter, bid her good Shabbos again. I asked, before I left, what her son’s name was.

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“He’s not had his bris yet,” she answered, sadly.

It took me a moment to process this. “So, no name?” I asked, incredulous.

She shook her head. “No. Not until he has a bris. He’s never been healthy enough for one. Maybe in a few months.”

The space between us gaped, and then shrank just as suddenly. She was a mother.

B’sha’ah tova,” (in good time) I said, and wrapped my arms around her.

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