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tikkun olam

What I Learned By Taking Care of an 8-Year-Old with an Incurable Brain Tumor

A child is laying on a hospital bed with his arm and hand raised above his head with an I.V. and bandage on it.

Like most people in my small Philly suburb, I have become very familiar with the name Dominic. Many shops display posters calling for prayers to be said on his behalf, and there are frequent fundraisers sponsored by local businesses to raise money for his family’s medical bills.

Often, I’d see Dominic’s name appear on my Facebook feed as neighbors and friends shared updates. I would usually only get through a few sentences before I’d skip to another status or entertaining article. Reading more just hurt my heart too much.

You see, Dominic is an 8-year-old boy who has an aggressive, incurable brain tumor. He was diagnosed last year and, since then, has been through numerous surgeries and treatments. Not only that, but his younger brother, Ciarlo, has spina bifida and is paralyzed from the waist down.

I probably would have kept skipping over updates about Dominic if I hadn’t read a short sentence that his mom wrote about having thrown out her back. She mentioned that she was concerned about how she would get his wheelchair out of the car when she brought him to school.

I thought about it for a moment. As a freelance writer, I am able to carve out my own schedule. It wouldn’t take much to help out his mom for a few moments in the morning, especially considering that Dominic and his brother go to the same school as my kids.

Still, I hesitated. There is no bigger pain for a mother than to have a gravely ill child. Selfishly, I worried that being around that pain would affect me as well.

Often when I am unsure about whether or not to offer assistance to someone, I think about my mother. Although not an observant Jew, my mom bases her life on the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (fixing the world). Throughout my childhood, our home had an open door policy to people in need. Many times we had individuals or even entire families stay with us for months until they were able to afford a place of their own. We regularly offered hot meals to lonely travelers, and my mom had several elderly friends who she would visit with food and good cheer.

Although I have strayed a bit from the spiritual elements of Judaism, the idea of tikkun olam is one that still resonates deeply with me, especially since having children. But, when I begin to think of the vast amount of problems that need fixing, I get overwhelmed. Helping Dominic’s family seemed to be a clear, direct path to make someone’s day a little easier.

So, despite my fears, I emailed Kira, Dominic’s mother, and offered my help to get the kids to school. For the last few months I’ve gone to their house in the morning to carry Ciarlo to the car and help lift Dominic’s wheelchair out of the car.

These are simple tasks that don’t take much time. But, they’ve helped me to understand more about a world that most of us would rather not have to think about. By spending time with Dominic’s family, I have learned that, although Kira is a practicing Christian, she was raised by a Jewish dad and LOVES matzah ball soup, that Ciarlo is fascinated by werewolves and superheroes and is pretty much the most charming kid I’ve ever met, and that Dominic is a huge fan of the Eagles and Harry Potter and, more than anything else, his beautiful mom.

There are a lot of really difficult things about Dominic’s life. He is frequently sick, which causes him to miss out on many fun things (like Halloween this year). He is in and out of the hospital for treatments, often in emergency situations. And, he faces a future fraught with unknowns and frightening scenarios.

But… there is another side to this world. One that I never expected to see. Joy! So much joy! I see that joy when Dominic and his brother play fight and giggle with each other, when the family returns from adventures like their Make-a-Wish trip to Disney World, and when Dominic is greeted by big loving crowds after extended stays at the hospital.

I see that joy in the pictures of Dominic with the many local celebrities who have developed strong relationships with him, when he and his brother lit our town’s Christmas tree, when he tells his mom how much he loves her for the hundredth time that day.

I see it when our town, that is sharply divided in politics, unites around Dominic and his family to support countless fundraisers, bring his family nightly dinners, and visit them in the hospital.

Over the past few months I have witnessed an extraordinary amount of love and compassion and beauty through this amazing family. Things that I would have missed had I gone with my first instinct to shield my heart from pain.

There are no guarantees about how long Dominic will be with us. It’s likely that there will be many more difficult days ahead. Now that I’ve gotten to know this dear family, the idea of seeing them suffer more terrifies me.

But, the truth is, their pain would be so much greater if everyone gave into this fear. We can choose, in our own lives, to step towards those in pain or walk away, to build our world out of fear or out of love. Psalm 89:3 (and my mom) have helped me to understand that “the universe is built on kindness.” The more I’ve found ways to incorporate that kindness into my own life, the more fulfilled I’ve been.

Check out the Prayer for Dominic Facebook page to learn how you can help make miracles for this beloved family.


Read More:

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How Can I Raise My Kid Jewish When I’m Not Religious At All?

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