As I type these words, I glance at a picture postcard that I keep on a shelf beside my computer. In purple block letters are written 3 words: smiles and giggles. Two little sisters are smiling and hugging each other. Their faces are filled with the magical delight that only children know. Below their photo is a short note from their parents to me, sending their best wishes. I pause for a moment and remember.
In my years of teaching in different communities, I have been deeply touched by many beautiful neshomos. Some have traveled a long and arduous journey to reach their destination. Often, as much as I thought that I would be the one teaching and transmitting, the truth is that I learned and gained incredible insight from the families I have encountered. I keep this postcard on my shelf as a constant reminder of one such family.
Lily, or Leah Chana as she became known to me, was just 5 years old when I first met. Her mother, Felicia, had been attending my parenting classes in Westchester for two years. One day I received a call asking if I would be able to take a trip out to their home to visit. Lily had been waking with awful headaches. The shock of receiving a diagnosis of a brain tumor was beyond any parent’s nightmare. Lily had begun treatments of radiation and chemotherapy. Except for treatment days, she never missed a day of school. Now it was my turn to meet her.
Not wanting to come empty handed, I brought an arts and crafts project, a white cylinder tzedokah box with magic markers and stickers. I figured that we would color and decorate it together. We sat down on child sized chairs in the playroom at the colorful mini table . Lily’s mother joined us.
“Sometimes it really hurts when the doctor puts a needle in my arm,” Lily said as she took a magic marker in her hand.
Her soft voice grew serious. “Sometimes it really hurts, you know. And I get scared.”
Felicia leaned in toward Lily. “That’s okay, sweetie. We sometimes all get scared. I’m scared of spiders, did you know that?”
Lily’s eyes opened wide.
“And I’m scared of big bugs,” I added.
Lily giggled. I wanted to scoop this precious child up into my arms and make all her fears melt away.
Lily asked if we could fill the tzedokah box with coins. As her mother handed her the pennies that she kept in a glass jar, they both told me a story. The children in Lily’s preschool class collected tzedokah each day. Their teacher had recently told the children that it was time to decide where their tzedokah money should go. Children raised their hands with ideas and then Lily asked to speak. She told the class that each time she went to her doctor for medicine she saw many sad children in the waiting room. Most of the toys were broken. There were not many toys or crayons for the children to play with. Lily asked if it would be okay to send the money to her doctor’s office so that they could buy new toys for the children. The class made a unanimous decision. Their daily tzedokah collection would go to purchase new toys for Lily’s doctor’s office.
As I returned home, I was overwhelmed while thinking of my time spent with Lily and her mother. I was moved by the tenderness of both mother and child. Of course, I was filled with emotion, contemplating this sweet neshomah who had touched me so. And then this thought came to mind: how often do most of us become absorbed with our own pressures and discomfort while not allowing ourselves to give thought to the pain of others? Here, this was child going through the greatest challenge of her life, no doubt feeling frightened and unwell, yet she still put herself in the place of others who were also hurting, thinking of how they’d love unbroken toys. I felt as if I had been witness to extraordinary greatness. If this child could stretch beyond herself, perceiving others when it would have been easy to view only herself and her suffering, how could I not learn from her?
We often feel stressed when challenges cloud our vision. We cannot see beyond our own reflection. We feel our aches, both physical and emotional, while ignoring the pain of others. This 5 year old discovered the secret to chesed: To climb, to grow, to feel, even if one is not in the mood or overwhelmed. “Olom chesed yiboneh,”she created an entire world of kindness that would otherwise have remained empty and unformed. Despite it all, this child did not lose her spark of compassion; instead, her spark ignited fire within the hearts of others.
Lily grew kinder and sweeter each day. She woke up each morning loving life. She wrapped herself in purple dress up feathers, pink ribbons and shiny jeweled necklaces, and happily insisted on getting to school on time despite her difficult chemotherapy schedule. She would swallow her bitter medicines just to see her daddy smile. Each week she would count the days until Shabbos came. Her greatest joy was being Shabbos mommy in school. At home, Lily and her little sister were inseparable. She would teach her younger sibling Shabbos songs and together they would fill the house with song and laughter. You knew when they were together; the smiles and giggles would echo from room to room. Two little girls, side by side, sharing secrets and holding hands, their photo sitting on my shelf, inspiring me.
One early morning my phone rang. Lily’s mother gave me the painful news. We shared our tears and memories. With a heavy heart, I returned to Lily’s home. Hundreds upon hundreds of people had been touched by her pure neshomah, her sweet innocence and her joy for living. Though time has passed, this little girl’s message of olom chesed yiboneh continues to inspire me. Her photo still sits on my shelf. In her 5 short years, she accomplished more than some adults do with their length of days. I try to draw upon the goodness that Leah Chana left as a legacy.