It was just another regular day at Project CHAI. Calls were fielded as soon as they came in, information was given, and questions were answered. The humdrum quality of this ordinary day was interrupted when Mr. Stern’s* call came in.
His wife, a 29-year-old mother of four, became critically ill a few short weeks ago. In what seemed like from one day to the next, this young mother’s condition deteriorated rapidly. On Tuesday morning, the doctors informed her family to prepare themselves….
I listened to the broken voice of a man at the brink of loss. He was confused, and scared. He was worried about his children. How would they take the news? How could he prepare them for the inevitable?
I assured Mr. Stern that we would help as best as we could. I instructed him to stay by his wife’s side while I arranged a visit for his two eldest children. The two boys, ages 10 and eight, accompanied me without question. As soon as I told them that I would be taking them to visit their mother, their faces lit up with joy.
That hour was heart-wrenching. I had to prepare these two innocent children for a meeting that was essentially a farewell. We sat down together in the hospital’s lobby, and we started talking about their mother.
“This Shavuos, my mother was very weak,” the older one said. “She coughed the whole time and she could barely walk.”
“That’s why your mother is here, in this big hospital,” I told him. “There are many great doctors here who are giving her the best care possible. Your father is with her all the time, making sure that everything is being done to make her more comfortable.”
The boys nodded in understanding. Then they started talking. Thirty minutes later, I had learned about the mother who sang and played with them, who laughed at their jokes and worried about their tears, the mother who taught them about baking, who never forgot to prepare their lunches and snacks.
I then prepared them for what she would look like.
“Your mother loves you,” I assured them. “She may be sleeping the entire time when you’re there. She is very weak, so she might not even have the strength to talk, but she still loves you, more than you can ever imagine.”
After our lengthy discussion, I felt that the boys were better prepared for the visit. Together, we headed to the elevator. The boys were silent, no doubt preparing themselves for what they were about to see. When we entered their mother’s room, they didn’t flinch. They seemed not to notice the machines and monitors as they focused their gaze on their beloved mother.
She was aware that they had entered the room. The boys started talking to her; I had told them for a moment to pretend to be ordinary children discussing the day’s events with their mother. And the boys talked. And talked. But it was obvious that she was struggling to keep her eyes open, to focus on her children.
“Kinderlach, tell your mother how much you love her. Sing to her,” I gently suggested.
The boys started singing. Their sweet voices were raised in song, expressing all the love and fear and hope that lay concealed in their tender hearts. Standing near them, I felt the enormity of the moment. It was an emotional family moment, one that would never be repeated in their young lives.
The 10-year-old, a mature and precocious child, took a step closer to his mother and said, “Mommy, please… Give me one smile. Mommy, just one smile.”
We held our breath as Mrs. Stern* visibly struggled to overcome her weakness. At last, she managed to give her son a weak but powerful smile.
“Thank you, Mommy,” he said tearfully. “Thank you. I love you.”
The boys bent over their mother’s bed and kissed her. They had merited this final visit with their mother, which would serve as a warm memory for the coming days.
When we reached the lobby, I sat down with the children and gently told them what was to come. We spoke about what was and what wouldn’t be again. We discussed the pain, the hurt. We discussed their feelings and their fears. For nearly an hour, we spoke and we cried.
As the day progressed, Mrs. Stern’s condition steadily worsened. That night, Hashem took back her neshamah. The four children were already sleeping at the time, their future a dark question of a life without a mother who meant the world to them.
The following morning, a Project CHAI volunteer sat with the Stern children and gently broke the news. They cried. And cried. But then the oldest child turned to his father and said, “Rabbi Klar told us that you will always be with us. You will make sure that we’ll be all right.”
Mr. Stern, swallowing his tears, assured him, “Yes, it’s true. I know that you will miss Mommy — we all will. But I’ll be here for you. We will get through this together.”
I spoke to the children on the phone, preparing them for the levayah, for the recital of Kaddish. It will be a long and difficult road for these innocent yesomim, but they have taken the first steps with confidence.
Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Klar is the Associate Director of Project CHAI, a program of Chai Lifeline.
The above article was written most recently about this young mother who left behind grieving parents, a husband and four children.
Large sums of money are needed to ensure that the children are well taken care of in the most loving, comfortable, healthy and nurturing fashion. Please open your hearts and send your meaningful donation to:
Rabbi A. M. Szarfharc
M Children Fund
1715 51 St.
Brooklyn, NY 11219
* Names have been changed to protect the family’s privacy