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The Thin Line Between Joy and Tragedy


“There is a thin line between love and hate,” the saying goes. Two opposite emotions, yet one can so easily transmute into the other.

I have lately come to see that there is also a thin line between joy and tragedy. Joyful and tragic events can converge on the plane of time, emotional ink bleeding across the intersecting lines. Or an experience might transform without warning – a crushing setback unfolding into the greatest triumph, the height of celebration spiraling into heartbreak.

The only way to survive the roller coaster ride is to travel on a cushion of faith.

If this all sounds like a bunch of preachy philosophical pabulum, let me back up a bit.

*    *   *

One evening in February, my husband and I were relaxing in our living room. The Olympics hummed along on TV, my husband the weather-buff was devouring online updates on the unfolding East Coast snowstorm, and I was holding our baby daughter in my arms, feeding her a bottle. Our little boy was asleep in his room. One minute, a tranquil family tableau. The next minute, panic! Baby turning blue, her body stiff, her life hanging in the balance. I don’t know exactly how long she wasn’t breathing – a minute or two that seemed like 20 – but they were positively the most terrifying moments of my life.

By the grace of Hashem (and with the help of fast-responding Hatzolah volunteers, kind neighbors, and a top-notch ER) everything was fine. Tonight we are back here relaxing in the living room, enjoying the gift of another evening together.

*   *   *

Now, allow me to take you back a little further to when the learning really started.

After a progression of fertility troubles culminating in a bleak prognosis, my husband and I were at a very low point. Windows closing, the limitations of medical science laid bare.

Thus, we felt incredibly blessed approximately one year ago to learn we were expecting a second child.

Our jubilation turned to disbelief when initial tests put the viability of the pregnancy in question. But things progressed. The months of sickness that followed seemed a small price to pay. We were buoyant, if anxious.

A little past the halfway mark, the pregnancy became high-risk when I was diagnosed with a serious complication. Up and down, up and down. Where was this road going to take us?

At just 29 weeks, our daughter was delivered by emergency c-section. She weighed a little over 2½ pounds. The doctors whisked her away before I could even blink.

Right away, the confluence of joy and sadness struck me. Our daughter had arrived on Simchas Torah. The holiday of rejoicing with the Torah – Hashem’s greatest, everlasting gift to us – singing and dancing and celebrating our good fortune as its recipients. And here we were, my husband and I, in a hospital room, trying to digest our frightening new reality.

That first night, on Motzaei Yom Tov, my parents came to see me. “Mazal Tov!” bellowed my father, ever the optimist. The words rang strange in my ears. Yes, the birth of a child is always a blessing. But this new life was yet so tenuous, her prognosis then so uncertain. How could I celebrate when my baby lay tethered to machines, her tiny body utterly unready for the tasks of living?

For two months, the NICU was our baby’s home and our second home. Day by day, she made progress and showed a strong spirit. I was proud to see her batting her arms and legs, but I learned that all that movement wastes precious energy needed for growth.

Two steps forward, one step back is the rhythm of the place.

There were highs: the first time I held her (it was several weeks before that was possible), every clean test result, the day I finally saw her sweet face without any tubes or apparatuses. And lows: saying goodbye each day (often she’d finally open her eyes just when I had to go), having to ask permission for everything and defer to the judgment of others regarding her care, the night she contracted an infection and almost died.

We were at home sleeping when that crisis hit, blissfully oblivious until an unexpected morning phone call. Two days earlier, our baby had graduated into one of the “going home” rooms – those that house the bigger, stronger babies who are on their way toward discharge.

Perhaps the hardest part of those eight weeks was feeling torn between my child at home and the one in the hospital. Call it a severe case of Mother’s Guilt: the feeling that no matter what I did or where I was, I was shortchanging someone.

My mother has a dear cousin in Israel who is a chesed powerhouse. Among her wise expressions is, “In life you have to be where you’re needed the most.” I thought about that a lot during my NICU experience, and kept asking myself: Who needs me more right now?

On one hand, my son, then just shy of two and a half, sorely missed me when I wasn’t there. He was, in a word, confused. Children crave routine, and his had been quite upended. After my weeks of bedrest when he had been heard to chant in a singsong voice, “What happened to Mommy? What happened to Mommy?” I had disappeared into the hospital. But I didn’t come back with a baby in tow like in the big brother books we had read together. And he wasn’t allowed to visit the NICU, so he couldn’t see this “baby sister” he had been told about. The best I could do for him was to simply Be There. That meant cutting my time in the hospital short (or so it always felt).

Did the baby sense my absence? Not consciously, of course. But what about that subconscious-unconscious-visceral need that all newborns have to bond with their parents? Would she be scarred for life – not just because of the hours I couldn’t be there but because of all the cuddling she missed out on lying in an Isolette with wires and tubes and beeping noises and invasive procedures regardless of whether one of us was there?

So even as I sat playing with my son at home, or chasing him in the park outside, I felt conflicted. Delighted to see my son happy and carefree despite the upheaval in his routine, yet aching inside for my baby to come home, for our family to be whole.

Where does sadness end and happiness begin? Must the bitter overpower the sweet, or can it exist side by side, like two rivers flowing into the same heart? Hashem’s world is complex, and we are tasked with making peace out of the many pieces of our lives.

Throughout our journey, the jumble of emotions I felt led me many times to the brink of doubt. Each time we had to hold our breath again, I begged to understand: Why is Hashem doing this? Could we possibly have come so far only to lose it all? How can we bear to climb so high only to sink so low?

Will our baby make it? Will we?

But at least I had Someone to whom I could direct these questions. How, I wonder, can anyone get through such an experience without God? Whom do they call out to in the darkest moments? Just as I’ve always wondered how non-Jews and non-frum Jews handle the stresses of the week without Shabbos, I cannot fathom how one can get through a medical crisis without the succor of faith.

My husband and I are ordinary people. Our faith is imperfect. But I don’t think we could have survived our ordeal without it. From the very first night we learned of my pregnancy – and were warned that it might not last – we began a nightly Tehillim ritual of five perakim followed by a special Yehi Ratzon prayer from my Tefillas Chana siddur. The ritual continued while our daughter was in the hospital. It helped us connect with Hashem and feel that we were rallying the heavenly minions to our cause.

He heeded our prayers – and those of many others davening for us with hearts more pure. Our miracle daughter, the one all the nurses had labeled “feisty,” came home ahead of schedule.

*  *  *

This last year has been a roller coaster ride for our family. It’s made me realize more than ever how fragile our existence is, how unpredictable our lives. Not just from year to year, but from moment to moment. Why Hashem chooses to run the world this way I cannot claim to know. But I suspect that perhaps the unpredictability of life is supposed to motivate us toward continued prayer and dialogue with Him. It’s not enough to pray for something; once we have it, we have to pray to hold on to it.

Tanach is replete with examples of great individuals whom God drew to the brink of deprivation in order to elicit their deepest cries of prayer. Hashem wants to hear from us in good times and bad, in the throes of confusion and moments of clarity.

Unfortunately, not everyone manages to daven formally every day from a siddur (I admit I am among them). But as we go about each day, words that form in the heart and are whispered aloud – expressions of thanks, appeals for help – keep the conversation with the Almighty going.

When davening for our children, we typically focus on beseeching Hashem to grant them X or let them grow up to become Y. But that’s missing a step. Every parent must thank Hashem every day for the fact that he or she has a child at all. The same goes for spouses and parents. Because nothing is guaranteed; Hashem gives at His Mercy. The line between joy and tragedy is razor thin.

A neighbor of mine recently lost her father; a few weeks later she made a bar mitzvah. This type of predicament is, unfortunately, all too common. And yet, the show must go on. I know a girl who lost her father three weeks before her wedding. Yes, the wedding went on as scheduled. Not only is that undoubtedly what her father would have wanted, but it’s what our rabbonim advise. It is surely not an easy course. I can only imagine how much inner strength one must muster to make a simcha while still in mourning.

Regardless of the circumstances, undiluted simcha is rare in this world. There is almost always a sting, a yearning for the loved ones not there to share it. And don’t we make a point at every chuppah of tempering our joy with a remembrance of the churban? In galus, our joy is never complete.

*   *   *

We celebrated Pesach a few weeks ago, and Purim just before that. Each of these holidays illustrates the commingling of joy and tragedy in a different way.

Purim is the story of “V’nahapoch Hu” – disaster transformed into jubilation. Hashem is in control; it is never too late for Him to save us. In the Megillah, the very tools that were to do us in became instruments in our salvation: Achashverosh’s royal seal, the gallows Haman erected to hang Mordechai. Indeed, Haman unknowingly selected, through his lottery, a date for our destruction which is now forever enshrined on the Jewish calendar as one of rejoicing. And Esther’s ascent to the throne, which appeared at first as a grave misfortune, turned out to be the key to our enemies’ undoing.

Pesach, on the other hand, is an example of wondrous and unfortunate events occurring contemporaneously. In the first place, we are told that only one-fifth of the Jews made it out of Egypt. If just that small percentage numbered six hundred thousand souls – the headcount at the time of the redemption – how many millions of Yidden were lost during the centuries of enslavement? That is a tragedy of staggering proportions.

Moreover, the makkos wrought tremendous suffering and destruction, culminating in the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Yam Suf. While it may seem odd to mourn those losses, Chazal made acknowledging the Egyptians’ misfortune part of the Seder (removing drops of wine from our cups) and of the Pesach liturgy (saying only partial Hallel on the intermediate and final days of the chag). We ever so slightly mitigate our celebration because our redemption came at a great human cost. The moral lesson: We do not rejoice at another’s pain (even if it comes as due punishment).

We would all love to live in a world without pain. Some people seem, on the outside, to have a “charmed life,” but that can only be an illusion. There’s no such thing as a pain-free existence. That’s why it often strikes me at a shiva house when fellow condolence callers wish the mourners that they “should know no further tza’ar.” Well-intended and benign as the thought may be, it doesn’t reflect reality.

Hashem could have created a world without suffering where everyone lives forever in peace and vitality. God willing, we will experience such a world one day, may it come soon. But in the meantime, we are challenged to strengthen our emunah through the rough and tumble of life’s vicissitudes. (By this I do not mean to make light of anyone’s suffering. The recent trials of my own that I have chosen to share here pale in comparison to the horrors others have had to endure.)

*   *   *

Our little girl has, thank God, been growing by leaps and bounds. She will continue to be closely monitored – being a “preemie” doesn’t end when you leave the hospital – but we are optimistic. Most of all, we are profoundly grateful for our blessings. I hope that we maintain that awe and awareness as time goes by.

“Wonders happen if we can succeed / in passing through the harshest danger,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. Better yet, the words of David Hamelech: “Ha’zorim b’dimah b’rinah yiktzoru” – may those who sow through tribulation reap a thousandfold in joy.

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