It seems almost trivial and silly, but it happens again and again.
It is one of the most trying tasks I face when someone after weeks, months or years of illness dies. And it happened again last month, when Chani Weinrot a”h returned her holy soul to her Maker. After three years of davening for her, I find it hard to stop saying her name. I do it automatically, and as soon as her name pops out of my mouth, I try to swallow back the syllables. Then overwhelming sadness follows. I could just cross off her name from my little list in the siddur, but I cringe at so violent an act. Last year when a good friend died – also from cancer – I just rewrote the whole list and omitted her name. I hope she doesn’t mind.
I only saw Chani once. It was on erev Rosh Hashanah, 5774, in a packed hall in a Jerusalem community center. My daughter-in-law, Miri, had told me that this inspiring woman writes a compelling weekly column in one of the Hebrew women’s weeklies. At the last minute, Miri couldn’t make the lecture, so I went alone. I was speaking to Miri on my cell when Chani confidently strode in, beaming her characteristic charismatic smile.
“This is Chani Weinrot?” I gasped over the phone. “She looks so good,” I marveled as I closed my phone.
She was wearing a fashionable ensemble, her make-up was perfect and her wig was flowing and buoyant. Chani surveyed the surprised faces in her audience, and began her lecture/shiur/performance.
“I can read minds,” she announced dramatically. “I know what you are all thinking right now. You are thinking, ‘But she looks so good!!'” She paused and took a deep breath. “Please be informed that I have Stage 4 cancer. And in case any of you don’t know – there is no stage 5…”
She then continued to entertain us with details of her preparations for chemo treatments. On her first visit to the ward she was shocked by the doleful atmosphere surrounding the patients and staff. Patients arrived dressed in downcast faces and pajamas. She decided that, henceforth, instead of viewing the day as one of mourning, she would use the opportunity to celebrate. The day before a treatment, she would dash out to Rabbi Akiva Street in Bnei Brak and buy herself something new to wear. In the morning, she would get all dressed up. Her husband would accompany her to the hospital, and after the treatment they would go out on a date. Chani asked her husband if she could perhaps say the shehechiyanu blessing on her new outfit. He laughed in response. “No way, Chani,” he said, “you have so many clothes already.”
Mingled with laughter came the tears as she described the terrifying fear she endured every month before she opened the envelope with her latest test results. Would the markers go up, G-d forbid, or down, hopefully? It sometimes took her hours before she could muster the courage to open the envelope with the fateful numbers. Each time, it was like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur together. Would she be inscribed in the Book of Life? We in the audience sat in trepidation of the upcoming Days of Awe, yet Chani endured this apprehension on a regular basis.
Chani was diagnosed with cancer shortly after giving birth to her 3rd child. She was 25. She recovered, but it came back when she was 27. The doctor told her that she had six months to two years left. “How does one live with that verdict?” she was asked. Her reply was that it is only then that one begins to really live. Two years is an eternity.
Initially, she reacted with rejection, anger and despair. She told her husband that all the words of comfort would not help. “You are healthy, but I am sick. You will live, but I will die. You will raise our children, but I will not.” But when she internalized that her time was limited, much more so than for most human beings, she resolved to live as much and as well as she could in the years allotted to her. Chani became an international lecturer, began writing a weekly column, mentored support groups, accompanied and supported women with terminal illnesses, wrote three books, learned photography and chronicled her life in a photography exhibition. She accomplished more in the few years she had than most people accomplish in a lifetime. And, she would add with a wink, she beat the statistics and lived for nine years after the diagnosis.
All the while she focused on instilling her children with all the wisdom and happiness she could bequeath to them. She recalls the time she made cookies with her daughter Naomi on her birthday, and went with her to the oncology department to distribute them. The patients were delighted with their young visitor and heaped blessings on her. One man insisted that she remember always that good health is absolutely the most important thing in the world, and that surely her mother had taught her that. Naomi was uncomfortable with the man’s words, yet hesitated to contradict an adult. When Chani encouraged her to speak her mind, Naomi told the man that she thinks the most important thing in the world is simcha…
Chani worried how she could etch her being in her children’s memory. She threw herself into baking more cookies, going on more outings, giving them even more quality time. She even wrote books chronicling her struggle and challenge to live her days as fully and as conscientiously as possible. Then she realized that all this was not necessary. All she had to do was relax and be herself with them – and cherish every moment.
“It isn’t fair,” Chani complained to Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi, who came to visit her in her final days in the hospice. “I am surrounded by flowers and chocolates and friends, even you! Do you know how many people here with broken bodies and souls are all alone? Why have I been singled out for such love and devotion?” Such was Chani’s gratitude for all the goodness that Hashem had showered upon her.
Chani brings to mind her namesake Chana, the valiant and G-d-fearing mother of seven sons who chose death rather than bow down to the idol of the Greek King Antiochus in the Chanukah story. According to the Gemara (Gittin 57), when Chana’s soul rose to heaven, a bas kol greeted her with the words, “Joyful is the mother of the sons.” Chani, too, will be remembered by thousands of us as a jubilant and rejoicing mother and mentor in our nation.