Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My Friend Tova

I was having an online conversation today with a very nice mommy from Boro Park who was, of course, very distraught over the death of Leiby Kletzky.  I asked her why she was so distraught about this particular death.  Don't people die in tragic ways every single day?  Her answer was:  Leiby was "one of us".  So which I, very callously replied, so was the man who killed him.  After a back and forth, she asked about my callous attitude towards the death of this 9 year old boy. 

And the answer is, my callous attitude has nothing to do with this boy, so violently and sadly taken from his parent by some lunatic who should "ride the needle" (does New York State have the death penalty?).  This poor soul is wherever souls go to rest (most beautifully summed up in Chana's post - see sidebar on the right for a link).

Why, then, my attitude?  Because of my friend Tova.

Tova is 20 years old.  She is the most incredible person I know.  She has more strength than you.  Every fucking one of you.  Tova has a form of chronic leukemia.  It cannot be treated with chemo or with bone marrow transplants.  Yes there's medications, but this form of cancer can be fought with one thing only - the sheer will to beat it.  And eventually, since it keeps coming back, it wins and you lose.  Tova is suffering with this cancer for the third time in her ridiculously short lifetime.  Three bouts in 20 years.  Right now it's Tova 2, Death nothing. 

But when you have chronic leukemia, Death keeps coming.  He's Winter, only in black robes and a scythe in hand.  He keeps coming for her over and over.  And she keeps beating him off with her sheer will to live.

During her second bout with cancer she watched the boy she loved, who she met in some sort of cancer program, die.  The boy she loved.

Then throw in the fact that each time Death comes, the will to live is harder to muster.  And he comes with more tricks in his bag.  Internal bleeding, collapsed lungs, broken bones, kidney failure, transfusions, painful "procedures", comas.  You name it, this twenty year old girl has dealt with it in the last six months.  Her doctors tell her its simply miraculous she's held out this long.  There's no medical reason for it.

I can see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice.  She says the words but she no longer means them.  I'm not sure that she has the will anymore.

And you know what?  There are no prayer vigils, no challah bakers, no thousand group volunteers streaming in from Lakewood.  There's Tova, her siblings, her worthless friend Cymbaline, her even more worthless parents and that's it.  In other words, there's her.  A sick, weak 20-year old girl fighting off death.  Except there's no flaming sword, no ring of power, no instrument with magic runes to ward him off.  All there exists is the will.  And without it there's nothing.

And me.  Her supposedly best friend.  I cannot pray for her because it makes me feel hypocritical and empty inside and quite honestly I don't have the faith right now that anyone is listening anyway.  So besides "just being there" for her I can't do anything for her.

Why can't I cry for a nine-year old by murdered by a monster in Jew's clothes?  Why can't I feel the pain that I have heard so many of you express?  Because there's no more room in me for that pain.  I'm all used up.  I cry for her almost every day.  I've cried for her for months and sometimes I can't even muster up the tears for her, let alone all the other horrible stories just from where I live - the 18 month old boy with leukemia, the 34 year old father of three with leukemia.  it's not that i don't care, it's just there's no more room left in my heart for the ones I don't know.

Only for my friend, Tova.


  1. Hey, if you want, I can pray for her. :)

    Also, in terms of something more substantive, if she'd like any visitors whether at the hospital or at home, or a new friend, or anything that I could possibly help with, please let me know!

    I can't cure leukemia, but I can try to do what I can in terms of what's in powers!

  2. There are no prayer vigils, no challah bakers, no thousand group volunteers streaming in from Lakewood.

    Do you want prayer vigils and challah bakers? I can't think of how to get a hold of thousands of Lakewoodians, but if you make a sign-up sheet for prayer vigilantes and challah bakers (e.g., a Google spreadsheet) and post a link on your blog, you can make that happen.

    I cannot pray for her because it makes me feel hypocritical and empty inside and quite honestly I don't have the faith right now that anyone is listening anyway.

    You've just described some of my most meaningful prayers. Curtain rises on an angry girl, who will kill you if you call her a girl, because girls are weak and she needs all the power in the world right now to keep the terror and you away. "Hi, G-d. If You're there. I mean, I want to believe You're there, but I'm just not sure. But if You are there, I am absolutely furious with You..." [Body of prayer deleted to protect privacy. Suffice it to say that after a while it didn't matter if G-d existed or not, I needed to love Him and scream at Him at the same time, and I needed Him to stolidly and wordlessly and inexplicably comfort me, and rationality ceased to matter once I roared through a chink in my anger and reached my terror and grief.]

  3. i'm pretty sure advice on prayer is not what you want right now, and i'm not one to speak as i suck at ANY form of verbal communication.
    your friend is dying and that sucks. worse than if you were dying yourself, i imagine. cause there's nothing you can do about it. but wait, and watch...and cry. wish you didn't have to cry when Winter's been cracking a bit for you - that cunning bastard.....

  4. So besides "just being there" for her I can't do anything for her.

    You know, "just being there" does A LOT. Don't dismiss yourself that easily.

  5. The atrocious murder of the young Boro Park boy has affected many of us. "One of us" was that woman's reason. For others there are other reasons.

    Your attitude is not callous. You are not the only one to feel as you do. Every life is an entire world.

    Yet some die quietly, mourned deeply by only a few, while the murder of others fills the news with eulogy after eulogy.

    And some suffer alone from a chronic illness, slowly dying, while tehillim are said for those struck with sudden serious health problems.

    And some are miserable week after week, burdened by problems that cannot easily be explained, while the kugels are brought to the family with the new baby.

    And some even have reason to be envious of Tova.

    No, your attitude is not callous. It is the attitude of those who do not try to understand how others feel and would thoughtlessly call such attitudes callous that is callous.

    You don't seem to be worthless friend to Tova. By actually caring and being there for her you are doing perhaps more than you know. Do not underestimate what it can mean to a person to be a priority in someone's heart.

    The path to a thousand Lakewood challah-bakers holding a prayer vigil begins with one caring person passionately publicizing the situation. Please tell Tova that this commenter said a brachah for her when lighting candles Friday night.

  6. your post made me cry.
    I am about the same age as your friend Tova and i just can't begin to imagine her pain. If there is anything I can do to help, I would be more than glad. You can email me at, i really mean it (and if it has to blow the anonymous cover than be it)
    I agree with you 100 per cent, tragedies are too often defined by the medias, when we all have our share of suffering, its hard to watch one get all the attention
    But you sound like an amazing friend, even if just for your post, for how much you care.
    ps: im happy I found your blog