I have not seen him in a month, and in that time, the cancer that is chasing my son’s body has paralyzed his entire left side and he is rapidly losing mobility. In a mere four weeks, Ryan has gone from dancing at his wedding to being confined to a wheelchair, unable to perform the most basic of functions unassisted. Our phone conversations have grown very short, very terse as he loses the ability to speak in complete sentences. He is despondent, he is angry, he is frightened. I am on my way to be with him.
On the crowded plane I sit, by chance, behind a man wearing a skullcap. I barely register his presence. I am absorbed in my own thoughts and my own sadness, trying to read a book but not seeing very much. An hour into the flight, annoyed I must put my book aside and move into the aisle to let my window seat mate pass. By chance, I glance down and see the man wearing the skullcap is furiously writing on his computer. He is surrounded by several books in Hebrew.
Without thinking or hesitation I sit myself next to him. He looks up at me inquiringly with his deep and ageless brown eyes, and I simply ask: “Are you a rabbi?” When he confirms he is indeed, I ask him if we may speak. “Certainly,” he replies and warmly welcomes me to visit with him.
Without prelude and suddenly in tears, I tell him of my son’s failing body and my journey to him this day. I speak of my deep despair as it is abundantly clear that there is no stopping the relentless cancer that is taking his brain and body. I share my fervent need to find a way to help my son find peace and comfort. Yet, I sob, how can I, a person of undiscovered faith, find a way to bring my son what he most needs now? All the medical alternatives are exhausted, and I do not know how to help my beloved son find peace and comfort on a spiritual level. All my anguish, my agony, my emotional terror building since the recurrence of his cancer last May spill out to this stranger on a plane. I cry like an abandoned child, I cry like a mother losing her child. On a plane and to a stranger.
Eventually, I have no tears left. Then with infinite kindness, the rabbi I sit next to (by chance) speaks softly. He offers me insights into a world I have not known before: a world of faith. For the next few hours, he patiently communicates with me. He reminds me of the ancient prayers and of their significance. Together we chant the Shema, the most holy Jewish prayer and I remember it from long ago. I find comfort in the familiar Hebrew words, the rhythmic cadence and the knowledge that I am crying out to God as my people have for millennium.
We talk of the meaning of the soul and he tells me that immortality is a fundamental tenet of Judaism. He explains that a child is conceived by the parents who give the body but also by God who gives the body its soul. It takes three to create life, the Rabbi believes, and the One who is always there is always there. He makes note of Ryan’s Hebrew name, Reuvain and mine, Devorah. Spent, I thank him for his time. I have much to think about when I return to my seat.
After the plane lands, I bid farewell to the Rabbi. He thanks me for our conversation and leans toward me. He looks at me intently, says something about my name in Hebrew and he presses a note into my hand. Curious, but not surprised, I shove it into the pocket of my jeans. As I deal with the deplaning bustle, I keep patting my pocket, knowing there is something special there. I need a quiet space and sufficient time to read what this man I met by chance on a plane has written for me.
It is the next morning, before meeting up with Ryan at the hospital, I feel ready to read the Rabbi’s note. He writes that after we spoke on the plane, he searched the Torah for a reference to Devorah and Reuvain. He found the one and only reference to Devorah. It was on today’s daily Torah reading. Today. This very day when I meet this stranger by chance on a flight to Detroit.
He goes on to write: today’s reading tells of Devorah, who is instructed by God to travel afar to minister to Jacob, whose first born son’s name is Reuvain. It is the only time Devorah’s name appears in the Torah. It comes on the exact day I, Devorah, am traveling afar to minister to my son, Reuvain.
I know then that my meeting the rabbi was not by chance.
The peace I seek on behalf of my son is first given to me. I now go to him knowing that we are embraced by a love that perhaps cannot be understood but is. I am able to speak from my heart to my child before I leave his bedside, as I curl up next to him:
“My son, I loved you long before you were born to me. I knew you in my womb and even before. My love for you is eternal, never-ending and transcends this world. Why this is, I do not know. That this is true, of that I am sure.” I kiss his tears and he kisses mine. Together we say the ancient Jewish prayer, the Schma. I am sheltered in his arms and he in mine and both of us are being sheltered by a power greater than we comprehend.
I approached a stranger on a plane, on a flight to Detroit, desperate to find a way to bring peace and acceptance to my son as he faces an unimaginable ordeal. Because of this chance encounter, now when I leave my son, I leave a man who remembers how to smile again.
None of this is easy nor understandable, but with a new faith in the power and transcendence of love, it has become bearable for now. I am thinking the miracle we pray for comes, but comes in small ways and in ways that I may not fully understand. But nonetheless, the miracle comes. And, not by chance, today is good.
Editor’s note: This article was written last December. The writer is a JNet student and shared her story with Lubavitch.com. In a note Lubavitch.com received today, Donna wrote:
“I cannot imagine how I would have survived those months without the support and inspiration of the Chabad community, Rabbi ShemTov and Yerachmeil Galinsky (my plane angel) in particular. Rabbi ShemTov dropped what he was doing and ran to my son’s bedside in Toledo, Ohio upon my call. He spent several days with my boy and laid tefillin with him. His wisdom, his support, his presence brought much comfort to this family as we sat day after day by Ryan’s bedside. Yerachmeil and I continue to this day keep in touch. Through these men I learned about true Judaism and the generosity of spirit. I say in all sincerity, I know G-d placed them in my life at that time to guide me through the valley of the shadows. As my son drew his last breath, I held his hand and recited the Shema”.