June 19, 2008
My friend Eva Brown prayed to God with all her might.
She was praying the day she called me a few months ago and said, "Can you come over now? I need to see you." By a stroke of luck, I had just finished a meeting in her area, and I went right over.
It was one of those bright California afternoons that make you feel guilty if you're not in a sunny mood. And I was in a great mood, until I got to Eva's place, a little bungalow in West Hollywood where she has lived for over half a century. With the sun's rays piercing through the drapes of her immaculate living room, Eva sat on her sofa and gave me the news: She had stage IV leukemia.
Her spleen was so swollen by the tumor that fluid had entered her chest. At 81, she was too frail for surgery. Before doctors could start aggressive chemotherapy, Eva would need a bone marrow test. She was told the earliest it could happen would be two weeks. When she got to the doctor's office, he changed his mind and said it needed to be done in a hospital. That meant another two weeks. All along, the pain was getting worse.
That's when Eva started praying.
She saw all these obstacles as a sign that her time was up. Her daughter was not well. The thought of losing her had always haunted Eva. So she figured this was her chance to be the sacrificial lamb that might save her daughter.
"Don't take her, take me," she prayed to God day and night, while reading Tehilim (Psalms).
As she was telling me all this, my discomfort grew. This wasn't the Eva Brown I had come to know -- the feisty Holocaust survivor who for years had talked to thousands of people about the preciousness of life. This Eva Brown was ready to throw in the towel.
But I just listened, awkwardly, not agreeing with her resignation, but also wanting to provide comfort and support. As she saw things, after years of teaching people how to live, maybe her new mission would be to teach people how to die: how to accept one's fate with grace and dignity -- how to live while you're dying.
We agreed that we would film her last statement, which we did a few weeks later. It was not pleasant. The video is a soul-searching, painful summary of her life.
In the meantime, while Eva was anticipating the next world, her good friend Sara Aftergood introduced her to another doctor, Sara's husband, David, who after talking to Eva immediately put her in touch with a specialist, Dr. Solomon Hamburg. The new doctor and Eva hit it off. Hamburg, a child of Holocaust survivors, took her on as his personal mission. The bone marrow test was done in his office in a day. The chemo would start a few days later, every other Monday for eight weeks. Hamburg had no clue that Eva had been praying for God to "take her." All he wanted was for Eva to live.
During the chemo treatments, Eva would call and tell me about the incredible physical pain she was going through. It seemed that every part of her little body was aching. She was in such pain she no longer had the strength to pray. When she finally told Dr. Hamburg that even with painkillers her suffering was becoming unbearable, he didn't downplay it. To the contrary, he told her it was "useful pain": It meant that the treatment was working.
He pleaded with her to hold on and fight.
He wasn't the only one who helped Eva fight through the pain. For years, Eva has had an extended family down the street at Maimonides Academy. The head of the school, Rabbi Boruch Kupfer, often came to visit. One day, knowing what Eva was going through, he asked her what they could bring. Eva wasn't shy: Food, she said, and lots of soup. She had no strength to cook, and she loved soup.
Well, don't ask. Overnight, the leaders of the Maimonides PTA -- Kathy Hiller and Susan Tonczek -- turned into managers of a catering operation. For several months, hot, homemade food cooked by Maimonides families was delivered to Eva's door, along with words of comfort from regular visitors like Marci Spitzer and Sabina Levine.
It was clear that everyone in Eva's life wanted her to fight and to hang in there, not least her ill daughter. But the pain was so deep she had trouble thinking straight. She started to see God everywhere. She saw God in her daughter's eyes. She saw God in all the people who wanted her to live. She even saw God in the fact that she was in too much pain to pray for Him to "take her."
Maybe, she realized, God was simply saying no, it's not your time to go.
This helped her regain the will to live. Armed with the food deliveries from Maimonides, the dedication of Dr. Hamburg and the love she got from all over, she made it a personal project to conquer the pain of chemotherapy. Like she says now, pain became her "full-time job." It's not like she had no experience: Surviving 10 concentration camps in one year at the age of 16 had given her plenty of experience in full-time suffering.
As the weeks went by and her battle continued, her condition slowly improved.
On the Friday before Shavuot, Eva called to give me the news: Her cancer was in remission. The tumor had shrunk and was dormant. She still had some life left in her, and was full of gratitude to everyone who had helped her get through the ordeal.
Having regained some of her strength, Eva is slowly returning to public speaking, and praying with all her might that her daughter will get better.
She's hoping that God, once again, will know how to answer her prayers.
Last year, Eva Brown talked with JewishJournal.com about her experience during the Shoah. Video by Jay Firestone.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.