On Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, I was in the middle of making my mom’s cream pie when I realized I needed another packet of vanilla pudding. This was my favorite dessert growing up. I texted my husband to ask if he could pick up one on his way home. His response:
It was on that day my mum’s cream pie would no longer bear the sweet taste of childhood and innocence. It would now serve as a reminder of the fragility of life.
I was checking my phone for updates all day. Shua, my friend Simi’s husband, had suddenly fallen ill from a virus a few weeks before. His condition was critical and we were all praying for his recovery. That morning, Chaya, Simi’s sister and cofounder of the The Frock, put out a call on Instagram for prayer and good deeds.
After anxiously awaiting to hear good news, I was angry with the final outcome. What’s the point of anything, I thought, if G-d can take it all away in the blink of an eye? Much contemplation, thought and conversation has occurred since then. I can’t say I’m a changed person, but I definitely feel matured by the raw reality. I have learned a lot. But mainly that I know so little...
I awoke at 5am that day to take an early flight to New York. I had barely slept, nervous about the impending meeting, yet certain I had to go and pay respect while Simi sat Shiva. (The seven days of mourning imposed after the loss of a close relative). We stopped at the Ohel, where people often write prayers or letters and place them by the Rebbe’s resting place. Void of the details I would regularly wish for, todays letter focused on the health of my family and asking the Rebbe to help me find the right words.
The ride to Simi’s apartment was nauseating due to lack of sleep, high coffee intake and plain nerves. When we arrived I didn’t want to leave the car. How many Ubers had I taken in New York City to exciting destinations, bars, restaurants, weddings, hotels. And now this? Could this really be happening? Couldn’t he just keep driving and make this nightmare disappear?
“Are you coming?” My husband asked, deflating my daydream. Exiting my trance, I made my way in, still unable to process I was paying a Shiva call to a friend who had lost her husband. Despite arriving at the earliest hour, the people were already flocking in. By the time we made it up, the apartment was packed.
I sat down in the most inconspicuous spot I could find, making small talk as much as my clouded thoughts would allow. Most of the mourners I didn’t know or recognize. I remember eyeing a plate of grapes and thinking how rude it would be to eat some. Surrounded by a crowd of women from Flatbush, I longed for the days when their Moncler coats, voluminous sheitels and large diamonds seemed intimidating. Today was not a day for that.
And then came Simi. Like a Rebbetzin greeting her congregants, she walked down the stairs head held high, ready to console the hundreds who would file into her apartment over the next few days. There was not a dry eye in the room as the crowd stood up. Simi graciously greeted each person individually, and ironically comforted them. Without a trace of makeup, she glowed more than ever, her eyes red from her own tears, yet still wearing a smile as she listened to the endless and beautiful tributes to the husband she had loved so dearly.
Within minutes, Simi caught a glimpse of me from the corner of her eye. It had been a few years since we saw each other, but her warm look when our eyes interlocked was that offered to a friend on any other given day. As she approached my heart began to race. So did my mind, as I searched for what to say. But it didn’t matter. Simi embraced me, and for those few moments I didn’t want to let go.
When we finally did, it was Simi who had the words. Recalling the first time we met, her eyes continued to sparkle and her smile remained. We spoke about the past, the present and what was going to be. We talked of our days in Tzfat together, longing for the final redemption, and our time in Cleveland as newlyweds.
Everything relayed back to Shua, and the beautiful impact he made on the world at large. Her eyes lit up with his every mention, and the good that was done in his name. In a room full of people that had come to show love and support, some of whom she had never met, Simi managed to talk to each person as if they were the only one present. There was no pity, only respect. For what Simi and Shua had built, and for where Simi would now take it. For how Simi had rallied a nation to pray, love and come together for a such special soul.
The day after returning from New York, I was back in the kitchen making my mum’s cream pie. Exactly a week had passed since hearing the shattering news. This time, I had all the ingredients I needed. I wasn’t angry anymore. Rather, I felt humbled. Humbled by my inability to control what was going to be, humbled by how others somehow manage to tackle insurmountable challenges with such grace.
The night of Shua’s passing I was petrified when I put my daughter to bed. I realized there were some things in this world I could not protect her from. I will pray to the sky’s content that G-d give her minimal challenges. But in the end it will be his call.
I thought endlessly about Simi’s mother and how painful it must be to see a daughter endure such hardship. I was truly scared of what the future would bring for my girls.
But now I look at my daughters and think that whatever comes their way, they must hold their heads up high and keep standing, like my friend Simi. Because from the same place these challenges come from, comes the strength to handle them as well.
*Baruch Dayan HaEmes: Blessed is the just judge. The Jewish blessing of bereavement.