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The Year I Learned to Find Light in the Dark

My grandma and I
My grandmother and I

One thing Jews and our enemies agree on is that we, Jews, treasure life above all else.  No period in my life has illustrated this more clearly than 2023, a year that brought with it a surreal combination of unbearable sorrow and defiant joy. But despite the pain that the year brought, it also managed to teach a cynic like me to believe in miracles.

A few weeks ago I received the call I had been dreading for years. It was about my beloved 93-year-old-grandmother, Mayya, who was in the hospital recovering from a stroke. She had taken a turn for the worse and there was nothing more the doctors could do. It would be hours or maybe days. They told us to make our preparations. I was devastated. My husband, daughters, and I took a last-minute flight from Los Angeles to Chicago to say goodbye.

My grandma, Mayya. September 2022

It was not the first time that I boarded a flight to Chicago with a heavy heart this year. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I lost my oldest friend, Anna. We had been friends since we tippy toed in pink tutus together during a ballet class at eight years old. We stayed friends through college and after graduation traveled to Israel together, where we got our noses pierced downtown Jerusalem, making a pact to be tough and not tear up. When I met my future husband, she threatened to break his kneecaps if he didn’t treat me right. After that he lovingly referred to her as “Mafia Anna.”

Anna and I in 2009

During her two-year battle with cancer, Anna defiantly insisted on milking life for all it’s worth.  I cherish the image of her, though already bald and swollen from the chemo, shrieking and laughing as she learned to ride a bike. In her last weeks, she took her kids apple picking in Wisconsin. “We do this every year before Rosh Hashanah,” she told me, “and we are doing it this year, too.” By then she knew her time was coming to an end, and when she got home she wrote, “I’m sad that I won’t get do this again, but so thankful for this year!!!!”

Anna and I, June 2023

She passed away at only forty years old, a week before her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. She left behind three wonderful children.  When I arrived in Chicago for her funeral, sleep deprived and overcome by grief, I landed just in time to be there when my  sister’s boyfriend proposed to her. Perhaps my being in town for that meaningful moment was Anna’s last gift to me. As I mourned the loss of a beautiful Jewish soul, who had fought so hard to keep on living, I also witnessed the seeds of a new Jewish family being planted.

The proposal: my sister and her fiance

Three weeks later, like Jews all over the world, I woke up to a barrage of messages. It was October seventh. That Shabbat morning my phone was overwhelmed by two dueling and opposite events – the horror unfolding in Israel and the news that my brother’s wife was in labor. In the afternoon, as the grief and shock of the scale of the attack took hold, a perfect baby girl named Shayna entered this world, my first niece. A ray of light in the darkness.

Shayna’s hand

The Bat Mitzvah of my oldest daughter, Alma, was four weeks later. By that time we had been living and breathing the news out of Israel for a month and the change in atmosphere towards Jews in the Diaspora was palpable. The thought of a celebration through so much heartache felt impossible. But as it turned out, rejoicing in our firstborn’s entrance into Jewish adulthood felt all the more meaningful and urgent under the circumstances. Surrounded by loved ones, the ceremony was a moving celebration of Jewish strength and community. In Chicago, my grandparents, who were too frail to travel, watched online as Alma delivered her D’var Torah with poise and grace.

Alma’s Bat Mitzvah

The next month brought the call about my grandmother and once again I found myself crying on a flight to Chicago. When we arrived I picked my grandfather up to bring him to his wife’s bedside. He was ready in his wheelchair holding a bouquet of roses. My grandparents have been inseparable since they were fourteen years old. They survived the Holocaust and Stalin and lost dozens of family members in Babi Yar.  All my life they infused me with their strength and perseverance. For hours my grandfather sat silently by his wife’s bedside as she slept on his hand, mumbling occasionally. During one of her lucid moments she looked at him lovingly and said “Nothing is forever”. “I know,” he answered smiling at her, “but it is not time.”

My grandparents in their twenties in the Soviet Union

When I explained the prognosis to him he shook his head. “The doctors have their indications and numbers, and I have mine,” he said. “They can say what they want, but I will pull her out of this.” I cried myself to sleep that night. His faith despite the hopelessness was too painful to bear.

My grandparents’ hands

But the next morning, it seemed he was onto something. My grandmother was awake and cheerful. “I am OK!” she told my daughters in her basic English.“I love you! Thank you for coming!” The girls looked at me questioningly and all I could do was shrug. I was as baffled as they were. The doctors told us it was a fluke: that sometimes people get a final burst of energy. “Enjoy these last days with her,” they told us, “and be grateful that she is so lucid and feeling so inexplicably well.”

Several days later, my grandma was holding court before a constant stream of visitors, making jokes, and fretting about whether we were eating enough. We asked the medical team to run bloodwork and see if anything has changed, but they were reluctant. “Why poke her an extra time,” the doctor asked us, “when the results are sure to be the same?” We insisted. To the everyone’s amazement, her bloodwork came back a bit improved. The next day it was even better. Doctors had no explanation, but Grandpa was not surprised. “Like I said,” he told me calmly, “they have their numbers and I have mine.”

Two days before the new year, Grandma was discharged from the hospital.  When I sat with her before my flight back home on the last day of 2023, she told me, “You see? You thought you were coming for a funeral, but I recovered! That is life.”

My grandparents and I. December 31, 2023

That is how I learned to believe in miracles. I don’t know how much time I have with my grandparents, but I will always be grateful for the ten days I got to spend with them at the very end of this tumultuous period. May the memories of all of the beautiful souls we lost, including my Anna, be for a blessing, and may the lives of all the new babies who were born and the new families that were formed be rich in joyful celebrations. Here’s to resilience and a 2024 full of miracles! L’Chaim!

About the Author
Anna Abramzon is an artist based in Los Angeles. Her work explores the intersection of contemporary figurative painting and traditional Judaica. She specializes in ketubah art, painted tallitot, and Jewish motifs. She is also a blogger on issues of Soviet Jewry, Israel, and Jewish lifestyle.
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