A few weeks ago, my 56-year-old cousin Michelle lost a 2 ½ year battle with leukemia. She fought with determination and grace, never complained, and stayed positive and selfless throughout. Michelle was originally diagnosed in 2017, three days before she was scheduled to fly to Israel to celebrate her nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. Instead of getting on the airplane, she checked into a hospital to begin her treatment.
Unbeknownst to Michelle, at the exact same time she was supposed to be in Israel, a young man named Noah was in Israel, on a college summer trip. During the trip, Noah volunteered to participate in a bone marrow registry by giving a mouth swab. Little did Noah or Michelle know that he would be her miraculous match and donor six months later.
Michelle and Noah were not allowed to know each other’s identity until one year after the transplant. They actually met, hugged, and cried together, for the first time, on stage, at a fundraising gala. Their story touched everyone. (I have watched the video of their meeting a half dozen times and cried each and every time).
Though her leukemia returned after 20 months, Michelle was able to see her daughter graduate from college, attend a family Bar Mitzvah in Dallas where she and our extended family met Noah and his family, and take an Alaskan cruise with her husband of 30 years and their best friends.
I had the privilege of being my Michelle’s side for many hours in her final days of life. Though I was heartbroken to see my sweet cousin’s body failing, I was moved to tears at the tenderness around her. Her parents, husband, daughter, son, brother and sister-in-law were at her bedside 24-7. We took turns holding her hands, rubbing her feet, caressing her head and whispering words of love and support in her ear. We sang to her, soothed her, and reminded her that we were at her side helping her. The room was peaceful, gentle and loving. Even though few words were spoken, we all felt deeply connected to her and to each other. It was an experience and image forever etched in my soul.
I share Michelle’s final chapter not because of its sorrow. I share it because of its beauty – because of the wealth of compassion surrounding her during her last few years, and especially her last few days. Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” It is defined as the feeling you get when confronted with another’s suffering and the desire to relieve that suffering. What I saw and was a part of was the power of compassion surpassing the depth of sorrow. It was extraordinary.
I am convinced that compassion is one of the golden tickets to health, happiness, and growth. And that individually and collectively, life is sweeter, brighter and more joyful with more of it. One of Michelle’s parting gifts to her family and those around her was the power of kindness and compassion. She exhibited that until the end, thanking nurses who cared for her and giving words of support to her family, and it was reflected back to her by all who knew her. May Michelle rest in peace and may 2020 be marked by more giving and receiving of compassion for us all.