Social Media and Bikur Cholim
Mrs. R. (as I’ll call her) posted on a Facebook Group I read called the Tokyo Mothers Group that she was just diagnosed with lymphoma and asked if anyone knew anything about it. In fact, it’s a little more complex than that: my friend Kacie, whose daughter is just six years old, was reading the board and mentioned me in a comment to make sure I’d see it – I don’t often read that board anymore since my kids are twelve and fifteen years old, and the group most often has playgroup and play date recommendations and breast feeding support on it. Feeling a bit of social media pressure, I responded vaguely to the post – at first. “I did the treatment and now I’m fine!” She then took that bull by the proverbial horns, first friending me on Facebook, then sending me a private message asking all kinds of questions about how I’m feeling now, how my treatment went, and where I took the treatment. She and her husband had only been in Tokyo for two years and she needed advice. She wanted to talk. I didn’t answer her fully right away; I was struggling a bit inside. I’ve never spoken with another lymphoma patient; I’ve shied away from that blunt of a reality check. I just told her over social media that I had returned to the U.S. for treatment and asked her for the name of the hospital where she was being treated. And then I decided to just drop the façade and go see her. My husband was supportive immediately; sometimes I get these ideas in my head and I can’t let go – he senses when that’s happening and doesn’t fuss at me. At the same time, I could tell he was concerned – for me, there’s a lot of emotion tied up in lymphoma. I did not want to re-live the experience. I often tried to pretend it never happened to me. On the other hand, there was something nagging at me – if I could ease her suffering just a little, tiny bit, I probably should. Judaism teaches that the mitzvah (literally translated as commandment – but often meaning good deed) of Bikur Cholim – Visiting the sick – is one of the most important and meaningful of all of the 613 mitzvot. There are rules regulating how often (as often as possible for short periods) and when (after three days of suffering) and the common Jewish wisdom is that a visit from a caring friend or relative alleviates one sixtieth of a person’s suffering, and for that reason, it’s an important thing to do for someone. I had never met Mrs. R. in my life, but when I walked into her hospital room, I couldn’t help but hug her. She’s a beautiful woman with rich, dark hair and a shiny, wide smile. She was unpretentious and open, hankering for a talk – hungry to be understood and understand what was happening. She kept thanking me for coming, as did her brother, who had flown in from London to be with the woman who was clearly, judging from his protective attitude, his little sister. The magnitude of her youth hit me slowly, like a seeing a glass fall off a table in slow motion. Her daughter is only two and a half. We swapped diagnosis stories and she asked me if I thought she should go back to India, where she is from, to take treatment. I struggled with answering her because her type of lymphoma is not the same as mine was, and I have no idea if medical treatment is better in Mumbai or Tokyo; I just know that being treated for a serious illness in one’s native language is a huge comfort. In the end, the details of the situation didn’t really matter anyway. I stayed with her only an hour that day, just connecting with her, reaching out to her, letting her know that she is not alone. I swallowed the bile of my own illness, so recently passed, and offered the olive branch of hope to her, which she grasped with both hands. Leaving her was hard. I wanted to stay, to hug her and tell her she’d be okay no matter what happened really. I had my own babies to get back to. Even when I returned the next day, it was for just a few minutes, to bring her my own book on hope and strength before returning to my regularly scheduled life. She says I helped her decide to return to India to be near her family, where she can be with her daughter all the time. Her husband is going with her, able to work from the Mubai office of his company instead of the Tokyo office, to which he had been transferred from India anyway. I don’t know precisely what I did or said, but she seemed at peace with the decision, with the process ahead of her. When we parted, it was with pressed hands and promises to see each other again, be it in Tokyo, in India or even someday in the U.S. I’m sure we will, too. It might not be so soon, but I will see Mrs. R. again somewhere, someday. What began with a social media posting became the physical fulfillment of a mitzvah, and will now return to the world of the virtual, as I’m sure we will be in touch over some type of technology or social media. She might think that I did something for her, and perhaps I did, but what she did for me, giving me the opportunity to fulfil a beloved mitzvah and come to terms with sharing my story both in person and over social media, with those similarly afflicted, was the real gift. Godspeed, Mrs. R. I am waiting to meet you again.