When my daughter’s classmate Hannah was diagnosed with cancer and started chemotherapy, all the parents of fifth-graders in our Jewish day school banded together to try to help her family. One mother offered to organize a carpool to take Hannah’s siblings to their after-school activities if her parents were still busy at the hospital; another said she’d arrange delivery of home-cooked dinners; someone else would pick up basic necessities like toilet paper and milk.
Hannah’s family politely refused. “What would help the most,” they said, “is for you to pray.” Hannah’s aunt organized a nightly conference call where she would lead a recitation of psalms for as long as Hannah needed them.
Although I have been a religious person all my life, their request made me nervous. What seemed daunting wasn’t the prospect of extracting myself from my children’s homework and bedtime routines for 15 minutes each night, but rather that someone thought my prayers could make a difference. It was so much easier for me to commit to cooking lasagna than to praying with fervor.
My complicated feelings about prayer began when I was 12. I came home from school one September day to find the phone ringing incessantly. My mother was on the line, calling to say that her father—my Zayde—had suffered a massive heart attack. He was in the ICU and things looked bad. “What should I do?” I asked my mother. “Just pray!” she shouted, and slammed down the phone. I locked myself in my room. Despite being enrolled in religious day school, I couldn’t think of anything to say. “Please God,” I whispered, “Don’t let Zayde die.” An hour later my mother called back to say he was dead. For years I felt plagued by guilt that if I had just prayed a bit harder, things might have been different.
As an adult, I now recognize that sometimes our prayers are answered and sometimes they are not, regardless of how intensely we pray. I believe in God and pray every morning, mostly to acknowledge there is a higher power above me. Most of the time, though, I mumble the words without much regard for their meaning. I tend to focus harder on my prayers when something is wrong than when everything is going well, even though I’m unsure my piety (or lack thereof) actually affects the outcome. In Hannah’s situation, however, what I felt about prayer wasn’t really the point; if her family believed that it could save her, who was I to argue?
I don’t have much of a poker face or voice, so I was glad to hear that all of the callers would be muted—only Hannah’s aunt would recite the prayers for others to hear. We didn’t have to announce our names. Hannah’s family didn’t care who called in as long as there were people praying.
It reminded me of something my friend Dan did when his sister Lisa was sick with breast cancer. He was running the New York City Marathon, and instead of writing “Go Dan” on his T-shirt for spectators to cheer him on, he wrote “Get Better, Lisa.” That way, he said, 2 million people would be praying for her recovery. Dan’s sister died about a month after the marathon, but for those four hours that he was running, I think he really believed she would get better. That’s why I was praying: to give Hannah’s family hope, to help them out in some small way.
I was also praying to give myself hope, though. I have a daughter the same age as Hannah. They are in the same class, share the same love for bright-colored manicures and team sports, and both have loud, infectious laughs. I needed to help Hannah because her illness forced me to confront my own daughter’s vulnerability and made my neurotic fears seem quite rational.
So, on most nights for two years—through Hannah’s initial treatment, short remission, and ultimate recurrence—I went up to my bedroom at nine o’clock and prayed on the phone. My children quickly got used to the short break in the bedtime routine, and they would often be the ones checking the clock, urging me to get ready for the call. They knew Hannah was seriously ill, and they worried about her. I think they felt virtuous by proxy that by giving me time to pray, they, too, were helping Hannah to get better.
I grew to enjoy the lovely, lilting sound of Hannah’s aunt’s voice, the way she pronounced every Hebrew word perfectly, and the sweet piety she exuded. Sometimes I didn’t even whisper along, I just sat and listened. Occasionally I got annoyed when another caller forgot to press mute, and I could hear an additional, much less lovely voice reciting the prayers, or worse—gum-chewing or background conversation. Although perversely, sometimes that made me feel better; I wasn’t the worst person on the call.
At the beginning, I tried to concentrate and to think only about Hannah and getting her better. A month or two into it, my focus blurred. But I participated in the call anyway so Hannah’s family would know there were people who still cared. (Although they did not know specifically who was on the call, they did get a nightly tally of total callers.) There were some weeks I barely called in, and I would feel guilty when I heard from another friend who was a devoted attendee that she was one of the only people on the phone. The least I could do was help Hannah’s family to feel they were not alone.
I was trying to reach out to Hannah’s family in a very indirect way, but I really didn’t have a personal connection to them. Hannah’s aunt was my only real link. Her voice was frequently tinged by sniffles. I often wondered if she was crying, or if she had a cold? Allergies? I would obsess over every slight change in intonation, every sigh or gulp. Was Hannah taking a turn for the worse? Hannah’s family was very private and didn’t give updates on her condition. We knew from our children that Hannah was rarely in school, but we didn’t know much about her prognosis.
Every night, at the end of the call, Hannah’s aunt would thank us for taking the time to pray and would give a two-second update on Hannah. “She saw a good movie today,” or “She had a visit from her cousins today.” Never anything medical, negative, or pessimistic.
On a Wednesday night this past December, Hannah’s aunt sounded breathless and sniffly. She read through the psalms at lightning speed. Then she broke protocol. “Please,” she said, in as bleak and pleading a voice as I had ever heard. “I went to see Hannah today.” She paused, and took a deep breath. “Please—if any of you have a free minute, please say an extra prayer for Hannah. She really needs our prayers.”
The next day, Hannah died.
That night was a blur of tears. It was only when I fell into bed around midnight that I realized that I had missed that night’s prayer call. I wondered if people had called in. What would they have done? Cried together? Prayed together? So many people cared about Hannah and tried so hard to make her better. I felt profoundly disappointed.
I don’t know if it made a difference to God that I prayed for Hannah. I’m glad I did it, though, because it helped me to be a more compassionate person. This was the first time I ever did something consistently, for so long, for someone who was not related to me. It also helped me to better understand why I pray: to recognize that only God is truly in control in this world. We can do our best to be good, loving, hardworking, moral people, but we cannot do anything to guarantee our fate. So, even though God does not always answer our prayers in the way we hope for, we still have to ask.
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