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A person’s whole life can change with a phone call. Ours did, many times. This past week it happened again.

The phone rang. I saw my husband speaking. He sat down heavily in a chair, the color draining from his face. His voice grew quiet. I knew that something had happened.

My mother-in-law didn’t feel well and went to the doctor, who ran some tests and told her to go to the hospital immediately. Suddenly our lives changed, as the woman who bore my husband, the grandmother of my children, the matriarch and pillar of our family, was diagnosed with leukemia. Overnight, my mother-in-law went from never needing an aspirin to undergoing chemotherapy.

Overnight, my mother-in-law went from never needing an aspirin to undergoing chemotherapy.

I recall the first day that I met her. She immediately welcomed me into her home and into her heart with her smile, her radiance and her beauty. I’ll never forget the day I sat down with her to shape kippe, the traditional Syrian meatballs eaten every Friday night and at every holiday meal. Hers were perfectly oval, all the same size and shape. Mine were a mixture of circles and balls, snail shapes and sticks. She proudly showed them to everyone, “Look, Elana made kippe!” She invited us to six-course traditional dinners, and lovingly tried my tofu stir-fry or whole wheat cake. The little that I made became the center of her attention. When my father-in-law was sick, I suggested making him chicken soup. She got to work, and when she served it to him, she told him, “Elana made you soup. You see how she always thinks of you!” Everything we do, she loves and praises. And this is just a taste of my mother-in-law’s spirit.

In the beginning, I had a hard time understanding her. I was young, naive and immature, and she seemed, well, foreign. You know the ways of mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. Too many phone calls, and it’s an invasion of privacy; not enough, and you say she doesn’t care. She’s always telling you what to do, or she doesn’t take an interest. I fought over petty things and thought that I knew so much better. Then, as the years went by, as I myself became a mother, I began to appreciate her more and more. Her silly sayings became words of wisdom. I find that I quote her all the time. We share recipes As I myself became a mother, I began to appreciate her more and more.and tell each other about beautiful Torah classes that we attended.

I don’t fight anymore when she gives my children sugary candy. I realized these past few years that the love infused in those treats is healthier and more important for the growth of my children than the healthiest of fruits and vegetables. She has her ways and I have mine, but she respects me, she adores me—what more could I ask for? A few months ago, I told her, “I’m not calling you Suegra (“Mother-in Law”) anymore, but Mama.” And I know that I’m not her “daughter-in-law,” I’m her daughter.

And then the phone rang, and we received news that changed our life.

Our sages teach us, “Repent one day before your death” (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:15). Does one ever know when he will die? Rather, explain the sages, one must always assume that today is the last day of his life, and not push anything off. I ask you: what if the sages are not just speaking about the day of your death, but the day of your beloved’s death? Or the day of your friend’s or your relative’s death? Did you tell them how much you loved them? Did you forgive them for those petty things? Did you ask forgiveness for those words said without thought, for those actions done? Did you sit and talk as much as you needed? Did you listen to what they had to say? If not, you must know that you need to live now as though it’s your last day—or theirs—and enjoy them, learn from them, be with them.

There is a beautiful image described in Kohelet Rabbah (9:8) of a sailor’s wife who dressed in her finest clothing every day. When questioned about her practice, she replied, “My husband is a sailor. A strong wind can bring him into port at any moment, and I will be very ashamed if he finds me ungroomed and unattractive.”

We need to live our lives like the sailor’s wife, never wasting a moment, always ready and attractive for our loved ones.

Now, I’m glued to the phone. I jump at its ring and run to answer it. We call my mother-in-law night and day. Just hearing her strong, positive voice, so full of faith and love, gives us strength and hope. “I love you, Mama,” I tell her over and over. “May G‑d bless you with a full and complete recovery.” Refuah sheleimah, Frida bat Rivka.

Originally from northern California and a Stanford University graduate, Elana Mizrahi now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children. She is a doula, massage therapist, writer, and author of Dancing Through Life, a book for Jewish women. She also teaches Jewish marriage classes for brides.
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Forgiving daughter in law Chicago, Illinois via November 10, 2013

Different mother in law Hi Elana;
I loved your story you wrote about your mother in law. You have no idea how lucky you are that your mother in law appreciated everything that you did.

My did not. She always criticized me. She felt I was not giving good food to her son. She always spoke behind my back.

Thank G-d, my husband knew his mother was wrong and always stood up for me.

I am now blessed with 8 children married (4 daughter in laws). I ALWAYS praise them, I try not to give advice (only when asked) and I try to help them with the grandchildren.

I am very grateful that my mother in law treated me horribly, because now I know what not to do. I know that Hashem made this happen for a good reason.

I once said to her, " don't you know how much damage you are causing?". Yet, she kept on with her criticism...non stop, so that we were not able to invite her to our home .

We would go to visit her to keep the connection, but for only 1 or 2 hours.

I forgive her with my whole heart. Reply

Anonymous November 9, 2013

We, on the other side of the world... love hearing the beautiful stories you tell of the Jewish Women... It is inspiring to all of us... and teaching us from afar...

Thank you... Reply

Sara November 9, 2013

Beautiful and so touching. Why do we learn life's most important lessons so late? Reply

LRut Bell November 7, 2013

blessed2 I too have had the blessing of having a mom-in-luv that took care of me and respected me. When first married, she came to visit the family, from abroad. She would cook our meals; I would bring the ingredients. I once brought the large tomatoes instead of the roma tomatoes she required. She look at them and said, "these are not the ones I use for this recipe, but since you brought them, they must be the best & most tasty". She captivated my heart. May all women learn from those who are and allow to be. She let me be who I am; I need not pretend or used all those little shallow manners. Manners are good, but not always from the heart. Just like my mama (Grandma)Lenny, she let me be, and I love her for it. Reply

jnn November 6, 2013

Love is eternal Nothing has the power to weaken the strength of the love you share. On one hand it is an illness but it is also an opportunity to savor the bonds of love and time. May there be restoration of health and you be spared from the things we fear. Reply

Lorena Los Angeles November 5, 2013

Thank you! This is precisely the story that I was needing. Shalom! Reply

Anonymous November 5, 2013

Very nice story... Thank you... Reply

Shalvi Yerushalayim November 5, 2013

Wow So touching and well written. Your Mama is lucky to have you as her daughter, fighting for her for a good long and healthy life. Reply

M July 19, 2013

Living, learning, fearing Beautiful story! To say the least. I didn't have touch with good stories, better, good relations between mother-daughter in law. Unfortunately. It's very complicated. A family should always be together. As one. All silly human idiosyncrasies should be put aside. And in moments like the one described, even more. it's saddening to know that some families don't get along well, problems between daughter in law with mother in law, among other things.Then I fear.that. I realky wish to have a connected family, and reading it's good to know it's possible. Giving the best of me to make it work, I believe only through love things can work. This story is a proof that it is possible. Thank you so much! Reply

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