Several years ago, on a glorious sunny Sunday afternoon, I sat on a bench in Gravesend Park, while my children were having a blast in the sprinkler. I sat there enjoying the cool breeze, while my kids splashed and giggled. I noticed a woman, attractively dressed, pushing a double carriage and walking in my direction.

As my gaze traveled to the occupants of said carriage, my eyes widened and my throat constricted. The large brown eyes that stared back at me from the rear seat could not compensate for the lack of a single strand of hair on the head of what appeared to be a 5-year-old girl. I suddenly realized that the woman was headed toward my bench, and I moved over to make room for her. With her were two older children who ran off to play, while the 5-year-old and the baby dozed off.

The three words that stuck in my mind were “okay with it”The baby in the front of the carriage was busily sucking a bottle, and the thought occurred to me that my new bench partner might also be thirsty. I offered her one of my water bottles, and she gratefully accepted, introducing herself as Esther.

We started schmoozing, and she related to me how her life had changed six months earlier, when her daughter was diagnosed with cancer. She explained that her daughter had just finished her last round of chemo and was in remission. She stated matter-of-factly that she believed it was due to all the prayers being said in the community. She was calm and serene, and her faith was clearly intact. I wondered how she did it, and I didn’t have to wait long to find out. She was more than happy to share—and she had, in me, a willing audience.

Esther related that, although she wouldn’t want to be confronted with this experience ever again, she was “okay with it.” She explained that this challenge had taken her on paths she would never have crossed. She described an ongoing recognition of G‑d’s presence that she had never felt before, and a more profound understanding of her own strengths and weaknesses.

As the afternoon turned into evening, we gathered our children to leave, exchanged phone numbers and promised to keep in touch. That evening, I couldn’t get this experience out of my mind, and for some reason, the three words that stuck in my mind were “okay with it.”

Through bath time, suppertime, story time, saying the bedtime prayer of Shema with my children, and finally bedtime, I attempted to sort out my conflicted feelings. I thought about my own life, my own past and my own present. Was I “okay with it”? Was I serene? As I searched deep within myself, I realized that although logically I was okay with my life, my heart was in turmoil. There was a part of me that was angry, sad and anguished. My mind believed. My mind had faith. But my heart ached.

That ache had its roots in a childhood where, as far as my parents were concerned, I didn’t exist. I was neglected, physically and emotionally. Although I look back at this time and know it was a time of suffering, it is clear to me that there were certain incidents in my life that pulled me through. These incidents were clearly the hand of G‑d holding me in my darkest moments.

When I was five years old, I remember my mother sending me to school without breakfast. The building I lived in was right next door to a pizza shop. That September morning I was waiting for the big yellow school bus to arrive, as the scent of heavenly pizza tickled my nostrils and made my hungry stomach growl. I decided that instead of going on the school bus, I would go to the pizza shop.

There I was, a tiny, skinny girl with straight blond hair and large blue eyes, dressed in rags, staring hungrily at the pizza. After a few minutes the owner asked me if I wanted something. I said yes. Pizza! He handed me a slice on a red plastic tray, and I devoured it. But I was still hungry. So again I stood at the counter, and the scene repeated itself—this time with French fries, then ice cream, then slush, then popcorn. I was never so full in my life.

Before I left, Mr. Rothstein, the owner, told me that I was welcome anytime. And that is how I was nourished over the years. Whenever I thought about this incident, it reminded me of the milk and honey that G‑d fed the Jewish babies in Egypt. He took care of them, and He took care of me as well.

When I was seven years old, I was sent to sleep at an elderly woman’s house to keep her company, because her husband had passed away. (Years later, I found out that she paid my parents money for this exchange.) I slept there for two years. She lived across the avenue and down the road. She was an obsessive-compulsive woman who verbally and emotionally abused me. One night, after my bath, I remember her yelling at me. I couldn’t understand why. Then she showed me the bar of soap—which by this time was not much of a bar, because it had dissolved in the tub.

I sat down on the concrete with my threadbare coat and criedShe would wake me up at seven, and I would run home, then catch the bus at my house at 7:30. One freezing winter morning, probably about 3 degrees Fahrenheit, I remember walking home. It was cloudy and dark. Suddenly, I was consumed with fear. I couldn’t go on. The street was dark and empty. So I sat down on the concrete with my threadbare coat and cried.

Soon, a man (I don’t even remember much what he looked like) approached me, knelt down beside me and asked me what was wrong. I told him, through sobs, of how I walk home every morning alone and how frightened I felt. He told me that he would take me home every day. I held his hand and he took me home. For the next two years, we met every morning at the same time. As he walked me to my building, he chanted funny things that made me laugh. He was a messenger from G‑d, sent to protect me.

When I was 15 years old, I went to the doctor because of sharp pains in my stomach. This doctor was an amateur and he had no idea what he was doing. He poked and prodded my stomach and diagnosed me with appendicitis. I was rushed to the emergency room in an ambulance, sirens blaring. I was taken to a room where, weak and pale, I waited for the result of my blood tests. As I was lying there in bed alone, a kind-looking woman from the other side of the curtain was there with her 2-year-old, who was running a high fever.

This woman introduced herself as Mrs. Gross, and before long I opened up my heart to her and described my sorrowful fate. From then on, she took me under her wings and matters into hers own hands. She called my parents, and my father came to the hospital. It turned out that because I was underweight, I had developed an ovarian cyst. Thankfully, it dissolved on its own. Mrs. Gross got the community involved, and I went to a seminary overseas where I was able to be a kid, develop friendships, and learn about and strengthen my Jewish knowledge. This school was home to me until I met my husband and got married.

I will not sugarcoat my married life and claim that it has been one romantic fairytale. I feel that my husband does not always understand me and the many fears that plague me due to my childhood traumas. He is, however, a good provider, and tries to please me to the best of his ability. Although I was blessed with a stable marriage and two beautiful, happy children, I continued to struggle with the memories of my childhood.

That Sunday afternoon, seeing the serene look on that woman’s face made me search deep within myself. I wanted that serenity. I wanted that peace. And so I began to look for G‑d’s presence. I struggled every day to see the good in my life and to feel positive. I found that it took extraordinary effort, for me, to stay focused and not wallow in negativity. But slowly I began to learn to feel appreciative and thankful. I started noticing things like a good parking space, a peaceful dinner, a discovery of a long-wanted item on a clearance rack. I started to realize how much I had to be grateful for. I began thanking myself for my efforts, and my family for theirs. And the more I said thank you, the better I felt with myself, my past and my present. Today I can honestly say, after training myself to live with gratitude, that “I am okay with it.”

It took extraordinary effort, for me, to stay focused and not wallow in negativityI say to people who feel that there’s no hope, to people who feel disconnected from G‑d, who feel that life hasn’t dealt fairly with them—there’s hope. There’s love. There’s peace. And it is not on some distant tropical island. It is not in some magnificent mansion atop a mountain overlooking a shimmering lake. That hope, that love and that peace is within you. The key to opening the door to that part of yourself is finding the things that do work in your life. Being grateful for all that you do have. Hearing the voice of G‑d in the little things in life that proclaim: Hello there! I am your Daddy! I love you! I am here for you!

Esther and I continue to keep in touch. Her daughter is fully recovered, and her black curls bounce along with her vibrant laughter. When I first met Esther in the park, I felt saddened and overwhelmed by the thought of what she must be going through. Those feelings changed to awe, as she shared the strength of her faith and her determination, as I toiled to make that strength my own. And today, what do I feel? Thankful for that day in the park when I caught a glimpse of a little girl with big brown eyes.