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.