“There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”

— Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

When I feel empty in my pain, not capable of uttering a word despite my sincere desire to pray, I think of my beloved Aunt Vera.

During her 67 years of life, she overcame difficult health challenges. She was a real fighter, and I genuinely believed that she would beat the pneumonia coupled with COVID-19. My beloved aunt, my childhood “Mama Vera,” as I called her, left this world on March 2.

Vera was born as a healthy and vibrant child. She loved being independent and was an energetic little girl. In 1961, when she was just 7 years old, Vera fell from a ladder at a playground. An X-ray showed that she broke her collarbone. For the next few weeks, Vera wore a sling, and in time, it seemed like she was healing. Yet after the accident she was not her vibrant self. Her mother, my grandmother Zelda, was a doctor, and it became apparent that her daughter’s eyesight was getting worse. After an examination, a doctor at the neurological center diagnosed Vera with a “brain tumor.”

This was the beginning of my aunt’s lifelong fight for survival. The day my grandmother received the diagnosis, she took Vera to Moscow on an evening train from Saratov, hoping to get her into the best hospital in the country. Zelda, a single mother, was widowed three years earlier when her husband drowned in Volga River during a family getaway. Zelda understood how difficult it would be to get Vera admitted into the best medical institution in the country. Yet as a mother and as a knowledgeable physician, she knew that her daughter’s only chance to survive was to have the life-saving neurological surgery.

As anticipated, when they arrived, the young mother from a provincial town was refused treatment for her ill child. This upscale facility was designed for only high-ranking Soviet citizens. My grandmother cried and pleaded until one kind nurse told her that the head of the hospital, Dr. Egorov, the father of a famous astronaut, exercised in the mornings outside the hospital, jogging in the snow before work.

Zelda waited all night at the entrance, and at 5 a.m., when she saw the doctor in the distance, she approached him, crying and begging to admit her daughter. He was a kind man who was moved by her perseverance and agreed to put Vera in the hallway of the hospital. There was no actual room available, but this was the best outcome anyone could have hoped for.

Miraculously, after Vera was admitted, my grandmother recognized an attending physician on the floor—her former medical-school professor. He made the necessary arrangements, and in two weeks, Vera had surgery to remove the tumor. The recovery was painfully slow, but Vera gradually recuperated.

Unbeknown to the doctors, the illness was still raging inside of Vera’s little body. In 1963, her symptoms returned and again her mother took an overnight train to Moscow during which she had to administer an emergency IV with magnesium to her daughter. As people were getting off to the platform in Moscow, smiling and embracing their loved ones, Vera was taken on a stretcher into an ambulance.

Vera had to return for one more surgery in 1969 for a total of three high-risk, lifesaving neurological procedures in less than eight years. Although Vera was bed bound for most of her school years, she graduated high school and was able to receive a license as a phlebotomist and work in a laboratory.

Ironically, in the Russian language the word “Vera” literally means “faith.” If any person had belief and trust in G‑d, it was my dear “mama Faith.” She found joy in things most people take for granted. She was a pure soul, a swift coupon clipper, and a collector of silly jokes, vibrant Jewish songs, magnets and small boxes.

She laughed at her limitations, made jokes about her color blindness and never took life too seriously. She suffered from severe migraines, painful arthritis, double vision and had difficulty walking steady. Yet she was never angry about her struggles, never blamed anyone and kept reassuring us that G‑d loved her.

Vera and her mother, my grandmother Zelda
Vera and her mother, my grandmother Zelda

In 1989, both my grandmother Zelda and Vera immigrated with the rest of the family to the United States. A few years after settling into our new life in this beautiful country, another health crisis threatened my aunt. Vera was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed aggressive treatment in order to survive. Many medical professionals doubted her ability to tolerate chemotherapy and surgery, considering her already weakened health. Yet Vera loved life and wanted to fight for it. She beat cancer and all the odds against her survival.

When I became more observant, I offered Vera to receive a proper Jewish name. Together, we chose the name Chaya Sarah. “Chaya” for the Hebrew word “life” and “Sarah” for the first Jewish woman. Later, I learned that her name is similar sounding to the name of the Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, in which we read how our matriarch Sarah was eulogized by Abraham. The true impact of the first Jewish woman’s purpose was fully revealed only after her passing. I would like to think that the same lesson applies to our own Chaya Sarah.

I came to visit my aunt every Friday afternoon to make Shabbat celebrations in her apartment before welcoming Shabbat in my own home. We prayed and talked and spent time together. These were special visits for both of us.

Just two years ago, Vera’s heart suddenly stopped. She was rushed to the hospital, a place that was unfortunately all too familiar to her. Vera was unconscious for 11 days, and just as we were about to give up hope, she opened her eyes and told us that she was in a beautiful garden in Israel. She remembered not wanting to leave the magnificent place. Right before going through the splendid gates, she heard everyone praying for her. It was then that she woke up.

During her last two years of life, Vera reassured us that prayers reach beyond our wildest imagination. She encouraged us to pray for other people in need. Vera also taught us the power of the Shema prayer. “When you are in distress, say “Shema Israel,” and G‑d will help you.” This was her important message, brought from her near-death experience.

In 1990, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov took our family to receive the blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This was one of the most important moments of Vera’s life. She felt an incredible connection to the Rebbe, keeping his picture in her wallet and “talking” to him during difficult times.

Three days before Chaya Sarah’s passing, I delivered a special package to her ICU hospital room. Even though she was already unconscious, I knew she was grateful to have the picture of the Rebbe next to her. An incredibly attentive medical team agreed to play Psalms from Chabad.org on the iPad we brought to the hospital. This was her final song. The words of praise sung by King David thousands of years ago, echoed Chaya Sarah’s gratitude and connection to her Creator.

My Aunt Vera was the strongest person I have ever known. Grateful, kind, simple, authentic. She taught me that despite pain and challenges, life is worth fighting for. I saw her appreciate simple things and regular days. Even in pain, we are much stronger than we think; we have hidden potential to face life head-on. She was a warrior who chose life.

The Torah teaches that “the broken shards of the first tablets were stored in the ark together with the whole ones.” This is the paradox of the human heart. It can be broken and whole at the same time. We can feel pain, yet be in peace.

May the memory of Chaya Sarah bat Chaim be a blessing.