This article first ran in the Toronto Star on Dec. 30, 2003. Memory is a fleeting thing. In these days if there is not a digital presence keeping memory alive is difficult indeed. I re-submit this story 12 years later as a Hanukkah present to Joanne's son who recently turned 15 years old.
Hanukkah is a time for family and miracles. Sadly for our family the first night of Hanukkah was filled with much sorrow. My dear sister-in-law, Joanne (Bosloy) Robitaille, lost her battle with breast cancer. She was only 44 years old.
But in her death she also left us with a precious gift; indeed with our family beside her over the last few days of her life, Joanne taught us all that in death one can find life.
Joanne was not a particularly religious woman but as she battled her constant recurrences of cancer she demonstrated to us the true meaning of what is known in the Jewish tradition as the Eshet Chayil (a woman of valour).
Shortly after her son Jack was born three years ago, Joanne was diagnosed with an exceptionally aggressive form of breast cancer. And though the doctors were not hopeful, Joanne decided that life's prescription is to take it a day at a time. Joanne had much to do before cancer claimed her.
Most specifically, Joanne wanted to ensure that Jack understood his Jewish roots and so for the first time in her adult life she became active in a Jewish chevra (community), the Solel Congregation of Mississauga. From playgroups to temple services, Joanne became a fixture at Solel and the congregation enveloped her with love and support.
Indeed I remember how proud Joanne was to receive her first aliya (call to the Torah) only a few short weeks before her death. Our entire family gathered that Shabbat for services and glowed with pride as she recited the prescribed blessings.
In the last few weeks before her passing, Joanne's health deteriorated significantly but her mettle remained strong. She so wanted to celebrate her last Hanukkah with Jack and the family. However as she entered the palliative care unit at Credit Valley Hospital we feared this would not be.
But Hanukkah is a time of miracles and we were determined to celebrate Hanukkah with Joanne as our final gift to her.
"As we all wished Joanne a Shabbat Shalom (Peaceful Sabbath) she drew her final breath and found shalom, peace at last."
In order to usher in Hanukkah we would require a chanukiah, a nine-pronged menorah (candelabra) in which one candle is lit to signify each of the eight days of Hanukkah. And to add another wrinkle, due to the use of oxygen in Joanne's room, it would have to be an electric menorah.
Even miracles need a little help, so with the assistance of Arliene Botnick, Solel's director of education and a pastoral counselor for the hospital, we were able to find an electric menorah the hospital purchased only recently for its holiday display. Though the doctors were sure that she wouldn't make it through the day, there we were gathered together as a family around Joanne's bed to observe Hanukkah, albeit two days early.
With remarkable dignity Joanne removed her oxygen mask for a short time and while her strength was minimal, the look of love and peace on her face knowing that she was able to celebrate the first Hanukkah candle with her son Jack, sister, brothers, parents and those that loved her will forever be etched in our hearts.
Joanne struggled with life for two more days. It was Shabbat and miraculously the first night of Hanukkah. The doctors were mystified as to how she survived so long. Since Jack was born he and Joanne shared most Friday night Sabbaths with us. She would beam as she watched Jack with his Spiderman kippah perched precariously on his head as he sang Sabbath blessings with the family.
And so, one last time we gathered around her bed. Her breathing was shallow but her will was strong. Her eyes were closed but her heart was open and we sang the blessings for Joanne in farewell. As we all wished Joanne a Shabbat Shalom (Peaceful Sabbath) she drew her final breath and found shalom, peace at last.
And through that peace we came to understand both the inevitability of death and the little miracles during Hanukkah that allowed us all to remember this woman of valour for the life's lessons she taught us. These lessons will forever be ingrained in our souls.
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