My son, Yisrael Zalman Baruch, was born perfectly healthy, 10 years ago, and he remained this way until his bris. About two days later, my wife noticed that he was lethargic, not eating normally, and his color seemed to change at times from newborn pink to bluish. We were not alarmed because we had heard that infants can turn bluish because of bad circulation. The next day we had a doctor who lived in our building check him out. He said that he seemed fine, that his lungs and heart sounded good. We also called our pediatrician, who said that if his lips turned blue that we should bring him into the emergency room, which unfortunately came to pass. We rushed him to the hospital. When the nurse looked at my son, she grabbed him out of our hands and hurriedly called over a number of doctors who immediately started to work on him. As they were trying to revive him, there was a Muslim couple in one room and a black Christian woman in the other. When they saw my son and saw our faces, they all started to pray for him. At this point I realized that my son was someone special.
Rachi and Shneur Garb take an outing with Kayla (middle), Ziggy (bottom left), and Mendy.
They did stabilize him, and he was sent to the pediatric ICU with a respirator. He had caught a virus called RSV, a type of pneumonia that 50,000 infants and small children with weak hearts and lungs are afflicted with each year. Before entering the emergency room that fearful night, we had never heard of RSV, nor had any of our family or friends.
While he was in the ICU, there were three other very sick children there. In the beginning, we were told he was going to be on the respirator for a few days so that he could gather his strength. Several times they did successfully remove the tube and, for a short while, he was able to breathe on his own and even open his eyes. One day he actually ate and drank, and they were hopeful that he was going to be placed in a regular room. Unfortunately, because of his age (which was two weeks at the start of this ordeal), he simply didn’t have the strength to keep breathing on his own, and regressed to the point where he was once again dependent on the respirator. The respirator, although it has its purpose, also has drawbacks, one of which is that the lungs, being in a weakened state, can collapse. With a heavy heart, I am pained to say that that is what brought him to the other world.
A person might think it odd that I am writing about this in such detail. But I have noticed that it’s been very hard for people to talk about this and to console us, so I decided to step forward on my own and tell this story. A person does not come into this world without a purpose. We believe that each individual is here to fulfill a mission. I cannot and will not have my Zalman remembered as a baby who lived for four weeks and died. I would therefore like to relate a couple of stories about our experiences during his short life.
I invited some of my old friends to the bris. At the end of the bris, one of these friends told me that he had not put on tefillin in four years and another for seven years. Both of them put tefillin on at the davening by Zalmi’s bris. Already at eight days old, my son was bringing his fellow Jews closer to God. While my wife and I were in the hospital, we didn’t have a place to sit or sleep near my son, because the ICU is off limits to all parents while the doctors and nurses do reports and rounds. So we slept in the lounge, which was one of the worst things I ever had to do. Till this day my wife and kids and I make our Shabbos table as lively as possible to thank HaShem for the Shabbosim we have in our home and not in a hospital. But as a Jew and a Lubavitcher, I believed strongly that my wife and I were on some type of shlichut (divine mission). I felt that we, as Torah-observant Jews, had to do everything possible to help all those around us. I felt that this was what God wanted us to do. In the lounge my wife and I spoke with many parents and encouraged them and spoke about how God has his ways that we sometimes simply can’t comprehend. We brought breakfast for people who didn’t have any family or people to visit them. My wife and I prayed by the beds of all the children there, Jewish or not. When you are in this state, you feel everyone else’s pain. There were no boundaries, racial or other, and we felt as though all the children were our children as well. The rebbe always said to put a pushka (charity box), a Chitas (Chumash, Tehillim, and Tanya), and the psalm Shir Hamalot near the bed, which I did. Every night I prayed and said tehillim (psalms) by his side. This helped me immensely. The rebbe also taught. "Tracht gut vet zein gut," "Think good and it will be good." I repeated this saying often to all the parents and myself.
At times I had great difficulty "thinking good." But even when my son was going through the worst part of his ordeal, I was always surprisingly joyful after saying tehillim. This shocked some of the hospital staff. I actually rebuked some of the doctors and nurses for coming in stern and grim-faced or miserable-looking. I said to them, "You have no right to do this. You are God’s messengers and you must give all the parents hope that everything will be good." From that day on they made a point of smiling when they saw us.
My wife is a very special person. Every night when she was a little girl, her parents sang her a Yiddish lullaby. Every night in the hospital, she went to all the beds and sang this lullaby to all the children. When she sang this song, all the doctors and nurses waited for her to finish before they went to their patients. It was as if she was healing them herself. Every time I start to miss my Zalmi I hum this song to myself. I was amazed at her strength and her ability to see past all the tubes and monitors and sing. It is truly miraculous, the faith and hope that a mother has.
My son, after more than two weeks, just couldn’t hold on anymore and left this world. At first I was angry. How could this happen to us? But when the doctors came out, it completely changed my life. These doctors were the attending physicians and I know that they are trained not to become too attached to a patient. But when they told us that he was gone, they all cried. I don’t want to say this but I feel I have to. When they first told me that he was gone I said to them, "Look at my face and look at my wife’s face. I want you to remember how we look. Now go back in there and heal all the other children."
The only way I was able to get though all of this was because of the way the hospital was when he died. It was like thunder shook the floor. All the doctors came out, all the nurses, the parents, the janitors. They all cried and sobbed my son’s name as they hugged us and each other. I could tell from their reaction that although he never spoke to these people, his pure soul shone through to bring light to the world.
My son died three hours before the 30th day of his life, so in accordance with Jewish law, he was not given a levaya (a full-fledged funeral) and there was no shiva. People say this is a blessing. But the Rabbis were wise and they knew that a shiva gives people a chance to visit the mourner and to offer condolence and so on. Since there was no shiva, I gave a farbrengen (a chasidic gathering), where a number of people spoke. I read this story so that Zalmi’s name lives on. My son brought people together, as people said tehillim for him all over the world. This, of course, is very emotional for me, and it is hard to write anymore, so I will end with this: People might think that after all the praying and after everything we went through, that our faith would be shaken. But just the opposite has happened. My faith and commitment are stronger now than they have ever been.
Being frum is not just a matter of action, or the way someone dresses; it is what is within. After seeing what my son did in his short life, I have no questions for the Almighty. As a Jew and a chasid, I believe it is a parent’s dream that his child should live as a Jew, enveloped in Torah and mitzvahs. That is what my son did. Every morning we washed negel vasser with him and every night we said the Sh’ma. So every day of his life he lived as a Jew and a chasid. I know people who wait their whole lives for the kind of nachas that my wife and I received from our Zalman.
People keep on asking us, "What can we do for you?" My answer is: "Do as my Zalmi did, and don’t forget his achievement-filled life. Live every day as a Jew for yourself and the world!"
Postscript: Shneur and Rachi Garb have since brought three more children into the world: Kayla Shoshanna, 9; Menachem Mendel (Mendy), 7; and Ziporah Golda (Ziggy), ‘. The family lives in Teaneck.