Maya’s Story

"I cherish each day and every hour.  Life is precious." 

I was born Kharkiv, in the Ukraine in 1934.  I remember when the war* broke out, as if it were yesterday.  I was seven years old.  Airplanes used to fly above our city and drop bombs.  The pilots flew so low that I could see their faces.  The daily explosions were utterly terrifying.  We had an improvised bomb shelter out in our yard, and we lived in a third floor apartment.  I remember worrying about being able to make it all the way to our safe haven on time.  My grandma used to say, “Whatever happens, happens.”  This phrase, and her strong character stuck with me all of my life. 

Our family escaped to Uzbekistan until the war subsided.  When we returned, we had no home; our apartment had been taken by someone else.  There was no work.  My father was able to find a job in Moldova, and we remained there throughout the rest of my childhood.  I graduated from high school there, and attended college in Moldova as well.

I studied physics at the university.  It was there that I met my husband.  We were classmates, and got married during our senior year.  We found work in Uzbekistan, at the same laboratory.  The village we lived in was built around the laboratory, the main employer of its residents.  Everyone who lived there was like family.  We all knew one another well.  There was only one school, and one musical conservatory.  Our home was nestled within a group of cottages that had been newly built for the scientists of our institute.  We were able to choose which cottage we wanted, in an era where there weren’t many choices available. 

We had some land to use as our own, and in time we cultivated a fine garden.  It was during the height of summer when we moved there.  Gradually, we learned about what we could raise in our hot, dry climate.  We grew peaches, grapes, raspberries, strawberries, and currants.  Our garden produced enough apples that we could wrap them in paper and continue enjoying them throughout the rest of the year.  We cultivated many different varieties of roses and tulips.  After cooking, you are left with dirty dishes, but when you garden, you are left with beautiful flowers.  We lived there for 34 years.  This was the home that our children were raised in.  We had all that we needed, and we were happy there. 

In 1991, my son left for America with his wife and her family.  My daughter immigrated to Israel with her husband and their children.  Times were changing.  Perestroika was upon us.  The Soviet Union collapsed and split into 15 separate countries.  The economy was very bad, and many people were emigrating.  My husband and I were not planning to be among them, but my mother had been very ill.  We didn’t want to move, but couldn’t get the treatment that my mama needed.  We decided to move to Israel, to be near our daughter and her family, and to have better medical care for my mom.  We arrived with just enough time for her to see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren all together.  She lost consciousness shortly thereafter and passed away peacefully, eight days later.  She was comfortable.  In Israel, there is quality health care, and she did not suffer.  It’s been 21 years now, and still not a day goes by without thinking of things I wish to tell my mama, and advice I wish she could give.

I left my home, my friends, and my career.  I was 60 years old, and Israeli women are prohibited from working in my field of expertise, nuclear experimental physics.   My options were cleaning people’s houses or watching their children.  I worked as a nanny for Russian families for four years, until my daughter had her third child.  Then I stayed home and took care of my granddaughter.

By and by, I met many kind people.  There are those who have grown old and have known much difficulty.  I make time to visit these friends.  If they can still read, I bring them books.  If they can no longer read, I sit with them and we talk.  We share our memories.  When I don’t have time to stop by, I call.  This is very important to me.   I know it means a great deal to those who are alone.

Previously I had only ever spoken on topics related to science.  In Israel, however, I had time to follow my love of literature.  I began giving lectures about poets and their work.  It takes much preparation and planning, but brings tremendous satisfaction sharing information that is close to my heart.  When people thank me and tell me they have learned something new after one of my talks, I feel fulfilled.  I also give discourses on the history of Jews in the Soviet Union.  I have spent years researching this topic.  There is information that many are not aware of about secret arrests, exiles, and executions.  Some people whose relatives were affected by these events are still alive, and I know them.  I feel it is vital to bring these stories to the world.  We must remember.  We must not let this happen again.

In Israel, mammograms are offered to women until the age of 75.  I can’t explain why I received a call to make an appointment when I was 77, but I went.  After the mammogram, I needed an ultrasound, and then a biopsy.  This was all unexpected, but in retrospect, the fluke of being called for that mammogram was a miracle.

I was very scared when my doctor said I had cancer.  I thought this was it—that my time had come.  The lumpectomy was my first surgery.  I was afraid, but there was no pain.  After my surgery, I was prescribed a two-year course of chemotherapy.  When I received the prescription, I said “Thank you!”  I was grateful to hear I had another two years to live.

In addition to chemotherapy, I underwent radiation.  I took a bus each day to the nearest clinic, which performed 25 doses.  My breast was hot to the touch, and brown for a year and a half.  It filled with liquid, which made a funny sloshing sound when I walked, and had to be drained many times. 

I still have fear when I have my yearly mammogram, appointments, and blood tests, but I have had no further problems since my diagnosis five years ago.  My life is very full and I value it immensely now.  I do grow tired more easily than I used to.  I feel I have aged much in these last years.  I did not tell most of my friends that I had cancer—only a few. They have their own problems; I didn’t want to burden them with mine.  Prior to my diagnosis I felt young.  Even though my body was aging, my mind was sharp.  I am aware now how much I have lived already, in comparison to what lies ahead. 

My family was very helpful and supportive.  Knowing that they need and depend on me gave me strength as went through treatment.  I suspect that feeling needed was a crucial aspect to my healing.  I go for regular walks and take exercise classes.  I take vitamins.  It’s necessary to do what I can to stay healthy.  I have heard it said that taking care of yourself is the best way to show love for your children.

Going through breast cancer has changed me in many ways.  I have always felt that my life was a gift.  Today I feel this more than ever.  I cherish each day and every hour.  Life is precious.  I have many significant projects to finish for my family and friends.  I pay more attention now to those who are dear to me.  I have greater sympathy towards their illnesses and suffering, and I put forth further effort to help however I can.

I do believe in a Higher Power.  There have been many times in my life when help came at just the right moment.  I like how Einstein put it.  When he was asked if he believed in God, he said definitely not.  Then he said that God helps even those who do not believe in Him.  I am not a religious person, but the Jewish heritage is very rich and I feel good about celebrating the holidays with my family and following the traditions that I have come to know. 

About the state of things in Israel today, there is ongoing conflict.  Yet, life goes on.  You learn to keep proceeding no matter what comes your way.  As my grandma said, “Whatever happens, happens.”  I think my life is wonderful, even though I have known hunger and war.  I have good friends, children, and grandchildren.  Not everyone has these blessings.


*World War II