In 1983, Rabbi Harold Kushner published When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner’s son Aaron was born with Progeria, a rare disease characterized by premature aging. Aaron was only fourteen when he passed away and had the body of an elderly man. Rabbi Kushner wanted to help other people who might find themselves in similar situations — having to confront the impossible. He said that his book was, “for all those people who wanted to go on believing, but whose anger at God made it hard for them to hold on to their faith and be comforted by religion.”

I found myself in that same category when trying to comprehend my daughter Lindsay’s condition. Lindsay was born four years earlier, and I had been searching for answers to why she had Marshall-Smith syndrome —  a rare, life-threatening condition. Lindsay was born with multiple birth defects and there was scarce medical information at the time. The two recorded cases had a woeful outcome; both infants died by 20 months.

I was determined that Lindsay would not be the next statistic — she is now forty-four. The road has been complicated and there have been many twists due to health issues related to the syndrome, coupled with cognitive and physical disabilities. However, with forward-thinking and compassionate medical professionals, Lindsay has overcome numerous hurdles. She is thought to be the oldest person in the world with this disorder.

Rabbi Kushner's book provided a perspective on suffering and moving forward in life. When I read the book, I had already carved out a positive path for our family. Rabbi Kushner’s outlook was insightful at the time and continues to be something I reflect on to make sense of life’s curveballs.

Years before, in 1963, my brother Alan had a terrible accident. He was twenty-two and while attending college worked part-time at Hawthorne Metal Products, in Royal Oak. After a few months on the job, Alan had the misfortune of operating a faulty piece of machinery. As he placed a piece of sheet metal into its respective cubicle, the press malfunctioned and thrust downward unexpectedly — it crushed both of his hands. The pain was excruciating, and the ensuing surgeries only repaired a small amount of the damage. Not only did he lose a total of 5 digits, but the injury took his confidence and self-esteem as well. Alan needed time to feel comfortable in his new skin.

Naturally, our entire family was horrified by this accident. My dad was a quiet man and I know he suffered in silence but did everything to boost Alan’s morale. My mom, on the other hand, made it known to me that she was the cause of Alan’s misfortune. She was a woman of faith and thought the accident was due to something she did wrong in her life — God was punishing her. Rabbi Kushner’s book might have helped my mom. She never recovered.

Rabbi Kushner addressed this type of reaction people have when dealing with the unimaginable in life. He plainly stated the book was also intended, “for all those people whose love of God and devotion to Him led them to blame themselves for their suffering and persuade themselves that they deserve it.” Even when Alan was able to dig deep and recover from the accident, my mom still harbored guilt. Nothing ever changed her mind.

Alan eventually recovered and adapted well enough to write legibly, bowl, play racquetball and continue with his life. He was a shining star of perseverance and acceptance. But my mom never stopped bemoaning this disaster; when Lindsay was diagnosed with Marshall-Smith syndrome, it put her over the edge.

After Lindsay was born, I began to contemplate why these two misfortunes happened in our family. There is a bubbe maiseh (Yiddish for old wives’ tale) that bad things happen in threes. I began to wonder if anything else would be lurking around the corner. But as time passed, I compartmentalized this notion and sent it to the recesses of my mind.

Then, in 2014, the unimaginable happened. After returning from a week-long trip in Aruba with Alan and their family, Cathy unpacked her belongings and tried to regroup. She went to the gym and then made phone calls to friends and family. The conversations centered around the good times they had while on vacation — nothing out of the ordinary.

On the following Monday Cathy returned to the job she loved. As a court stenographer, Cathy worked at the 47th District Court in Farmington Hills with the venerable Judge Marla Parker. She was 58, had 20 years under her belt and retirement was still in the distant future. Cathy always discussed the perks of working with such a wonderful group of professionals.

Cathy never could have envisioned that, when she returned to work, it would be her last day on the job. On that ill-fated evening, after waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, Cathy’s walk back to her bed was anything but usual. She recalled, “I stood at the side of my bed and then the next moment I was lying flat on the floor, unable to move. I had no idea how this happened.” To this day Cathy has no recollection of fainting, tripping, or simply missing the bed — it remains a mystery.

After hearing the commotion, Alan rushed to Cathy’s side to help her up. She knew something was very wrong — Cathy couldn’t move. At the ER, the neurosurgeon determined that Cathy had broken her neck — C4, 5, and 6 of her cervical spine were crushed. Cathy had sensation in her legs but couldn’t move them. Dr. Chedid recommended surgery to repair some of the damage.

A cage was built inside of Cathy’s neck for stability. The surgery went well but it was still too early to know if Cathy would ever walk again. My brother, along with a legion of friends and family members, chanted prayers for a refuah shleima (Hebrew for speedy recovery).

After the surgery, Cathy spent a week at Henry Ford Hospital and then was transferred to the Detroit Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan (RIM). Cathy still couldn’t move her body. She began a specialized physical and occupational therapy program to regain body movement. She described it as “a strict program, and they didn’t mess around. I was told that my body was like a blob at first — nothing was working, even my voice sounded like a whisper.”

Several weeks passed and Cathy could finally move her fingers. Eventually she was able to feed herself — this was a victory. Cathy received encouragement from the therapists and was told that she was getting stronger every day. But after three months at RIM, Cathy had exceeded her stay and was transferred to a rehab facility in West Bloomfield. She spent another three months receiving quality therapy in preparation to go home.

The house needed modifications. Ramps were built, doorways enlarged, walls removed for a chairlift and an accessible addition was in the works. Cathy used a hospital bed in the family room where round-the-clock aids were available to assist with her needs. Her former life was now a memory.

Rabbi Kushner’s book was familiar to Cathy. When Cathy was a teenager her father contracted Myasthenia Gravis; she watched as he slipped into a degenerative state. But now the Rabbi’s words were quite distant. Cathy had become one of the afflicted. She resolved to get back on track. She knew that a positive attitude was the only way to face her new situation.

Determination propelled Cathy to seek out a progressive outpatient therapy program — The Recovery Project in Livonia. They assist people who have suffered spinal cord injuries, strokes and traumatic brain injuries, to name a few. Cathy commented,

I felt at home here with other patients who had similar problems. We shared stories about our injuries, everybody rooted for one another, and we’re a close-knit group. It’s a safe place.

Cathy has been receiving therapy twice weekly for years.

One of the reviews on the back jacket of Rabbi Kushner’s book has always resonated with me. Author and theologian Andrew M. Greeley said that Kushner’s work is “a touching, heartwarming book for all those who must contend with suffering, and that, of course, is all of us.”

I’ll never be able to comprehend why bad things happen to good people, but I have learned a few lessons throughout the years. Life is messy, life isn’t fair and if we stay focused on the negatives, life will become empty. I stopped trying to figure out God’s role in all these situations. I learned to accept that I was unable to change my daughter’s condition, but I knew I could make everyday meaningful and turn to God for strength.

My brother Alan didn’t continue to bemoan his accident — he pushed forward, and this path has been rewarding. Cathy is still on her journey after nine years and there have been many unexpected health issues along the way. But as she says,

I now do what I can and what I want, but it’s still not easy. My life has completely changed — I take one day at a time. I may have limitations, but I never give up. Everyday is a new chapter and a gift.