For Ellen, my precious wife of twenty years, the Love of My Life

Now revealing why sometimes I seem to have disappeared for weeks at a time. (Ellen Fischer z"l's funeral is at 3pm today in Israel).

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer ,

Ellen Fischer
Ellen Fischer
צילום: INN:EF

Part 1 of 2

In my nearly nine years of writing for Arutz Sheva, I have been blessed personally to have won a deeply devoted readership of many, many thousands. For me that relationship imposes on me a responsibility as well — always to be thoughtful, to be honest and ethical; to do my best to report properly, recite facts accurately, and to analyze them meaningfully; never to split infinitives nor to use the objective case when the nominative is called for, never to end sentences nor even phrases with a preposition (except in the prior phrase), and somehow, even in the most aggravating of times, to be entertaining and interesting, even throw in some puns for those of my readers who scour the articles in search of the more esoteric ones. (None so far.)

In the course of my writing, a real personal relationship has evolved between my readers and me. I read every comment ever posted, and I truly learn from readers, even as I endeavor to share some thinking. That kind of mutuality creates a sense of bonding, almost like family of sorts, except I don’t have to put any of you through private college as I did my four darlings — which is why, actually, I have come to love my Arutz 7 family far more than I do my own kids. As that sense of family has grown, I have received emails from many of you during time periods when I seemingly have disappeared. People actually write me with worry and concern: “Rabbi, are you OK?” “Dov, I’m worried; you haven’t been infected by COVID, have you?” “Rav, are you still there?”

In almost all cases when I disappear for a few weeks, the reason tends to be simple: Jewish holy seasons. I am a congregational Rav (Orthodox rabbi), and I cannot begin to describe how Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah consume my September and October, and even some of my late August, as I must prepare for those special times amid the resumption of the new law school Fall term. Yikes! In similar fashion, the advent of the eight days of Pesach (Passover) takes over two to three weeks of my April. However, lately, I have had to scale back my writing a bit these past four months because of the hardest, most challenging experience of my life. You are my family, so I share: The love of my life, my wife Ellen, was fading.

Ellen Fischer
courtesy

Ellen had been complaining about splitting headaches and was acting a bit uncharacteristically as the Summer of 2017 approached. In July 2017 she was diagnosed with the most horrible and essentially incurable of diseases, Glioblastoma Multiforme IV (GBM), the disease that took John McCain, Ted Kennedy, Beau Biden, Ethel Merman, Bert Convy, Tug McGraw, and that strikes three people out of every 100,000. As with McCain, Kennedy, and most others, 85 percent of all those stricken die within 12-15 months of diagnosis. Only ten percent last three full years. Ellen at least was blessed to be among the ten percent. That meant it was I, too, who was blessed — even more.

The thing about GBM is that they can cut only so much, only so far. With breast cancer, for example, they may cut well beyond the lump, even doing a mastectomy. But they can’t do a decapitation. They cannot eradicate all the cancer cells in the brain, even with radiation and chemotherapy, so the cells reproduce. Ellen had her first tumor resected (removed as much as possible) in September 2017. She underwent a “gamma knife” radiation that can help create a “firewall” to retard the spread, and then a standard radiation protocol. She then went on the standard first course of treatment, a pill called Temodar, that controlled the cancer cells from reproducing for a year. Eventually those cells figure out how to bypass the Temodar obstruction. Her regular MRI tests confirmed that her GBM tumor returned in late October 2018, and it was resected early that December.

In both cases, she bounced back remarkably. Within a day after surgery, each time I got my Ellen back as though nothing ever had been awry. With Temodar now useless, she next went onto a new chemotherapy protocol, a cocktail of two infusions, carboplatin and avastin. A year later, in the Fall of 2019, she began having a noticeably halting gait. It turned out that her brain was not sufficiently draining out the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that we all create daily and that lubricates, cleans out, and refreshes our brains. Therefore, the CSF was building up in her head, a condition called “hydrocephalus.” To treat it before it became perilous, a shunt was installed inside to act as an auxiliary drainpipe. However, she had to go off her chemo meds for several weeks before and after the shunt procedure because the chemo severely compromises the immune system and also obstructs wounds and incisions from healing. While off the chemo for just shy of two months, her tumor returned, this time spreading to the frontal lobe.

She underwent a third resection in February of this year. However, this time, for the first time, she ran into serious post-operative complications. Her brain suddenly encountered a bit of trouble regulating her sodium, and she developed hyponatremia — low blood salt. (“Hypo” means “low”; “-emia” refers to blood; and natrium is the Latin term for sodium, which is why sodium is “Na” on the periodic chart of elements.) The proper sodium range is 135-145, and she sank perilously low to 125. Nephrologists explain that sodium levels cannot be raised rapidly, so she needed time to recover from that complication.

And just as she did, her temperature one night suddenly shot up, reflecting that she had contracted bacterial meningitis. A new antibiotic regimen now was needed, and this lady whose temple had been opened four times before (three resections and one shunt) now needed to be opened so that her bacterially infected shunt could be removed, and again a week later so that a new sterile one could be installed once the bacteria were gone from her CSF. That made six incisions. Alas, having once again been compelled to go months without chemo as she encountered her post-op complications, her tumor returned, and she soon thereafter had to undergo yet a fourth resection, her seventh opening, in May. Again, she worked her way back with incredible determination under the guidance of the home physical therapist, occupational therapist, and speech language pathologist. But the skin “graft” where the surgeons tried to close her incision after the seventh time gave way, with the skin dehiscence opening the area to bacteria and requiring an eighth surgery at that site to try closing the incision with a skin “flap.”

That surgery seemed successful, but 36 hours later it was detected that all the years of stress on that area — the tumors, the surgeries, the radiations, the drugs — finally was too much. We waited several days for a miracle and then accepted G-d’s answer that there would be no more miracles but one: unable to recover from the eighth surgery, she would pass gently and calmly one month before the newly returning fifth GBM tumor would have killed her anyway, but horribly and terribly.

And so my darling wife, Ellen, the love of my life, passed away from glioblastoma on the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz, shortly before sunset. She was one week shy of 64. And I promised her that I would tell the world that she did not “spend years battling” the disease and did not “lose a long fight with” the disease, but that she lived life with zest alongside the disease to the end. She lived all those remaining three years with gusto and pizzazz, and she even checked out calmly and peaceably only a month before the illness would have caused uncontrollable gagging and truly head-splitting pains, convulsions, and seizures.

At the time of her diagnosis in July 2017, she retired from her career of 31 years at a major university’s department of Audit and Advisory Services as their Manager of Investigations into allegations of high-stakes white-collar fraud. She was both a Certified Fraud Examiner and a Certified Internal Auditor — a real CIA! One of her investigations uncovered such wild stuff that she got written up in the Los Angeles Times and became a star in her field. She was a member of the Editorial Board of the main publication in her field, and she wrote a 30-page account of the investigation that made her famous, which became Chapter One of the leading text in her field of fraud investigations. Every Dean of every department in the university knew her and valued her; every crook feared her. It wasn’t safe to embezzle millions or even thousands or even hundreds when Ellen was within several miles. If the government had hired someone like her to go after fraud, the national economy today would have a booming budget surplus that it could use for researching and curing more cancers.

During the three years / 36 months from the time she was diagnosed with glioblastoma, she did not “survive” or “battle the disease” but rather lived a completely full life of zest. We ran Torah programs at our home — my weekly Tuesday night Chumash (Bible) class and Sunday morning Women’s Advanced Torah-Text Class. On Thursday nights, while I taught my weekly Talmud class for men, she would be in the kitchen cooking for Shabbat. Every Friday night, we hosted a group of typically between fifteen and twenty Young Adults ages 28-45 — our “Friday Night Shabbat Dinner Group” — for whom she cooked a weekly four-course Shabbat meal. During the meal, participants would catch up with each other on how their respective weeks had gone, and I would teach a bit of Torah or Jewish history, and then we all would sing z’mirot (Sabbath dinner songs) and then bentsching (grace after meals).

Ellen was central to all of it. With Ellen, we often hosted Shabbat guests traveling through Orange County, housing them and feeding them warmly. Even as she was infected with glioblastoma, we never let others know, and we often instead found ourselves housing and counseling people stricken with their own severe diseases or dealing with other life challenges. Ellen would teach “Kallah Class” to prospective brides whose marriages I would be conducting. Before every major shul program and event, she would make dozens upon dozens of personal phone calls to assure great attendance.

Because Orthodox Jews do not travel vehicularly on the Sabbath, we walked together to and from shul every Shabbat morning, 35 minutes each way, for twenty years. On Wednesdays, she would accompany me in the car for the two hours’ rush-hour drive from Irvine to downtown Los Angeles, where I would teach two law classes over the next four hours, and then she would accompany me back home for the 75-minute return drive after rush hour. What a mutual benefit — she became expert in Advanced Torts and in California Civil Procedure, and I got to use the carpool lane!

During that same three-year period, we spent heightened time together. We watched favorite TV shows and streamed favorite movies, and we often went to plays — 10-15 theatrical events annually — and two or three concerts each year (typically a Beethoven or Mozart concert, plus one or two “tribute” concerts of the John Denver / Neil Diamond / Simon & Garfunkel genre). She loved “Shark Tank” and the Food Network show called “Chopped,” so I got into both of them, too. Our favorite movie was “Fargo,” and we saw it several times together and could quote and replay whole scenes with each other. She also could quote whole sections from “The Producers,” like the scene with the lady landlord who had become the “concierge.” Yet this high-stakes fraud investigator never outgrew “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music,” and she loved when those came to town as live musicals. She also loved “Madmen,” “Downton Abbey,” “Upstairs/Downstairs,” “Fawlty Towers,” “Better Call Saul,” and “Seinfeld.” Her favorite was “Srugim,” a wonderful three-year episodic series out of Israel, sometimes very funny, sometimes poignant, that follows five young Modern Orthodox Jewish professional singles, with others coming and going, as they navigate life. These, too, became rituals for us to share.

On Friday nights, after dinner, as I would retire to our living room to study and prepare for publicly reading the next day’s Torah portion in shul, Ellen would read alongside me from among a wide spectrum of books I recommended, ranging from Barbara Tuchman’s “Team of Rivals” to Ben Hecht’s “Perfidy.” With no kosher eateries in Orange County, we often would drive fifteen minutes to the nearest kosher-certified Krispy Kremes for a donut and coffee, or to the Coffee Bean (which always was kosher until last month) for our regular “dates.” On more special occasions, we would drive up to L.A. once every two or three months to our favorite restaurant, “Shiloh.”

For several years, even before retirement, Ellen would wake up every morning at 5:00 a.m. Pacific Time so that she would have time to daven (pray) the entire weekday morning prayer service that Orthodox Jews recite and also have time also to “Facetime” with her 98-year-old Dad (may he live to 120!), who is at a Seniors’ Kosher Retirement Home in Massachusetts, thus is on Eastern Time three hours later than California. Ellen wanted to catch him just before or after his group 8:30 a.m. breakfast time, before he was off for a day of Bingo and Beyond, so she had to awake daily before dawn. She oversaw her Dad’s needs, regularly called the Home to check in with the main nurse, and every motz’ei Shabbat (Saturday night, as the Jewish Sabbath would end), her first order of business would be to phone the Jewish Home to check that her Dad was all right, since she could not phone in that Saturday morning because of the rules of Shabbat observance.

She loved her work like crazy as a fraud-examiner, but she also found that she loved being retired from that 31-year career to become a full-time Rebbetzin (Rabbi’s wife), and she loved no longer needing to drive the daily four-hour round-trip commute on the 405 Freeway. She already had been established in her professional position in Los Angeles when I was offered a rabbinical pulpit position in Orange County. If she had told me that the commute to L.A. from “The OC” would be untenable, I would not have taken it. But she told me to do whatever would give me happiness, and she would make it work from her end. Her wonderful boss helped make my career move and her sanity possible by allowing her to “telecommute” one day weekly, to work online from her home office on Fridays, the day she would need to leave work early anyway to be home on time to light candles ushering in the Sabbath. As a result she actually started getting more work done on Fridays than she had in the past, bypassing the four lost hours on the Error 405.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer, Esq., a high-stakes litigation attorney of more than twenty-five years and an adjunct professor of law of more than fifteen years, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, California. His legal career has included serving as Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, clerking for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and then litigating at three of America’s most prominent law firms: JonesDay, Akin Gump, and Baker & Hostetler. In his rabbinical career, Rabbi Fischer has served several terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, is Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values, has been Vice President of Zionist Organization of America, and has served on regional boards of the American Jewish Committee, B’nai Brith Hillel, and several others. His writings on contemporary political issues have appeared, in addition to Arutz Sheva, over the years in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the American Spectator, the Jerusalem Post, National Review, American Greatness, The Weekly Standard, and in Jewish media in American and in Israel. A winner of an American Jurisprudence Award in Professional Legal Ethics, Rabbi Fischer also is the author of two books, including General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine, which covered the Israeli General’s 1980s landmark libel suit.


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