When Chanina was born, his parents told friends and family, “We get a double mazel tov. We have a new son, and he is a special child.”
To their own children, they added, “Hashem has never made a mistake.” When Chanina passed away seven years later, last 26 Sivan, they again told their children, “Hashem has never made a mistake.”
Towards the end of Chanina’s final days in Sha’arei Tzedek hospital’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), two of his married sisters came to visit. In the unit at the time, was a very sick one-year-old Downs Syndrome child. The child’s mother turned to the two sisters and asked, “Can I ask you a question? Do you really love him like other children?” They answered in unison, “Oh no, we love him much more.”
Downs Syndrome children are incapable of artifice, of calculation as to whether a kind word to another will be reciprocated. What mother could resist a child who regularly hugged her and said, “Ima, I love you”? Fittingly, Chanina’s last words were, “Akiva, thank you so much,” after his brother pretended to pull something out of his ear, when Chanina complained of a buzzing noise.
The normal barriers between people did not exist for Chanina. On Simchas Torah, he would throw himself into the arms of dancers he did not know. He did not suffer the normal fears of children his age nor was he easily offended. The elderly mother of one of his neighbors suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s. Whenever he visited the neighbors’ apartment on Shabbos, Chanina greeted the grandmother, “Good Shabbos, Bubbe,” and was not deterred if she yelled at him in return.
He was drawn to all those suffering in some way. Seeing a comatose old man being pushed in a wheelchair by a Filipino caregiver, he would greet the man and insist that the caregiver allow him to try to push the wheelchair.
Special children are purified souls: They come into the world not for themselves but for the tikkun of others. I have rarely met a family who raised a Downs Syndrome child, who did not feel that he or she had elevated every member of the family. They are happy and make others happy. Chanina’s family cannot remember him ever crying, expressing aversion towards anyone, or imitating his brothers fighting.
Downs Syndrome children relate to the world with a heightened emotional intuition that by-passes the normal mental processes. That was true of Chanina, even though he was very high functioning. One Shabbos he translated his father’s “mussar” from English to Hebrew for one of his brothers. And he had a sense of humor. At the end of a visit to his physician Dr. Alan Niewodowski, he said, “OK, now I’ll be the doctor, and you’ll be the patient.”
But he also connected to others in a deeper fashion. A chassidic stranger came to the shiva house and sat wordlessly for twenty minutes. His wife explained his insistence on coming to Chanina’s mother: The previous Lag B’Omer, Chanina had been at the same bonfire with him, and asked to go on his shoulders. “That boy changed me,” he told his wife afterwards.
A talmid chacham who lives nearby expressed a desire to visit Chanina when he was in the PICU. He explained to Chanina’s reluctant parents, “I’m not coming for you, but for him.” He added that he had suffered all his life from difficulty talking to people. “But with Chanina, I speak freely. He is my friend.” During the shiva, person after person described Chanina as their “friend.”
As befits a rarified soul, Chanina was drawn to kedusha (holiness). On Motzaei Shabbos, he would go to various neighbors to hear Havdalah, and was careful to instruct whoever was making Havdalah to say “Al Hagefen” before singing “Hamavdil.” Though his father did not yet take him to shul, whenever Chanina passed a minyan, he sought to enter. At one Kiddush, he wandered off only to be found sitting alone in the adjacent shul.
A family video shows Chanina asking a young cousin visiting from America, “Will you be my chavrusah (study partner)?” and sitting next to him on the couch shuckling over an open sefer. Another favorite video is of his class Siddur party at the Kosel. When Chanina returned home from the Kosel, he rattled off the names of all those for whom he had davened, listing his parents, twelve siblings, and his many nieces and nephews. Then he added, “I davened for a shidduch for Aspar.” His parents could not make out the latter name, until Chanina pointed to his eyebrows. Then they remembered Jaspar, a one-time Shabbos guest from months earlier, who has thick eyebrows and was indeed looking for a shidduch.
Chanina’s final act of connecting people to one another began late on Motzaei Shabbos, when he suddenly stopped breathing. He spent the next 26 days in the PICU, without ever regaining consciousness. And yet somehow, he made an indelible impression on a veteran staff, used to dealing with very sick children. At one point, Dr. Sarit Shachror, the head of the department, told Chanina’s parents, “We have no explanation for what we are witnessing,” She said that beyond any doubt Chanina had been brain dead during his first week in the ward. Yet subsequently brain activity returned, and he was even capable of spontaneous breathing.
During their ordeal, Chanina’s chareidi parents forged a deep bond with the religiously diverse staff of the PICU. In a long letter to Sha’arei Tzedek director, Professor Jonathan Halevy, Chanina’s mother detailed the extraordinary care and support they had received. The family still maintains relationships with many staff members. Chanina’s oldest brother drives an ambulance, and often drops by the ward when he is at Sha’arei Tzedek.
Nearly two days after Chanina’s passing, a veteran nurse told his mother she was still afraid to enter the ward and see his bed empty. A family friend who works in the Sha’arei Tzedek, dropped by the PICU after his passing and found the entire whiteboard used to convey messages to the staff still filled with a famous Talmudic passage (Ta’anis 24b) about another Chanina: “Every day a bas kol goes out and declares, ‘The entire world is fed on the merit of Chanina, My son.'”
Mishpacha, June 2, 2010