August 9, 2001
And Many More
There's nothing like completing chemotherapy to spice up a birthday party. Last weekend, 40 of my dearest friends performed a commemorative Havdalah ceremony to mark a really great CT scan and year 53. My "re-birthday" celebration was just the ticket, restorative not only for me but also for the extended community that has seen me through my struggle with lung cancer.
In the afternoon, we painted silk squares for a healing quilt. We stuffed ourselves on smoked turkey and exotic salads. At sunset, we stood in a circle, lighting each other's candles, saying blessings, smelling the spices that would stimulate the memory of friendship overcoming pain.
After the candles were blown out, we stood around the lemon cake lit with a single candle and sang the Birthday Song. When we got to the last line, I raised my arms like a choral director and elicited a benediction: "Hap-py Birth-day to you. And mannnnny more."
Yes, yes, make it so. Many, many more.
It is wonderful to be back among the living. During the afternoon, I walked around my garden, the summer sun dappling through mock pear trees. I eavesdropped as my friends, all Baby Boomers, complained about the ravages of age. One cries that her ear lobes are growing longer. Another says her face is sagging. Still another notes that her nose seems bigger, or that there's no hair on her legs. How I want these problems, too.
And when I'm 90: a sturdy cane, decent hearing, a steady hand for the crossword puzzle, gums to eat corn.
Now begins yet another hard part, the reconstruction of normal time. Cancer shakes to the roots any complacency that we own our own existence. A day, a week, a month, a year. The forest of my life has separated into distinguishable trees, many of them now fallen, as if by a hurricane. Who or what owns what comes next? I am baffled. What is a worthwhile activity, and what would lead only to irrelevance or regret?
When the matriarch Sarah dies, the Torah counts her life this way: "The life of Sarah was 100 years, and 20 years and seven years." Why the triple repetition of the word "years"? The sages answer that Sarah truly lived every part of her life cycle: She was intently young, intently adult, intently old.
"One who has truly lived walks through the days," says Samson Raphael Hirsch. "He does not walk above them or below them." I will walk through the days, too.
What does this mean to me? Hirsch explains that we must bring the best of ourselves into our future. I assume he doesn't mean my youthful love of Archie and Veronica comics, but wouldn't mind my carrying along a sense of humor.
Can I really move on without resentment, not embittered by cancer, still resolutely me (whatever that might mean)?
The mythology of cancer is that the disease changes us in big ways. We imagine that if we survive chemo, well, naturally, we'll quit our jobs, or go off on a junket around the world, living with an urgency and a new desire for spicy food.
But I'm not so sure. Since the diagnosis of lung cancer, the biggest change I intuit is that I drive slower.
Well, it's true. I have a peculiar new understanding of risk, and the way unfortunate forces converge in unpredictable ways. There is danger in a sloppy left-hand turn, and what about that guy tailgating in the next lane. Having made it through lung surgery, would I want to die on Pacific Coast Highway?
To counter this caution, maybe what I need to bring with me into this next period is my insouciance. I loved being young. I gave away my years, and flaunted my energy. I crammed a lifetime into a day, reading bad books, following bad fashion, seeing bad movies without discrimination.
"Hope I die before I get old," I sang with the car radio. How close to that goal I came.