February 22, 2001
Back From The Dead
I am determined to learn nothing from my cancer. Last month, I had lung surgery known as a thoracotomy. A cancerous tumor in my lower left lobe is gone. I'll have chemotherapy, and pretty soon I'll be bald. That's all I care to know about this completely hideous, unprovoked and unpredictable disease until the CT scan says that the cancer on my chest wall is under control.
I don't have a prayer of realizing this goal, do I? One way or another, I am destined to meander through the bramble of "meaning" we impose on any affliction. If I don't do it for myself, you'll do it for me. That's the way we humans are built. We are "meaning makers," genetically inclined to connect the dots between disparate events. And Jews, I think, are the best at it.
A friend came over today, in the spirit of bikur cholim (visiting the sick), just to tell me he envied my grand moment, the make-or-break confrontation with reality. Forget it. I want my cancer to be just a disease blip that, given the best medical attention in the world, will soon be over and out. I don't want it to be poetry, adventure, a journey. I don't want my life to become, God forbid, heroic metaphor, sermon or midrash. I don't want to look into cause and effect, stress and the mind-body connection. Fat chance.
It began seconds after surgery; my impulsive, chaotic pursuit of "understanding." The wheels of my gurney kerplunkt down the long hallway, and then a strong voice calling to me.
"Marlene! Refuah shleymah -- speedy recovery!"
I opened my eyes to see my dear friend, Cantor Chayim Frenkel of Kehillat Israel, standing by my side. Chayim's voice, both buoyant and grave, penetrated right through the anesthesia and warmed me. In my stupor, he clung to me, praying for my welfare. My heart lifted.
But why was Chayim there? My mind, frenzied from post-surgery, hunted and pecked for meaning.
The Frenkels, Chayim and his wife Marsi, had just had their second baby, Molly, in the same hospital. I was thrilled for the Frenkels, but now a vague, lint-like terror floated by. First, my mind replayed the sight and sound of Chayim waving at me. Then I went back in time and recalled the cantor as he had stood at the bimah officiating at my daughter's Bat Mitzvah six years ago. Then a fast forward, to the Saturday before during Torah study. He had embraced me, offering prayers and blessings, before I'd gone into the hospital. No cantorial voice could be more comforting, but for that reason his was also more terrifying.
Putting these events together, my warped, drug-soaked brain worried: Was Chayim a messenger? Was he somehow an angel, ushering his new baby in, while I, with such a similar first name, was moving out? Was this the famous exchange of souls at the borderline of life? For hours I could not settle down.
That was my first post-surgical confrontation with ancient superstition, though certainly not my last. Worse yet, after the ancient bubbemeisers (grandmother's tales), came the modern ones -- created by those with learning.
The gist of these theories is that nothing happens by accident, that everything is as God plans it, including, I suppose, my cancer.
Rubbish. These literary devices can be heartwarming as one takes the plunge into marriage or child-rearing. But for random, life-threatening situations, they can be debilitating or worse. Must I fight my own tradition by thinking that I'm not only getting chemo but crossing a "narrow bridge;" that I am not only killing deadly cells, but being tested by God?
The idea that God tests us is deep within Jewish reading, and I'm not only talking about Job. The patriarch Abraham endured 10 tests to prove himself worthy of founding the Jewish people.
Jacob, of course, was tested spiritually and physically, finally winning a brutal battle (with himself or an angel) in which his name was changed to Israel. Joseph's whole life was deemed a test, sold into slavery by his brothers, back and forth into prison. When he had his brothers are united he says, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good."
But it isn't so. God does not really "mean" something evil for good. Nor is all the world and its difficulties to be summarized as "Egypt" -- "mitzrayim" in Hebrew, meaning "narrow birth canal."
My cancer isn't "my Egypt"? It's my contact with the best of American medicine. I'm not praying for freedom, for reasons or for literary symbols, but for access to the best clinical drug trial I can find.
"There's room for both you and Molly to live a full life," Chayim told me. "One day, we'll dance at your daughter's wedding!"
That's why I'm committed to learning as little as possible from my cancer. Stay with me.