Jewish Journal

The Dance of Life

by Rabbi Carla Howard

Posted on Feb. 14, 2008 at 5:00 pm

On Monday I buried one of my patients.

That is not so unusual given the nature of my work in healing and hospice. When I think about Fred, I am reminded that I work according to the principle of meeting people b'asher hu sham (where they are) as opposed to leading them somewhere, as the image of pastoral care might call up.

Fred was referred to me by his oncologist, who felt that he and his family could benefit from spiritual care -- the patient was anxious, needy, demanding and somehow not settling into the reality that he was living with terminal cancer.

I was told to speak with his ex-wife and son first, as the patient would probably not welcome my call. I arranged a meeting with her, and she spoke of the difficulty of finding a balance for all three family members with the patient being so unhappy and demanding.

She described him as very bright; a college professor who didn't trust most people and though they had divorced, they had remained amiable in the raising of their son. I later came to learn that Fred was born in France, an only child whose parents sent him to a convent to hide him from the Nazis. That was his early life.

I asked her what gave him pleasure or joy in life, and she didn't hesitate for a moment: salsa dancing.

Bingo -- I knew he would not hang up on me.

Fred and I shared several things in common: Cancer and salsa dancing.

I called him after my meeting with his ex-wife and asked him if he wanted to meet with me.

He said "no thank you," he wasn't feeling well. When I explained that was the usual condition of people that I meet with, he still declined. I then mentioned that I was a salsa dancer, and he took my number and said he would call.

Several weeks later, Fred called and asked to meet me. We arranged to have coffee at a neutral place; he was still a bit suspicious. I found him sitting, waiting for me, wearing a wig to cover his chemo baldness. My hair at this point had grown out and looked like a poodle's.

We had an easy conversation; he talked about the numerous rounds of chemotherapy, the clinical trials, how the current one seemed to be working, and how he was getting a bit more energy and could see the road to recovery. We talked about our dancing history, same clubs, same people; we'd probably passed each other on the dance floor once upon a time.

I shared with him that my last dance was on my birthday a year and a half before, the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Technically, I had one quickie after that, in front of the PET scanner with a technician who had missed my veins three times before the scan and was making it up to me by showing me a fancy dip.

Fred suggested we might go dancing some time. I thought about boundaries, and client/clergy relationships, and realized that if this was the one thing that gave this man joy, who was I to step on his toes?

Besides, hadn't I heard a colleague of mine -- a hospital chaplain, herself a breast cancer survivor -- tell me that, on a counseling visit with a pre-op mastectomy patient, she found herself, despite being armed with psalms and healing prayers, pulling her shirt up over her head to show this young woman her own reconstructed breast? B'asher hu sham.

Fred and I met at the club, both of us nervous about how rusty we were; how we had to face the fact that we were no longer the energetic, young dancers we had been in the past.

One of us had a wig and the other new curls, but we hit the dance floor, managing to make it through an evening of dance, with long breaks for club soda and to wipe the sweat from our brows. We vowed at the end of the evening to return and to keep practicing.

I spoke to Fred several days before he died. He didn't want to be on hospice, didn't want to think about dying -- or to let me visit him in the hospital -- but he said he thought that he had danced his last dance.

I was honored to have shared it with him -- b'asher hu sham.

Rabbi Carla Howard is the founder/executive director of the Jewish Healing and Hospice Center of Los Angeles. She can be reached at Rabbihoward@jewishhealingcenterla.org.

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