August 1, 2002
Merit and Mazel
I'll be 54 this weekend. Not for me the modesty of hidden age. I'll take my years, gladly, as I'm given them.
My mother's age was 29 for more than a dozen years. My brother was amazed when he overheard her tell a friend that her upcoming birthday party was to celebrate her 50th.
But I am jubilant, if not victorious, with the passing of another 365. This time last year, I had just completed chemotherapy, and lots of us gathered to mark my "rebirth."
Now there is cause to celebrate, and many new meanings of the word "survive." Another year spent fighting lung cancer. Nothing heroic here. Only anger and gratitude.
Of course, I get angry. I'm angry at seeing the Promised Land too early, that being the Land of Hope. Medical hope is an aphrodisiac and all the patients are the Children of Israel. Every scientist Moses, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, at least as long as the clinical trials work.
None of us should think of this, including me. I shouldn't have to think about the end until the end. As it is, I am compelled to sneak into the land with the spies, and report back about milk and honey.
But if sometimes I'm angry, I'm grateful, too.
I'm grateful when the hair comes back, grateful when the side effects of treatment are not too strong. Grateful for energy, for geraniums and begonias, when the day arrives that memory dulls and red symbolizes not the pain of a surgical scar and a vial of blood but the throbbing of life force; when another day goes by in which no one has mentioned illness. Grateful when I don't think of cancer for 10 minutes at a time.
This birthday. No cake (can't swallow); no singing (can't speak.) A miracle of opportunity -- and chance. Thankful for it.
"Length of life, children and sustenance depend not on merit but rather on mazel," say the sages. I'm here to say they are right.
"Good times and bum times,
I've seen them all and, my dear,
I'm still here."
Stephen Sondheim's lyrics from "Follies" were intended for some really old broads, but I'll sing them anyway, however premature that may seem. Being an old broad sounds like a good idea -- one day.
It's not lung cancer alone that compels me to claim my time. Disease merely makes me more sensitive to the whiplash people everywhere are enduring all around me.
The dot-com bubble, the pension crumble. Enron, Worldcom and on and on. Plans are pleasures, so long as you can jump the hurdle into reality, when conditions change.
The generation that was counting the days to retirement is revising its plans. And those who aren't forced to downsize are acting as if they are, taking their travel today, since who knows about tomorrow?
What a psychic shift. From a generation of silence to one that truly lives one day at a time.
Cancer switches the magnetic field. The future and the past squeeze into focus, and there is now, now, now.
I am asked what I would do with the time. Do I have lots of unfinished business? I smile with the memory. I was raised never to take a day for granted, to knit while I watch TV and read while I eat.
But I do not believe in a deity who makes a special place for those who keep busy, and punishes those who watch "Six Feet Under." For me, God understands that the victory is in living, and doing no harm.
"Between 52 and 60, death is by the hand of heaven," say the sages. Knowing that Rashi died at 60, they declared this to be "a ripe age." Even so, many lived to 80, "the age of strength." A sudden death at 80, divine.
What is life beyond a number? The rabbis stopped at 80, but by now that seems quite young.
I know more than a few in their 90s. What would the sages say of them? Joe Shubb died last week at 97, with hearing and memory in tact. Leo Cohen turns 95, the model gentleman, surrounded by family. For others of the same age, the crowd has fallen quiet, and the memory has failed. Genes, not years alone, make a destiny.
Living well takes luck.
For my birthday, I will play "Night and Day" on the living room piano.
Life seems so sweet, however rare.