January 11, 2007
On completing treatment ...
I have finished my eight rounds of chemotherapy. I feel like someone coming to the end of a year of mourning, about to surrender the status of "mourner" and return to
face the world without a label to describe my continuing internal struggle.
During the year of mourning, there is a road map for the interior journey -- the Jewish mourning rituals. There is a prescribed destination and activity -- to the synagogue to recite the Kaddish. There is a name for the inner feelings of turmoil -- grief.
People are often comforted by the belief that when daily Kaddish ends, they will be freed from the bondage of grief. Some even confess, as the year comes to an end, that they become aware of a curious, unarticulated feeling buried in the psyche, that when formal mourning ends the deceased will come back.
But the dead don't come back, and for many the first year of mourning is just the beginning. As hard as it is, it is the herald of challenges ahead, when one moves from the named status of "mourner," protected by that designation and its prescribed behavior, into navigating the world without the person lost. It can feel like a trapeze artist working without a net. Alone, they must learn to live in a world without the person who has died. The first year is about the person who is gone. The second year is about the person who remains. It can be hard.
For almost a year, I have been fighting cancer. The next step is about returning to a normal life, shadowed by the necessity of vigilant attention to the possible return of the disease. With regular CT scans and doctors' appointments, I will be waiting and watching.
Even as I scan the Internet for advances in the treatment of my rare cancer, and take medicine to bolster my immunity, it is a more passive response to the virulent ailment that I am told is no longer in my body. I am challenged to live in a world that is not over-determined by the daily focus on treatment and recovery while maintaining the wisdom of self-care -- a lesson of the disease. I need to monitor changes in my body, while struggling to remain free from the fear and paranoia that perceives every bump and every ache as a prophet of doom.
Having lived in the shadow of my finitude, how do I return to less-heightened alert?
I am jubilant as I anticipate the return of my energy, more strenuous sessions at the gym, and a full schedule of work, study and society.
Yet there is a peculiar sense of loss. I miss the weekly pre-treatment breakfasts and walks on the beach with my friend, Doreen, and the post-treatment study of esoteric Jewish texts with my friend, Ivan. Sandwiching the distress with delight made these activities especially delicious. Also, because my fatigue obliges me to maintain a scanty dance card, anticipating time with these friends has been an even greater source of pleasure.
The months of my treatment were a loop in time. They took me from the communal calendar to a timeline determined by my unfolding needs within the structure of the medical regimen.
This is like the year of mourning: the mourner leaves the familiar progress of days to follow the prescribed timeline of the mourners' path and reenters the common walkway of the public year once the year of mourning ends. As I flex my toes to walk again with the mainstream, I consider how I have changed and what will be different.
When Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he was commanded "take off your shoes from your feet, you are standing on holy ground." Some commentators see the use of the word regel, which can mean both "feet" and "habit," as an indication that Moses needed, not just to go barefoot, but also to remove the veils binding his customary perception in order to move to a higher level of discernment. Similarly, I can't simply go back to my former life. As I return to the communal calendar, I must integrate the insight gained on the alternative timeline of illness. I need to cast aside habitual behaviors that cancer might interpret as a sign that it is welcome to return.
So it is, with mourners, who despite the hardships of mourning, often end the year with ambivalence. Having weathered the traditional stringencies of the year of mourning, they are eager to embrace the activities of normal living -- to listen to music, to dance, to say amen to the Kaddish of others. Even those who have not observed traditional mourning feel relief to pass the one-year milestone. But one leaves that year as a different person, and leaving the rarified time, set aside to contemplate the meaning of life, is also a loss.
So like a mourner, trying to regain footing on the "normal" path and like Moses, without his sandals, I am a tenderfoot, turning to again walk with the crowd, striving to be mindful of the teachings of the profound realms in which I have traveled.
Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of "Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner's Path" (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.