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Jewish Journal

Cancer Fight Ties in With Holiday Liturgy

It is said that on Rosh Hashanah every living soul passes before a heavenly tribunal. Then, on Yom Kippur, the Book of Life is sealed for the next year.

by Zvi Volk

September 9, 2004 | 8:00 pm

The introspection involved in the High Holidays always makes them poignant. Last year, though, they were almost unbearably so for my family.

Six weeks before, on Tisha B'Av, a doctor recommended that instead of going to the Western Wall as we usually do, we should rush our daughter, Hagit, for a blood test, ultrasound and chest X-ray.

We had no time to prepare for the diagnosis. Before we knew what was happening we faced a sobering decree: Our 20-year-old had cancer. Specifically, Stage IIA bulky mediastenal nodular schelorsis Hodgkin's disease. We were told from the outset that treatment for this type of cancer has a very high success rate.

The following weeks passed almost imperceptibly. Suddenly, without realizing it, July became September and it was time for Rosh Hashanah. A month and a half of upheaval, worry and sleeplessness had passed by in an instant. All we could think about was Hagit's treatment.

The combination of chemotherapy and religious renewal during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was overwhelming. It changed what we had taken for granted in our daily lives. It upped the ante.

An e-mail I sent out just before Rosh Hashanah set the scene:

"Hagit has completed her fourth week of chemotherapy. Eight weeks to go. Her spirits are generally good," the e-mail said. "But there are changes in the last month. First, of course, her hair is falling out by the handful. There is still enough to cover with a bandana so that she doesn't look 'sick.' Not yet. When she has energy, Hagit reminds us of the happy 20-year-old that she is."

Our nerves were raw. We hadn't slept more than a few nights in two months. What sleep we had was more like a stupor than a rest. Hagit's reality made the High Holidays more than just a time for self-appraisal.

Despite reassurances to the contrary and our own better judgment, self-pity consumed us. We couldn't help ourselves.

More from an e-mail I sent out in late September:

"As I say Selichot [prayers of atonement recited from prior to Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur], I pause when we come to, 'As a father has mercy on his children, so have mercy on us.'

"As I continue with my morning prayers, Psalm 30 takes on added significance: 'In the evening one lies down weeping, but with dawn a cry of joy. I said in my serenity, I will never falter.'"

There were days when I had trouble going on. I faltered. I was consumed with worry. Fortunately, I still had enough pragmatism left to realize that if I fell apart that would just make things worse.

The e-mail continued:

"Last Friday afternoon we were in the emergency room because Hagit had a slight fever. As the nurse stuck the needle in her hand to take blood -- a process that she has undergone countless times in the last month -- she began crying. Not screaming, but a sad, painful lament.

"Part of me died that moment, but came to life again when she looked up at me and said, 'Abba, I'm not crying because it hurts. I'm crying because it takes my mind off what they're doing.'"

As the psalm says, if I go to sleep weeping, I try to wake up with joy.

Four weeks into the treatment, our previous life no longer existed.

Unlike years before, this time around Rosh Hashanah truly frightened me. The constant themes of who will live and who will die -- and how: by fire, famine, disease -- these were almost more than I could bear.

It is said that on Rosh Hashanah every living soul passes before a heavenly tribunal. Then, on Yom Kippur, the Book of Life is sealed for the next year. Watching a child undergoing chemotherapy under such circumstances is difficult in the extreme.

By the time Yom Kippur began on that Sunday night in early October, we were emotionally drained. We went through the motions. As with so many other things when a family member or close friend has cancer, there is no choice. We ate our meal before the fast, got dressed and headed to synagogue.

Weighed down by thoughts of personal mortality, my wife and I began the 25-hour fast. Hagit, of course, was not allowed to fast. She was in the middle of her treatment, so we had to be vigilant about not exposing her to germs.

After Kol Nidre, one of our neighbors came to give her a shot to raise her blood count in preparation for that week's treatment. Hagit's appearances in the synagogue were limited.

I never really understood the meaning of taking something day by day until I had to deal with Hagit's heart-wrenching, prolonged chemotherapy.

What I experienced was a combination of anger, angst, confusion, depression and guilt. Kind of like chemo for the soul. Even if we recognized that at her age she had better than a 95 percent chance of complete recovery, that wasn't always enough. In the spirit of the High Holidays, I bared my soul to my e-mail list.

"This year more than ever, the stories of the 10 martyrs [in the Yom Kippur liturgy] spoke to me. The great detail of the suffering of some of our greatest rabbis throughout history. Not surprisingly, my thoughts turned to Hagit.

"I thought about what she is suffering. I was trying to put myself in her place. Actually, I found that I still don't understand why she was chosen to suffer this way. Why couldn't it be me instead? Or, to be honest, why couldn't it be someone else?

It is now a year since this nightmare began. As I say my morning prayers, it is still the words of Psalm 30 that catch my attention. This time around, though, I focus on different verses: "You have changed my lament into dancing. You undid my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness."

On Tisha B'Av this year, nothing remarkable happened. Hagit went to work. She has been accepted to begin studying at the Hebrew University in the fall. Most significant is that her regularly scheduled scans have been clear since January. We are grateful almost to the point of tears.

We obviously haven't reached the five- year mark that is so important in terms of beating cancer. But neither are we in the same place as we were at Rosh Hashanah a year ago. That I can make a statement like that -- only a year later -- is a testament to the rejuvenation of the human spirit in the context of the miracles of modern medicine. Last year's despair has been replaced by guarded optimism.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah this year, our emotions are totally different from last year. The concept of teshuvah, which literally means return, is central, of course. "Who will live and who will die'' still speaks to us. But in the depths of our consciousness we are no longer focusing on cancer. Our thoughts this year will focus on Hagit's return to the status quo as a stronger, more insightful person.

Zvi Volk is a writer and editor who lives in Jerusalem

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