May 10, 2001
Opening a Door
Just off Highway 101, about an hour south of San Francisco, stands a remarkable spiritual landmark. For years, as we drove up the coast, we would see signs and bumper stickers enticing us to visit the Winchester Mystery House. Finally, a year ago, we did.
The story of this landmark begins at the end of the 19th century. Sarah Winchester was the young wife of the heir to the Winchester Rifle fortune. When both her husband and child died suddenly, she became convinced that the family had been cursed by the spirits of all those murdered by Winchester rifles.
She consulted a well-known medium, who told her that the way to escape these angry spirits was to go to California, buy a house and never stop building onto it. So Winchester abandoned her comfortable society life in Connecticut, moved to the wilderness town of Santa Clara, purchased a six-room farmhouse and began a 50-year project of constant construction and reconstruction.
At one time, the house had more than 300 rooms, some with staircases to nowhere, some with doors that opened into thin air, some with closets inside of closets, many of bizarre shapes and dimensions.
More than 300 rooms, but Winchester never invited anyone in. She spoke only to a servant and her builder. Her plan succeeded. She eluded death into her 80's. She also eluded life.
The Winchester House is an architectural oddity, a monument to eccentricity. But it is more. It is a poignant symbol of how grief and fear and loneliness can trap a human soul. Poor Sarah Winchester, locked inside her ever-expanding house, her ever-growing pain, her ever-deepening sorrow, turning more grotesque and bizarre with each new cycle of obsessive construction and reconstruction.
The irony is that during the years Winchester pursued her compulsion, always building and rebuilding, a community grew up around her home. If only she had once opened the front door and invited the neighbors in for tea. If only she had once invited in the neighborhood children, to fill the miles of hallways with laughter and play. If only she could have believed that she was not alone in this world. If only she had allowed someone to care for her.
As I walked around that strange house, I realized that I know Winchester. I am Winchester. In 1993, I was treated for colon cancer. Four years later, the cancer returned in a much more vicious form. The hardest part was not the surgery, the chemotherapy, the fatigue or the fear. The hardest part was talking to my wife and children -- acknowledging that our lives had changed. The hardest part was sharing the struggle with them. I remember rehearsing my resolution: "I have spent a lifetime learning to be self-sufficient; I'm not going to change now. I solve problems for a living; I'll handle this. My job in life is to protect my family. Why would I want to burden them? Why would I want to frighten my children, casting a shadow on their childhood?" So I remained stoic and silent, locked in my own Winchester Mystery House.
It is tragic. Because no one is strong enough to handle life alone, much less a life-threatening disease. It is tragic because my isolation, way up in the lonely garret of stubborn self-sufficiency, deprived others who want and need to help. And while I built this edifice of stoic fortitude with its endless network of catwalks and trapdoors, I was blind to the fact that the cancer spread, metastasizing to my wife and my children, to my parents and my brothers, to my friends and my students. Cancer infects the whole family. It poisons our hopes. It contaminates our dreams. It steals our tomorrows. My resolution didn't shield them. On the contrary, because of my stoicism, they suffered.
Pity Winchester and all who cannot ask for help. Pity them, because we can help each other heal. But that means coming down from the attic, down from the place of heroic self-possession. It means opening the front door and letting others in.
Families can learn to heal and help one another -- especially with a little help.
The Safe Spot is a setting where families can learn to meet cancer together. It is essentially a day at camp -- beautiful Shalom Institute (Camp Shalom) in Malibu. With learning and sharing, with music and storytelling in a beautiful natural environment, we learn to help one another as families. Like the free space in a game, The Safe Spot is a safe place to stop and talk and share.
The first Safe Spot, for Jewish families with children ages 5 to 12 in which a parent has cancer, will be held Sun., June 10, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The program includes Dr. Alexandra Levine, head of USC's Norris Cancer Center; Dr. Toni Parker of the Wellness Community; and Anne Brener and Sally Weber of Jewish Family Service. The Safe Spot is supported by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation, the Jewish Family Service, the Shalom Institute, the Karma Foundation and Valley Beth Shalom.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that God constantly rains blessings of healing down on the earth. The problem is that not everyone owns a bucket. Our community owns buckets. As a community, we can help.