October 13th, 2011
For me, part of what it means to be Jewish is to live my life on two different calendars. There is the calendar of daily life and business, the Roman calendar that says today is October 13.
Then there is the calendar of my spiritual life, the Jewish calendar, that summons me to deepen my understanding of humanity and marvel at the miracle of existence.
The two calendars often clash, like when my work schedules meetings on Holy Days. Juggling these conflicts is a reality of being an observant Jew.
But sometimes the two calendars bring surprising confluences, resonating off of one another like notes in harmony.
Today is one of those days.
As I said, it’s October 13, which in my secular cancer world is Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness day. In my spiritual life, it is the first full day of Sukkot.
My first personal experience with cancer came with my stepbrother’s diagnosis in 2006. I was at the hospital when he was handed the devastating scan that revealed a body riddled with disease. Metastatic cancer, for me, is not a hypothetical. I have seen it play out to its horrid and ugly end. I am very aware of metastatic cancer.
Sukkot comes right on the heels of Yom Kippur, a time of stripping one’s self down and coming to terms with our all-too-human imperfections. It is a time to confront our mortality and the urgency of righting our wrongs. It is a holiday of humility.
During Sukkot, we are commanded to dwell joyfully in a temporary structure, the sukkah, for a full week. Traditionally, people build their sukkahs the day after Yom Kippur, symbolizing the way we build ourselves back up after making ourselves humble.
There are many interpretations of living in the sukkah, but here is my favorite:
Spending time in the sukkah, one feels the raindrops, hears the crickets and birds, smells the falling leaves, and swats away insects. We are reconnected with the cruel, raw beauty of the natural world. We have to find ways to live joyfully in a fragile structure that barely shields us from its insults.
This symbolizes our own fragility, reminds that the permanence we feel in our comfortable, temperature controlled homes is a seductive illusion. Our bodies, our homes, our lives, all are temporary.
Four years ago, my husband did the annual hustle to get the sukkah up. It is never easy, never convenient. That year was particularly difficult, with my brother’s illness and our three small children, including a just-crawling baby.
One of the rituals of the sukkah is to shake the lulav and smell an etrog, a citron that symbolizes the potential for goodness in the human heart.
As it happened, we received a particularly large and fragrant etrog that year.
While I prepared a meal to eat with friends –– another tradition –– I got a phone call from my family. My brother was entering hospice. His cancer was no longer deemed treatable. We made plans to fly out the next day.
Can I possibly describe the poignancy of that moment? Leaving behind the temporary structure built with our own hands, we began the process of letting my brother go, confronting for the last time the temporality of his life.
“But you worked so hard,” I said consolingly to my husband. “I hate to let this go.”
“There is more than one way to find the meaning of this time,” he said wisely.
He took the lulav and etrog on the plane. We brought them to my brother’s cozy apartment that night.
At a certain point in the evening, my husband shared the lulav and etrog with my brother and sister-in-law. He explained the holiday, its meaning, its relevance to the moment. My brother, who was deeply spiritual although not religious, loved the symbols and the message.
Then my husband declared, “Tonight, this home is our sukkah. This is our temporary dwelling, just as our bodies are our temporary dwellings for our souls. Our spirits are greater than our bodies. We can recognize our impermanence and be joyful anyway.”
My brother loved this idea. He summoned a joy that still, to this day, amazes me. With his frail, pained body, he went through the ritual of shaking the lulav and smelling the etrog, beaming radiantly.
As we dined in our temporary dwelling place, the sweet smell of the etrog filled the air, reminding us of the potential for goodness of the human soul.
Everything is temporary. None of us is spared the fate of mortality. But we can be spared the harshness of this disease.
What separated my fate with cancer from my brother’s is the pathology of my tumors and the existence of a targeted treatment. When I think of my friends living with metastatic disease, I feel frustration that their experiences are marginalized during the Pink Festival of October. I am angered that potentially life-saving research — cures, not just more treatment — is underfunded.
We can do better. We have an untapped potential for good here, and we need to see it realized.
Here are some bloggers living with metastatic disease:
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