Friday, February 27, 2009

Life Used to be Normal

A year ago today I had a fairly normal day. I had lunch with my friend Jaya. I went to a yoga class and had a writing workshop and things were basically fine. My mom had just finished chemo for her breast cancer, but the doctors had told us that once she was done with that the chances of the cancer ever coming back were 3%. Though I was concerned that the drugs seemed to have done a serious number on my mother, giving her endless headaches, and leaving her feeling weak and constantly tired, I was very glad it was over, and unconcerned about a relapse, seduced by that magical 3%.eema_in_jerusalem.jpg

That was the last normal day of my life. The next morning my dad called me at about 6:30 in the morning from the hospital. Over dinner the night before my mom had had a seizure, and my father had rushed her to an emergency room. Overnight she'd undergone a series of tests that revealed the cancer had spread to her brain, where it was spotting the gray matter and putting pressure on her brain causing the headaches, and ultimately the seizures.

It's a bizarre thing, realizing how quickly life can change. One minute you're eating dinner, the next minute you're dying. One minute you're lying in bed, the next your life is crashing down around you.

I spent most of that first day of not-normal life holed up in my apartment with a good friend. I remember I kept checking the news, as if expecting to see my mother's diagnosis splashed across the headlines. I spoke with various members of the family all day, all of us traumatized, confused, disoriented. That was the beginning of six months of lessons in how quickly things can change. In meeting after meeting with doctors we got new and always astounding information. The cancer spread inconceivably quickly, and as soon as we finished treatment for one issue, a new one cropped up. Finally, there was the ultimate change, from life to death.

One of the things that I often think about when I'm struggling with saying Kaddish is how is provides a sense of stability in this year. Many things are still changing in my life, but there is a constant running through my days. It's not a fun constant, and I haven't found it to be healing in the way that many people have told me they find Kaddish to be healing, but it provides a rhythm to my life now that I didn't have before.

Still, I'd take a hundred more years of changes for five more minutes with my mom.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Member of the Tribe

Recently, a friend’s father died suddenly, and I found out a few days later through a mass email that one of her friends sent around. Reading about it, I felt like I was being punched in the gut. Another one of my friends joining the horrible club of those saying Kaddish, and mourning a parent at a young age. The minyan I attend most mornings has gotten a few recent additions because of a death in the community, and children who have joined us for their year of avelut. One of the newest faces at shacharit is only a few years older than me. I haven’t been able to look him in the eye yet.

I have always been fiercely protective of my friends (something I certainly learned from my mother) and in the face of grief, though I know I’m powerless, I still want to somehow cover these people in a bubble of safety and tranquility. (This is a concept not foreign to Jewish ideology. At Ma’ariv we ask god to ‘spread over us Your shelter of peace…shield us from enemies and pestilence, from starvation, sword and sorrow’ (u’fros aleinu sukkat shlomekha…v’haser m’aleinu oyev, dever, v’herev v’ra’av v’yagon.)EemainLondon.jpg

While I was sitting shiva a friend of mine (whose own father had died only six months earlier) came to be with me, and memorably stood right in front of me with arms crossed, looking appropriately menacing, so as to dissuade people from coming over to make me cry any more than I already was. I wish I could do the same for all of my friends who are suddenly in this situation. I’d like to be there, physically, to protect them, but metaphysically, too. I think constantly about building some kind of magical force field that would prevent others from joining this miserable community.

And then there are the surreal moments where I am grateful for my horrible lot. Sometimes this comes while hearing about others going through struggles that are far more terrible and heartbreaking than mine. Young mothers who die suddenly, leaving infants, those with missing children, or babies undergoing grueling and unsuccessful treatment for cancer and other diseases. It’s true when they say that it could always be worth, and I do, somewhat grotesquely, feel lucky to have had the opportunity to say goodbye to my mother, to hold her hand while she slipped away from us, to care from her in the months leading up to her death. More often than not, though, when I find myself feeling grateful it’s because I have somehow been given access to this community of strong young people, who are able, despite horrible circumstances, to go on and build lives of success and happiness. People who are compassionate beyond their years, who are good listeners, and deep thinkers, and care for others in a way that embodies grace and love. Given the option, I would still wish to be ignorant of these people, to live without this all-encompassing grief. But if I have to be here, I’m so glad to be surrounded with good company.

(The photo is from a family trip to England in 1988. I was 3, Deena was 6, and Renana was in utero.)