I had a birthday recently, and a dear friend asked me how this birthday was different from others. This was my first birthday in Israel since making Aliyah, but the intention of the question was more about celebrating a birthday in this time of corona, and in the midst of my so far 7-month experience with breast cancer. I’m closing in on the end of treatment—surgery, four months of chemo, and 5 weeks of radiation.
My treatment coincided with the arrival of the coronavirus in Israel and the implementation of the various degrees of separation and precautions by order of the Israeli government. This was my own personal irony: the whole world is being careful of infection precisely at the time that I need to be! It was also my own personal good fortune: suddenly the universe of online learning options and cultural treasures were available to me just at the time that I needed to stay at home.
Of course, the reality all around me of the separation from family and friends was especially hard—as it was for everyone I know. In some ways, perhaps, my own stay-at-home orders were easier to accept. Had I not had cancer, I’m not sure that I would have been as cautious or as vigilant of the dangers of corona. I was fighting a too-common disease, breast cancer, while the rest of my community was up against a frightening unseen enemy whose dangers were counted and recounted each day in the news: how many cases? How many in ICU? How many deaths? How many unemployed? How many businesses closed? My own fears of the future, while very real for me and my family, seem almost small by comparison. Yes, I have trouble sleeping. Who doesn’t?
The experience of bi-weekly chemo without my husband or daughter physically by my side was lonely and isolating. The overworked nurses and hospital staff had little inclination for empathy or kindness; they did their jobs efficiently. The chemo sessions were a challenge to my hopefulness. Seeing the veteran patients who were suffering with returning cancer, or young women with lovely long hair just starting the dreadful process of killing off living cells, left me fearful and sad. The clinic was a passage to health, but death was always lurking nearby. The brave face I try to wear for family and friends, and even for the hospital staff sometimes even fools me.
Yes, this was indeed a different sort of birthday. Even against the backdrop of the new corona universe, cancer is still a standout threat. And in my universe, a birthday is a good milestone to recognize how much my life has changed, and how many gifts I have received. As hard as it is, I’ve learned how to accept the many acts of kindness from my family and friends, who came to drop off meals and soup and gift certificates to local restaurants, who shlepped me week after week to Hadassah for my treatments, who delivered bags of books for me to read and checked in with me by phone, text, emails and zoom calls, who meditated in my honor, who baked challah with me in mind, and who prayed for me. My husband was a devoted caregiver who showed me only patience and love; my children and grandchildren were beautiful reminders of why I wanted to live.
These acts of hesed, of thoughtfulness, of limitless caring are so humbling to me on this side of the give/receive equation. When I was in a position to give, I never realized how different it is to receive. Like developing new muscles, I learned what it means to admit to myself when I’m too tired to function, when my disease has made me vulnerable and weak. I also learned what it means to be grateful and to express it from the heart, and to open myself to kindness and friendship as it comes, without my orchestration or design. Being in a position to give is a privilege; receiving requires a kind of grace I had to learn.
Becoming a patient means the loss of agency in the vast healthcare system, but even more profoundly disease is often the loss of control of our own body. Some victims of disease describe a sense of betrayal by their bodies. More often I feel regret for not doing more to take care of the miraculous gift of a healthy body. “For the sins we have committed in eating and drinking” rings in my ears, even as I acknowledge that thin, careful people also get disease. But will I ever eat ice cream again without feeling guilty or worried? Is my cancer my fault, or a random event? Is it a warning from God, or a gift from God to appreciate my life? I will do everything I can to promote my recovery and my future, but recognizing that there are no guarantees, and that my life is fragile—even if I am physically strong—is what makes this birthday different. I translate my favorite line from the psalmist a bit freely to capture best my birthday gratitude, joy, and uncertainty:
How remarkable is your creation, Adonai; your ways are full of mystery. Psalm 92: 6