“I can’t believe it’s 20 years!
… And I am so grateful! And blessed!”
Last fall, in 2019 I walked around saying, “Next year when it’ll be 20 years I’m going to definitely repeat what I did in the fall of 2000.”
Now that it’s the fall of 2020, I am beyond blessed to even think about my personal healing ceremony of 20 years ago. At that time the word ‘pandemic’ was just the name of a sci-fi book or movie title. However, as things have developed, the repetition of what I actually did then is impossible right now with the Covid restrictions under which we are living. But looking back twenty years, and reminiscing, that’s more than enough.
In the fall of 1999 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a chance finding on a routine visit to the gynecologist in October, that led to a biopsy, that led to surgery, that led to chemo, that led to radiation. Some medical visits planned as routine, often discover a problem never suspected; I’m sure we all know such cases. Is it coincidence, or the hand of G-d offering a blessing and a peek into the Divine?
On the day of my October visit, I was still on cloud nine; our daughter’s wedding had occurred just a few months earlier. My doctor looked straight into my eyes as he told me nonchalantly to walk myself right over for a biopsy at another medical office a few blocks away. After that, everything both sped up, and slowed down simultaneously. Though how can that be?
At home, we waited eternally it seemed for the biopsy results, and when that call did come, I didn’t like what I heard. After that there were overwhelming decisions I seemed to have to make instantaneously and simultaneously. My family was totally supportive, but I didn’t even know what I wanted or needed from them; this was my own nightmare. My wonderful husband and daughters gave me the strength, forcing me to find the will deep inside myself to affirm that I could do all that was necessary. After endless ‘second opinions,’ finally choosing a surgeon, an oncologist, and a radiologist, I also made a life-affirming choice of not retiring at the moment. My treatments lasted from January through September and when the new school year rolled around I was back in business of being the teacher I was meant to continue to be. My hair, lost completely during chemo, was growing back, my strength was returning and I was almost ‘me’ again.
In the fall of 2000, just as every year in the cycle of Jewish life, it was soon to be Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, which would be followed by Sukkot. Celebrated five days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot is a joyous holiday, named for the temporary booths or huts in which the Jewish people dwelled in the 40 years of wandering in the desert. I was filled with gratitude, hoping that G-d would see value in my life continuing on into the next year. Setting up the sukkah is a bit of work but always rewarding.
Some time during the late summer as the Jewish holidays were on my mind, with only a few radiation treatments left until my treatments were completed, I decided that I wanted to note the demarcation of my old life to my new life, just as at the end of Shabbat we mark that distinction with the Havdalah service, separating the holiness of the Sabbath day with the start of the new week. At the end of my treatment, I thought of myself as ‘reborn’ and I needed a ceremony for it, a mental and spiritual renewal and a reason to begin to use the past tense in my language. To now say: I ‘had’ cancer, rather than ‘I have’ cancer.
A visit to the mikveh, the ritual bath, was what I wanted. Ritual immersion, for the most part, is for women of childbearing age, part of the rules of ‘family purity’ and I was 56 and presenting an alternative reason in my inquiry at a local mikveh. In addition, I asked that I be permitted to choose my day to enter the healing waters, so that I could know in advance when the water had been refreshed. I wanted the extra security of hopefully, germ-free water. That too, was granted. My family was supportive and helpful in planning how it could be worked out – with even more detail than I’d imagined, and they kept their additional idea from me as a surprise. My wonderful daughters, then age 17 and 26 and my husband, were ‘in’ on it, and here’s what occurred.
In my mind, in anticipation of Sukkot, we’d erect our sukkah as usual.
The plan was – I’d go to the mikveh with both daughters joining me; they’d watch me immerse into the healing waters, hear me say the ‘bracha,’ the blessing, hear the mikveh attendant announce ‘kasher!’ (Kosher) when I came up from the water. In addition, I’d shared my idea with some female friends and family who’d asked if they could attend, and wait for me in an adjacent room to give me a hug afterwards. And then all, or whoever could, would drive back to our house, where we’d have dinner in our sukkah. When my daughters and I arrived at the mikveh I had my mind only on the spiritual. The healing water. The immersion. The blessing.
The mikveh was as lovely as any spa I’ve ever visited, and I was calmed by the presence of the female attendant who welcomed me. Even before it was my turn to be shown around, to undress and complete the ceremony, my eyes glanced into a room filled with a number of those familiar faces I’d invited. I walked to the appropriate area for my immersion, stepped in, followed the proscribed directions, made the blessing, and through my tears, saw my daughters standing on the side. To this day I carry with me, a feeling of light and hope that I felt wash over me as I surfaced after my immersion.
What I didn’t know was that our daughters too, had contacted the mikveh, explained that they wanted to host a small private ceremony for me when my immersion was over, requesting the use a room for perhaps 30 minutes with juice and cookies and a ‘L’Chaim!’ Simple. But I didn’t know that our daughters had also asked each woman to write some small message to me about why I am important in their lives.
After dressing, and receiving many hugs, that surprise came – those very touching and emotional readings of many notes, cards, and poems, with our daughters reading additional messages sent via email by those who could not attend in person. And about a bucketful of tears from me. I cherish these notes and messages, and have read and reread them through the years. We ended our time in the sitting room provided, returned to our car and headed back to our home, with a small caravan of cars behind us.
When we got there, other friends had already arrived; the wine was ready, and we sat down to a light dinner; vegetable soup, quiches and salad, my annual Sukkot food. Jewish life was continuing on, and I was grateful to be part of it, as I am now.
But now it’s this year. 2020! The year of the pandemic, the plague, Covid.
Does it matter that we were not able to be ‘inside’ the synagogue this year for all the Chagim, the High Holidays? Of course it matters, and the fact that we can’t even visit our daughters or grandchildren, the lights of our lives. The delight of a sukkah for us, is to honor the ancient tradition of ‘welcoming guests.’
Although a sukkah can be set up for two people, or even for one, we decided not to even do that this year, and many synagogues are not either; the holidays have been toned down with virtual services very desirable and appreciated. Our living room and dining room have become ‘shul central’ and will also be our sukkah, though just for the two of us with zooms to our family, as this is how we we now socially gather.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I cannot replicate my spiritual and life-affirming celebration as I had originally intended, even though it’s been 20 years and this had been my intention. We cannot invite guests to sit cheek-to-cheek inside the sukkah. Oh, those years when ‘the holidays were late’ and it was chilly and we moved the small heater on the floor from person to person! And that year when it rained and the we had to dash back inside to finish eating, and the year the ‘s’chach,’ the roof made of raw branches and stalks, flew off sailing into the neighbor’s yard. Or another year when gale winds necessitated that we tie the entire sukkah to the deck railings. Then there was the year our younger daughter invited a friend to sleep over in the sukkah but a squirrel joined them, ending that adventure.
This year the guests we invite to our dining room are our ancestors. They were there through the years via posters we hung in the sukkah, containing photos of our parents and grandparents, and other treasured family members no longer with us. Each year we shlep up our sukkah boxes, hang the lights and decorations handcrafted by our daughters and grandchildren through the years, and hang them on the sukkah’s temporary walls.
But this year, these guests on the posters will have a special place inside on our dining room walls for the week. They’ll be alongside the Matriarchs and Patriarchs we always invite to our sukkah- the Ushpizin, the exalted guests, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David… and Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, and Ruth, one male and one female each day. We’ll enjoy their presence in our hearts and minds.
At this point, with the pandemic still quite rampant on planet Earth, we’ll be eating our meals quietly at home inside, and enjoy a few Zoom get-togethers with our loved ones and friends, something I will be grateful and thankful for, just as we’ve been grateful for our virtual services from our synagogue. We hope that next year, our Sukkah can again be filled with friends and family. But for now, for this year our choice will be more than just right and its own blessing.
What are we doing this year for Sukkot, most of us? Kind of like a cartoon I saw on FB: “I’m making plans for Sukkot! Are we not coming to you, or are you not coming to us??”