Yesterday I stepped on my scale and saw I lost several pounds. I've been dieting for months and was now two pounds away from my goal. But instead of celebrating, I just shrugged, marveling that a diet of chocolate and potato chips eaten in the hospital that week – plus all the goodies that well-meaning friends had been bringing to our house – would make me lose so much weight. Go figure.
Ever since my husband – my young, handsome husband – was diagnosed with cancer a week ago, losing weight seems shockingly frivolous. Our "normal" life full of ordinary, prosaic goals seems so far away. I can't believe that until last week I was worried about my car, which has been rattling strangely, or that I felt stressed about a rash of household repairs we suddenly needed.
In the crucial weeks before my husband's diagnosis, we weren't really focused on each other. No, in those last, precious weeks of normality, what really consumed our attention was looking for new household light fixtures. We made a big purchase we'd been thinking about for years: a new chandelier for our dining room. We couched it as something that would elevate our Shabbat celebrations; we said we'd invite Shabbat guests over just to see it. We were so excited.
The other day my husband saw me looking at it and read my thoughts: "You're thinking you'd rather not have the chandelier but have me healthy, right?" I know it's not a trade-off, but I nodded my head sadly; they seemed linked to both of us. We'd spent so many weeks being happy about a light fixture when we could have been focusing on each other.
We were in happy, easy, pre-cancer heaven, and we spent it shopping.
After my husband received his diagnosis, he met with our rabbi. Echoing the long-standing Jewish belief that God cares for each of us in exactly the way we each need, our rabbi advised my husband to think of his new circumstances as a challenge. Each of us is meant to grow in certain ways in this world, he told him, and the various conditions in which we each find ourselves are the perfectly-calibrated tools we require to do this.
When I heard this, I thought, How can our rabbi expect my husband to accept this "gift" from God with anything other than bitterness? Worse, as my husband pointed out, how is he supposed to know what personal growth being sick is supposed to bring?
"Can't God just tell me what I'm supposed to do?" my husband joked. "I'll do it without the cancer!"
He's been trying, though. Even while buffeted by bad news almost daily, he's determined to make something positive of it. There is a three-fold formula in Judaism to affect change for ourselves and our communities. Prayer, charity and teshuva (repentance) are all said to avert an evil decree. They do this not by "convincing" God to change, but by changing ourselves, and thus altering the challenges from which we each need to grow.
In the past week, we've prayed with more intensity than ever before; we've given more charity, and we've worked on improving our Jewish observance. We even volunteered to hold a children's learning event in our home, sponsored by a Jewish organization that we've never previously had any connection with. In the past, I know my husband would have said "No way!" but now it was, "Bring it on!"
I never thought of us as skimping, but in our new, topsy-turvy existence I see that before this diagnosis we coasted long. We gave what we thought was appropriate, rather than giving unceasingly. We stayed pretty close to our comfort zone, as opposed to really pushing ourselves to the limit.
Less than a week before his diagnosis, my husband complained, "It's not fair!" It was Shabbat, our kids were roughhousing in the playground, and our son jumped off a slide, fell and broke his arm. "We've been doing so much lately," my husband complained. He'd recently helped out a stranger with medical and financial problems; we'd hosted Jewish classes in our home; we even had a Shabbat guest we'd never met before, who needed a place to stay. "Why should this terrible thing happen when we've been doing everything right?" he wondered.
Now, of course, a broken arm seems minor, and the few acts of kindness we've been doing seem paltry, too. We've pledged more to charity this week than I'd ever thought possible. We've prayed with an intensity I never knew existed. Now I look around our home and instead of seeing the material things we've accumulated and the repairs that need to get done, I see the missed opportunities when I held myself back from others, and from my husband. I see the moments I wasted. I wish I had those minutes back now that I realize how I should have spent them.
We don't know exactly what this challenge is for. We're supposed to grow, but how? Yes, we've been reminded of what really matters in life, but is this enough?
In the midst of all this, the other day, I was too emotionally and physically drained to take out the garbage. I called my son (not the one with the broken arm!), handed him a plastic bag and asked him to collect the trash from all the wastebaskets in the house. He looked at me like I was crazy – what a disgusting job! Reluctantly, he collected the garbage and presented the bag to me. “Great,” I said, “now take it out to the garbage can.” He gave me a look of sheer incredulity. “And please drag the garbage can to the curb.”
He returned a moment later and matter-of-factly told me one of the bags had broken and spilled garbage all over the street. I handed him another plastic bag and told him to please pick up the spilled garbage. His eyes practically bulged. "But there's gross food in there!" he protested. I insisted, and with a look of shock, he went out to pick up the trash.
I've been thinking of that exchange lately. I want my son to learn these household tasks, though to him it seems like senseless torture. I pray my husband gets through his own miserable time enriched and wiser, more equipped, like our son, to handle his responsibilities in this world.
Please pray for the recovery of Yecheil ben Avigail.