After experiencing a trauma, it can be a struggle to know how to deal with memory. If you think or talk too much about what you've been through, you can get so stuck in the past that you can't rejoice in the present. But if you bury and suppress painful memories, you can make yourself numb to the good in the present.
Judaism asks us to acknowledge what we've been through and then to transform the negative into the positive.
These memories, however painful, remind us of our journey, and the role God has played in our lives.
Our holidays and traditions are packed with "memories" -- from living in slavery in Egypt to weeping for the loss of the Temple, memories of the recent Holocaust and our own private memories of the personal messages God has sent us in the most difficult times in our lives. These memories, however painful, remind us of our journey, and the role God has played in our lives.
LIFE TURNED UPSIDE DOWN
My own most difficult year began at Purim, the holiday of upside-down-ness, when Haman, the enemy of the Jews, was hanged on the same gallows he intended for Mordechai, the Jewish hero. It is a holiday of joy and celebration of survival. We celebrate by giving gifts to friends (mishloach manot) and to those less fortunate (matanot l'evyonim). We read the Scroll of Esther, dress up in costumes and partake in a fun-filled Purim feast.
Two years ago I had the costume picked out and heard the megillah, but I simply felt too ill to make it to the feast. I thought I had a bad cold, or lung infection or something, I didn't know what. I had been to doctors who had prescribed me antibiotics; some even dismissed my complaints. "You're a teacher," they said. "Teachers get sick all the time from being around kids all day."
I didn't buy it. I had had colds all my life, including on my wedding day, and yet had never felt so weak I couldn't even show up for Purim. I remember looking out my window while sitting in my costume of Arwen Evenstar (an elf from Lord of the Rings and my namesake) and waiting for my husband to bring home a plate of food from the feast.
Bitter that I couldn't make it, I sat there and wondered what was wrong with me. It was the beginning of my own world being turned upside-down.
Passover is about a journey into the unknown, about walking towards redemption. At Purim I realized something was wrong, but my journey into the unknown really began at Passover.
I still didn't know what was wrong but I was feeling a little better thanks to the antibiotics I was taking for what turned out to be pneumonia. I went to the doctor Friday to find out the results of the latest x-ray they'd taken several days before while my husband began to search for chametz in the living room. At the clinic, my doctor asked me, "Didn't you tell me that your grandmother, father and brother have all had cancer?"
I sat their stunned as the doctor awkwardly handed me a tissue box and left the room. She returned to tell me I must go immediately to have a CT scan taken.
My husband joined me right away, the living room left in shambles, as we rushed to the hospital. We waited in line for the scan and waited again for the results. Two hours before Shabbat, we finally got the phone call. I definitely had cancer.
First I told my parents, who told our friends at shul on Shabbat. On Sunday we called our long-distance friends, and on Monday I had the biopsy. Thursday I was given the specific diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and learned I would start the treatment right away. The doctor prescribed six months of chemotherapy and a yet-to-be-determined series of radiation treatments. My hair would fall out. I would have to leave work. The new reality gradually set in.
They rid the kitchen of every speck of chametz as I contemplated ridding myself of the tumor inside me.
And I wouldn't be cleaning for Passover. As I lay in bed exhausted and in shock, my husband and two friends came to our rescue and cleaned the house. They rid the kitchen of every speck of chametz as I contemplated ridding myself of the tumor inside me.
My first dose of chemotherapy was the day of the Seder. They gave the drugs to me slowly, monitoring me closely before my father and husband took me to my parents' house where we would stay for the holiday.
Sick as I was, I did not want to be left out and I managed to set the table. I sat with my family for most of the Seder as we read in the Haggadah about leaving Egypt and entering into the unknown desert. Only occasionally did I leave the table to lie down. At night I faced the first effects of the steroids I'd been given. They prevented sleep and brought strange images to me when I closed my eyes.
In the months that followed I began my own journey. I adjusted to a new cycle, not only of the holidays, but of my own body's relationship to chemotherapy from the days when I felt healthy to the days when I would once again face the sickening drugs that were driving the cancer from my body.
Every three weeks was chemo. I was one of the first patients to arrive and one of the last to leave, with each dose taking at least six hours. I was packed with chemicals that made me manic, that made me feverish, that made me nauseous, that made my eyebrows fall out, that made my face rosy from steroids. I was packed with poison.
The day before each chemo I would hike for two or three miles, reminding myself of my strength. After a chemo, my husband would wheel me out in a wheelchair.
The next three weeks were spent healing, walking on another hike, and then submitting myself to another treatment, again and again.
Tisha B'Av is the saddest day of the year. It is the day that marks the destruction of the Temple, as well as many other tragedies. We fast all day and mourn, reading Lamentations while sitting on the floor. It's not an easy holiday.
Tisha B'Av arrived sometime after the halfway mark in my eight treatments. I was scheduled for chemotherapy on the day itself, but then thought to check with my rabbi.
"I can do the chemo that day as scheduled," I joked, "and hit two birds with one stone. We're supposed to be miserable that day. Instead of fasting, I'll do chemo."
My rabbi wasn't amused. "That's not the point of the fast," he told me. "It's about the Temple. Besides, you shouldn't do something so dangerous that day."
So I rescheduled my appointment and chose to be "normal" that day instead, to sit on the floor and lament with everyone else. In a way it was a relief. So many times when I was in public, I felt the need to reassure people that I was fine, that I was feeling okay, that I was still me and not some strange cancer patient who only looked like me. On Tisha B'Av, I could feel sad in public without having to convince my community not to worry about me.
WHO WILL LIVE AND WHO WILL DIE
The High Holidays coincided with the end of my chemotherapy. I only had radiation ahead, and the long process of bringing my life back to "normal."
On both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, one of the highlights in the service is the Unesanah Tokef prayer:
"On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time..."
I had read the passage year after year, and it always moved me. I had cried before and worried about who wouldn't be with us by next year. But after half a year with cancer, it took on new meaning. Not only could God take away life, He almost took mine.
After the high holidays comes Sukkot and then Simchat Torah, the renewal of our cycle of reading from the Torah.
Around Simchat Torah, when we renew the cycle of reading from the Torah, I was given a PET scan. It was a weird experience that involved being injected with radioactive material and lying still in a closed room to protect the hospital staff from my radioactivity. Eventually I was put through a scanner that read my insides as I imagined myself glowing green.
When my oncologist called me in to discuss the results, he showed me the films with a smile. "Even your scar tissue is shrinking," he grinned. "That's rare."
"Great," I said, squinting at the pictures, trying to work out what he was telling me. "So when can we talk about whether or not I'm in ‘remission?'"
"Now," he said, surprised I didn't yet understand. "That's now, Arwen. The cancer is gone."
Thank God, I was going to be fine. We called our parents. We called our rabbi.
That Shabbat I recited Birkat HaGomel, the public prayer for someone who has survived a dangerous situation. I said it on the first Shabbat after Simchat Torah, when the Torah portion was Breishit, Genesis, another new beginning.
DARKNESS AND LIGHT
Even after my remission, the story wasn't over. It's never over.
Chanukah comes in the dark months of the year. It's a celebration of battles won and a celebration of light. Even after my remission, the story wasn't over. It's never over. I am healthy now, but there are still the check-ups with the doctor, the rare nightmare, occasional tears and memories that visit me both randomly and at anniversaries.
By Chanukah of that year, my visits with the doctor were less frequent, and I finally had the courage to ask him what I'd wondered for some time. "You didn't know if I was going to make it, did you?"
"I didn't know," he replied honestly. "It really could have gone either way. What did you think?"
I wanted to answer, but suddenly was too afraid to speak.
The truth is, my light, like the lights at Chanukah, could have gone out. But all of these holidays conclude with redemption, with a promise that God will stay with us and we will survive under trying circumstances, carrying our light from one generation to the next. God stayed with me too, sending me a miracle to keep my own light burning.