Author’s Note: On Sept. 29, 2009, the day after Yom Kippur — before I’d had a chance to commit any new sins — I went for my annual mammogram and found out I had breast cancer.
When I confided my diagnosis to my friends, I was struck by their widely diverse reactions. Some were awkward, clearly discomfited by the news and unsure of how to act, while others came through with pitch perfect responses and just the right kind of support. A few disappointed me by pulling away or mouthing platitudes such as, “I’m sure you’ll be fine.” Or, “My aunt had it and she’s fine.” Or, “God only gives you as much as you can handle.” Other people, from the look in their eyes and the sound of their “How are you?s”, made me feel I was doomed.
Months later, sitting in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan Kettering where I was to undergo six weeks of daily radiation treatments, I started musing about the role my friends had played in my journey through the land of the sick, what they did that was helpful and what most definitely wasn’t. Those thoughts gave rise to the idea of my writing a book about friendship and illness, part memoir and part how-to guide. But in order for the advice to be useful I knew it would have to draw from a wide variety of people and situations, not just mine. I would have to gather testimony from other sick people and the friends and family members of sick people; from those who were suffering because they were sick at heart if not in body; from people whose friends had chronic illnesses, AIDS, heart disease, ALS, Alzheimer’s, mental issues and money problems that made them sick; and from those who were grieving the death of a loved one or helping a mourner through that loss.
Perhaps the most illuminating of the more than 80 interviews woven through the pages of “How to be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick” are those I conducted in the waiting room at MSK where I talked with my fellow patients — men and women of all ages, religions, races, and backgrounds who had come from everywhere to avail themselves of the hospital’s renowned medical care. Since I was one of them, when I asked about their experiences, most of them willingly shared their stories with me (albeit with a request for anonymity). Since no one’s treatments were scheduled at the same time each day, the waiting room provided me with an ever-changing supply of interview subjects. And since, like seatmates on a cross-country plane trip, we knew we most likely would never see each other again, our conversations were often astonishingly intimate. But occasionally, as the following excerpt relates, I encountered resistance.
One morning while I was still doing time in the waiting room, an elderly Hasidic man — black hat, long white beard, ear curls — sat down kitty-corner to me and opened a book printed in Hebrew, a language I speak poorly but read well enough to recognize the word Shoah — Holocaust — in its title. The opportunity to interview a member of an insular religious community wasn’t going to fall in my lap every day, so I begged his pardon and asked if he would answer some questions for the book I was writing about friendship and illness.
No response. He was a reader; shouldn’t he want to help a writer? Was he purposely ignoring me, or did he not understand English? I tried again, this time inserting a few words of mamaloshen (the mother tongue) so he’d know I was a member of his tribe.
“I’m sure you’ve got tsuris [troubles] like I’ve got tsuris or you wouldn’t be here,” I said softly. “I wish you a refuah shlaymah [complete recovery] but right now I need help. All I want is a word or two about how your friends have related to you since you got sick.”
He stroked his beard but his eyes never left the page.
“Could you at least talk to me about the halacha [Jewish law]? I know it says we’re commanded to visit the sick, but does it say for how long or how frequently?”
At this, he looked up. It was obvious that I wasn’t from his world; no proper Hasidic wife would wear hip-hugger jeans and leave her hair uncovered. “Go ask your rebbe,” he said. “I don’t know the halacha. I’m just a tailor.”
Chuckling, I replied, “Even a poor tailor is entitled to a little halacha.” You might recognize that I was channeling Motel the Tailor in “Fiddler on the Roof,” but the old man didn’t crack a smile; he had no idea what I was talking about. And why would he? The only time I’d seen a Hasid at a Broadway show was when an actor played one onstage.
“Okay, never mind the law,” I said. “Let’s just talk about your friends.”
“My friends?” Arching an eyebrow, he flicked the air as if brushing away a fly.
“You haven’t told them you have cancer? Is that what you’re saying?”
“It’s none of their business.”
“You mean nobody knows you’re sick?”
“Hashem [God] knows. My wife knows. Genugg. [That’s enough.]”
“But your friends could be helpful. They could comfort you, do things for you…”
“Spread lashon hora [evil gossip] about me,” he added.
“You think it’s a shonda [disgrace] to be sick? Is that why you’ve kept it a secret?”
The Hasid shook his head. “I don’t need anyone’s rachmahnis [pity].”
With that, he clammed up. (Is there an equivalent kosher image?)
I told him he reminded me of my mother. “She came from a little Hungarian shtetl [village]. She was ashamed of having cancer in the early fifties when it really was a shonda. I bet you know why she hid it — because she thought no nice Jewish boy would want to marry me if his parents knew there was cancer in our family. I was a kid when she died, but I still remember friends of hers at the funeral muttering to each other that they never even knew she was sick.”
“She should rest in peace,” said the old man, his eyes watery and full of kindness.
I asked him about his family. They came from Krakow, he said, but no one made it through the war. He pointed to the word on the cover of his book — Shoah.
Both of us fell silent. Just then a technician came to escort him to his treatment room. He stood up with some difficulty, gave me a silent nod, and shuffled toward the men’s locker room. Immediately a pleasant-looking fortyish guy in a button-down shirt and corduroy pants took the old man’s seat and handed me a sheet of paper.
“I have to leave now, but if you’re still here when the Hasid comes out, would you give him this?” The sheet read, Tefila Lerofeh. (A prayer for the sick.) “Tell him to give me a call if he ever wants to talk. I wrote my phone number on the top. I’m a rabbi. He probably won’t consider me a real rabbi, but I know how to be a friend and I know how to be discreet. Tell him my grandparents were from Krakow.”
This article is taken from “How to be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick” by Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.