The moment after my 7-year-old boards the camp bus, I’m off, sprinting toward Central Park, where my feet pummel the uneven earth of the Bridle Path, where my head pounds, and my troubles slowly retreat as I gain speed. Some days, I pray, too; silent pleas to a God I hope is listening.
The activities help, but only temporarily. What I’d really like is to locate an exit ramp, heading away from my strange new universe — “my new normal” as it’s called — where six of my nearest and dearest relatives are undergoing treatments of various kinds this summer.
Early this week, I sat by my father’s bedside, watching him flicker in and out of dreams, watching him struggle for more oxygen, greater wakefulness, hearing him joke about dying during one of his many but brief bouts of consciousness. His recovery from a double-knee transplant had proven more arduous than any of us imagined.
I visited another bedside too, that of my sister-in-law, who has primary peritoneal cancer, as well as two young children. She had the misfortune this week of having to return to the hospital twice, for two operations within three days; the second time, she arrived in great pain and with a perforated small intestine – complications of the first surgery to install an abdominal port for chemotherapy.
In addition, two close relatives are being treated this summer with Stage 0 breast cancer; a third is dealing with advanced cancer; and oh yes, there’s my husband, who needs surgery for a polyp that would likely turn malignant if left alone.
When it rains, it pours. But this season’s precipitation feels like a hurricane, a class of storm I’ve never before encountered. As my friend Irina puts it in an email, “Oy vey, it is too crazy to be true.”
For me, it’s as if I’ve been transported to an alternative reality, not unlike the experience of Aomame, the heroine of Haruki Murakami’s stunning new novel, “1Q84,” who suddenly finds herself in a mostly familiar but transformed world. There’s something unsettling, for example, about the night sky, where she discovers two moons, “a small, green lopsided moon, nestled shyly by the big moon like an inferior child.”
Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, who is director of the National Center for Jewish Healing, located in Midtown at the JBFCS offices, tells me that my ability to disconnect from reality could be considered “a gift.” For a second I feel proud; and then anxious, deeply so.
Rabbi Weintraub remarks that over the centuries, Jewish leaders have developed various spiritual treatments for coping with sickness, “ways to navigate through difficult times.” The plans include not only the sorts of strategies you might expect, such as acts of loving kindness and reading from the Book of Psalms, but also some surprises, including meditation, communing with nature and telling stories.
What I’m wondering about, though, is this: Could there be a silver lining to all this sickness? Sitting by my loved ones’ bedsides this week, I feel curiously comforted. Time can pass very slowly in a hospital, and though the patient and I may be interrupted by nurses or other health professionals, we are far removed from life’s ordinary distractions — the urgent emails, the antics of children, the looming appointments.
In the early days following my father’s surgery, I read him article after article, catching him up on the latest news in The New York Times and The New Yorker. He rested quietly without comment. Was he asleep? I paused. “Read,” demanded my father, in a tone not unlike that used by my 7-year-old when I take a break from Harry Potter. I am delighted.
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin notes that according to a Jewish Midrash, sickness is considered a gift, offering “moments of living together with exquisite intentionality.” On the other hand, I’d happily return this gift of sickness and soulful connection in exchange for our frenzied world of good health. And when on the Fourth of July, my gaze wanders from the brilliant shower of fireworks above, I’m both alarmed and excited to see the moon. It is eerily red and full, an alien and otherworldly phenomenon — a harvest moon in summer.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org.