Yom Kippur

Hiking up Israel Rt 40 to Mitzpe Ramon, by Mark Nakasone on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

It’s a weird holiday, this one. If I were in Israel right now, I’d love to be taking a hike like the one pictured. I hope one day I’ll get to do just that, with J and the kids.

Here, in the States, the only real option is to plunge into a prayer book and fast. People wish each other an easy fast. It’s not actually supposed to be easy, so I never know what to respond to that.

It’s weird to think about atonement when you either are currently sick or have been very sick (and I, in the past year, have been both). It’s weird because of the duality of my feelings.

On the one hand, I can’t imagine having done anything grievously wrong this year. I was so sick after all. How can you do wrong when you’re that sick? When you are sick, you have that sickly halo, and everyone wants to know how you are, and no one would suspect you of any evil or wrongdoing.

On the other hand, I feel like all I have done this year is be a burden and cause trouble. I’ve been nothing but trouble to the ones to whom it falls to take care of me and love me. And I have been a very difficult person this year. (This is where my therapist usually steps in to interrupt me and challenge me… but she’s not here right now!)

On the other hand… there is no other hand!

Luckily, Judaism offers us the chance to atone communally and collectively. That, I can get on board with. I hereby ask forgiveness for all of the cheating, lying, hate-mongering, and yes, even murdering, members of my community. Let the coming year leave no place whatsoever for baseless hatred.

Closer to home, I have apologized countless times to J and the kids, in private and in public (here on the blog), for all of the unpleasant people I have been this year – yes, people, not person. I’ll explain.

One of my favorite local rabbis asked recently on Facebook where the four children from the Passover Hagaddah are during these equally important days of the Jewish year. He yearns to hear from them, because they bring their individual capacity to understand the issues at hand, and he feels it would be helpful to hear from them now as well, when repentance is the order of the day.

Perhaps the answer is that the four children (wise, wicked, simple, and silent) inhabit each of us simultaneously, and this time of year is the time to recognize the multiple personalities that dwell within us, making us more complex than the sum of our physical attributes and achievements – and making us complicated individuals, who can approach a day like this with great internal conflict, conflict which doesn’t even necessarily get resolved! Instead, via the medium of fasting and collective prayer, the individual is worn down, stripped down, and the physical discomfort prompts new understanding, new perspectives, new approaches for the new year.

At least, that is my understanding of how it works in theory. Last year, for the very first time in my life, I completely skipped Yom Kippur. J and the boys went out to my in-laws’, as we usually do, but I stayed behind. I was newly diagnosed with metastases, biopsied, and recovered from a collapsed lung, and I was pretty damn mad about all of it. I decided that the last thing I needed was to enter into any sort of conversation with God. So I stayed home that entire day, did not fast, did not pray, and did not ask forgiveness.

Instead, I stayed home, rested, and I began mapping out this blog – what it would be, what it wouldn’t be. I also had a long chat online with a former colleague whose writing I admire, and who pointed me in the direction of a number of memoirs she thought would be good for me to read. I walked over to the public library, and like a Yom Kippur miracle, they were all on the shelves – every last one.

This year, I thought I was in a different place. My tumors continue to shrink, to the wonderment of me and my doctors, my CT scans keep being unremarkable. I’m off the hook scan-wise until November. Last night, I joined some friends and went to see a favorite rock band I’d seen back in June, when things were so much more unsteady for me. My recent eye discomfort (a second case of medication-induced iritis) was waning at last. My feet didn’t even hurt much.

As the opening number began and the oscillating stage lights inflicted optical assault on the audience, I realized my good eye, the right eye, the one I thought was all better, was hurting again. I enjoyed the concert, but this time not quite as much, because I was shutting my eyes defensively whenever the lights came swinging around again.

This morning, I called Dr P’s office and spoke to Nurse Practitioner R. She told me it was imperative to get to the eye doctor at once. I attempted for the umpteenth time to claim something was more important (in this case, the impending holiday, which I was going to attempt to participate in once again after last year’s hiatus). NP R wouldn’t hear of any delay. The fact is, the eye doctor is the keeper of all knowledge when it comes to afflictions of the eye. Even though Dr P and the nurses can identify the cause of the eye problem, they really can’t help me solve it.

That falls to Dr D, my ophthalmologist, whose office is run like a poorly-oiled, decrepit machine with a horrible pop radio soundtrack. He is an absolutely lovely man, and as far as I can tell, an excellent ophthalmologist. But I sat in that office for more than three hours today, and only about 20 minutes of that time was spent with the doctor. The rest of the time, I sat huddled in a corner of the waiting room, freezing, because I was under the air vent, the staff refused to change the temperature, and I was so anxious about leaving the house in time I forgot to wear a jacket. (The weather has taken that fall turn, and for two or three days running, I have neglected to heed it.) I was also shoehorned in as an emergency patient, which meant a longer wait.

When I finally saw Dr D again, he said I had correctly diagnosed myself with iritis for the third time. I was proud. I was glad. I knew how to cope, even though it wasn’t going to be fun. The iritis treatment regimen means dilating your pupil three times a day, and steroid drops in your eye six times a day. My left eye can now stop being dilated, but now my right eye rejoins the fun. Then, he told me he’d need to examine my pupil dilated. (That added another hour and change to my ordeal.)

Dr D has said from the beginning that he’d much rather treat iritis, than have me stop taking the medication that causes it, and risk me dying of cancer. I find this sweet, but also perhaps a tad melodramatic. He doesn’t seem to have a lot of contact with cancer patients, at least not my particular type of cancer patient. But he also teaches, and as such he’s taken an enormous interest in my case. Today, he made it official by asking for consent to photograph me and talk about me in grand rounds. He called and managed to get Dr P on the phone, and my heart swelled as I overheard them talking to each other, two concerned and engaged professionals with just my weird case in common. (Dr P said she’s only had one other patient experience iritis while on this therapy.) Dr P promised to email Dr D some medical literature about the medication I’m on and its side effects. And when Dr D repeated to her what he has said to me many times, about not wanting me to die, I heard Dr P say, confidently, “Yeah, we’re not gonna lose her.”

While I have said many times that I feel lucky to be in my particular circumstance, I wouldn’t have the luxury to feel lucky, if I didn’t also have an army of supporters to be grateful for. From J, Young J and Young A, to family and friends, to the doctors and nurses, all the way to a fellow cancer person whom I have never met, who just posted a lovely comment on the blog while I was composing this post. I’m so glad you’re here.

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