By Elana Rosenblatt
About two years ago, we had an unplanned growth in our family — a large cancerous tumor. But the growth I want to talk about is how the cancer affected me emotionally and spiritually.
When I first felt the lump, I was sure that it had everything to do with nursing my baby, born six months earlier, and nothing to do with cancer.
I live in England and I was soon going to America to see my parents, so I put it to the back of my mind. When I came back, I could tell that the lump had gotten bigger. The time had come to see the doctor.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “If it’s still there, come back in two weeks.”
I came back in two weeks, and it was close to Rosh Hashanah. The doctor said, “I’m sure it’s nothing, but I want you to have a clear mind for the holidays, so I’m sending you to a surgeon for an evaluation.”
I went to the surgeon, who sent me for a mammogram and a biopsy — again, just to be sure it was nothing. Nobody wanted to believe that a 27-year-old, new mother could have breast cancer.
So I waited.
A couple days before Yom Kippur we returned to the surgeon. We waited in his waiting room for about an hour-and-a-half — waiting and waiting and waiting. It seemed like eternity. Finally, we were called in.
He looked at me and said, “It’s cancer.” It was like being struck by a bolt of lightning.
After quite a long pause, he said, “Do you think you’re going to die?”
I was scared — but I said “No.” That “No” resounded through the coming months, over and over and over again.
LIFE CONTINUED …
Indeed, life continued. That day it was my turn to do carpool. So my husband Shaul and I went straight from the surgeon’s office to my daughter’s school. We were quite late, and my carpool kids were all waiting in the headmistress’s room.
I went in to get them, and I figured the headmistress is going to have to know sooner or later; I might as well tell her now. When I told her, I saw such love and care in her eyes. She said, “Anything you need, we’re here for you.” She was someone I hardly knew, as it was my daughter’s first year in the school, but the love that I felt from her was absolute. This was my first taste of so many things to follow.
We brought the kids home, and I dropped them off at unsuspecting friends. Now my husband and I had a chance to talk.
It was a very emotional time, and we both had a lot that we needed to say, but there was one idea that kept coming up over and over again: God does not do anything that is not perfect.
I can’t prove to you that pain is good. Or even that pain can be good. But I do want to try to show you that life really is beautiful.
Our lives are a puzzle. We add the pieces of the puzzle one by one. And, as we do, the picture of our lives becomes clearer. Sometimes we’re not sure where to put a piece; we can’t even imagine how it’s going to fit. We hold it up and turn it over in our hand and we feel sure that someone must have made a mistake — surely this piece does not belong to this puzzle.
There is no mistake. This piece belongs. As we put together this jigsaw puzzle of our lives, the pieces fit together so beautifully that the seams between the pieces seem to disappear and an awesome picture emerges.
I began to see this puzzle coming together.
I HAD A GREAT SUPPORT SYSTEM …
Ever since I’d married and moved to England, my family had only been able to come for short visits. But one month earlier, my little sister decided to take six months off from college, and come to London. Clearly, God was making my life a bit easier in this most difficult situation. Not easy, but as easy as it could possibly be.
My in-laws, who are amazing, usually come to London twice a year, for the High Holidays and for Pesach. I had been diagnosed right before Yom Kippur, which meant that my in-laws were still with us.
I had a tremendous support system that normally wouldn’t have been there.
Two hours before I lit Yom Kippur candles, we got a phone call. At first the doctor had been only 99% sure that the cancer was metastatic. Now she was 100% sure.
I was able to see this call also as a blessing. After all, I had found this out before Yom Kippur and still had the opportunity of Yom Kippur before me. This is the day God is closest to us, the day we have the most special relationship with Him. I felt that my fate was not yet sealed.
Sukkot came four days later. On Sukkot we leave our sturdy four walls and go out into a flimsy shack. A sukkah has rickety walls and a roof of branches; it doesn’t even protect us from the elements. Sukkot is about understanding that it’s God who is our protection, not the material world. During Sukkot, I started chemotherapy. The timing could not have been better. It was so real to me that my only security was in God.
During Sukkot, a time of simcha, joy, the calls and emails — literally hundreds — came from every continent. The love, the care, the overwhelming concern — all that was healing in itself.
MARY POPPINS ARRIVED …
A few months earlier, right after I’d had the baby, I put out a call for help in the house. I sent out emails, I advertised, I called everyone I knew, and I came up with nothing. This time I put out another urgent call, but I really didn’t have much hope. I wanted someone who would understand, both physically and spiritually, the needs of my children. Shaul sent out an email to everyone we knew and the very next day we got an email back — from someone I don’t even know so well in Toronto. She wrote, “I have a Jewish Mary Poppins for you!” And she did.
Our new helper was a reflexologist, with a degree in nutrition, and incredibly creative. She immediately developed a special relationship with my children, and with the whole family. Once again, supernatural!
This young woman had actually been on her way to learn in a Jerusalem seminary. But when she heard about my situation, she decided it was a bigger mitzvah to help me than to study Torah in Israel. You may not believe in fairy godmothers, but I had a live-in one.
As time went on, the jigsaw was making more and more sense. But there are always the pieces that don’t fit straight away.
There is a reason why we might have missed a train, why we lost the letter on the way to the mailbox. Even if we haven’t figured out the reason yet, just knowing that there is a reason is incredibly empowering.
We human beings don’t mind pain, as long as we feel it is worthwhile. Nietzsche said that man can deal with any “what” as long as he has a good enough “why.” Let’s say we’re working out to get fit. Our muscles are killing us. We’re stretching to breaking point. But we persevere — because it means enough to us. We’re on a diet and have to say “no” to our favorite ice cream. It’s painful, but it’s worth it. The “why” overcomes the “what.”
This is the pain that we choose. But what about a situation in which we aren’t in control of the pain? What about when the pain is coming from the outside?
WE’RE TRAINING FOR THE OLYMPICS …
I have a little analogy:
There are three runners whom I’ll call A, B and C. They are training for the Olympics. The Olympic trainer has runners A and B running 10 miles a day. But he has runner C running 30 miles a day.
And Runner C doesn’t only run 30 miles a day. He also has to be up very early, he’s on a very strict diet regimen and he lifts weights for hours each day. You look at this and you might think, “Why is the trainer putting C through so much? He is a torturer. He must really dislike C.” But the trainer’s not putting C through torture; the trainer knows that C has the potential to win. The trainer wants to bring that potential out into actuality. He’s not so sure about A and B, but he knows that C can do it.
In Ethics of Our Fathers, it says that God tested Abraham with 10 tests to show how much he loved Abraham. These hardships were a gift given from love. Our forefathers were spiritual giants. And yet we see that their lives were filled with trials. Murder, kidnapping, rape, famine — you name it, they endured it.
Our forefathers were God’s Olympic runners. And He wanted to make sure they only won gold medals.
Not one thing that ever happened to them was an accident. Not one thing was unnecessary — on any level whatsoever.
This is why I know that when I go for chemotherapy and it takes them six tries with a needle to find a vein, not one of those times was unnecessary. Not one of those times was an unnecessary discomfort. Each jab was exactly perfect for what I needed. There are no accidents, and there is no lack of control. God is in control.
Everything is perfect. Certainly not easy, but perfect nevertheless. Beautiful.
But if God is constantly making our lives beautiful, what makes life “not beautiful”?
WORRY IS THE ENEMY …
Worry is a personal spiritual barometer. It indicates to us where we’re holding spiritually, personally. When I say “personally,” I mean that we can’t compare one person to another. One person might naturally be more of a worrier, and another person less. It doesn’t mean that the person who is less of a worrier is on a higher spiritual level. But you can use your own relative degree of worry at any time in your life as a personal spiritual barometer.
When we worry about our future, we’re out of touch with the reality that God is in control. We’re out of touch with the reality that nothing is an accident. We’re out of touch with the reality that all is exactly perfect.
Worry, not pain, is our enemy.
There are two things I do to strengthen myself:
Firstly, I make a list of worries that never came true — all the things I worried about that never actually were anything to worry about, so all I did was waste my time worrying.
Secondly, several times a day, I go over different aspects of the special relationship that I have with God. Sometimes I forget; some days I don’t do it. But, I try to remind myself several times throughout the day so that I’m one step ahead of the doubt. And one step ahead of the fear.
Prayer is part of this relationship. Will God answer my prayers the way I want them answered? I can’t know. But I believe that if I remember to ask for God’s help, the outcome will more likely be something easier to accept as beautiful, as opposed to something harder to accept as beautiful.
Thank God, I’ve been feeling well. Cancer is a very funny disease. You can have a cold and not be able to get out of bed, and you can have cancer and do just about everything.
CANCER IS VERY SERIOUS …
But cancer is also very serious and sometimes, “Mommy’s not feeling well.” The way I look at it, though, is that my situation is really no different from that of anyone else. None of us knows what’s around the corner. We all pray that it should be something good and easily recognizable as beautiful. But who knows what tomorrow will bring?
That’s how I deal with the children. I haven’t said to them, “cancer can be fatal,” although there are people on the block that have died from cancer and they know it. They have me around today, thank God, and I’m so appreciative that I can be a mother to them.
Tomorrow is another story — and it would be even if I didn’t have cancer.
It’s not easy. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult. On the one hand, I wish I was runner A or runner B. But at the same time, deep down, I know that runner C is the only one who will win the gold medal. The “what” of cancer pales in comparison to the “why” of the growth I am getting.
There have been moments of anger. I’ve never been able to come out and say, “Thank you, God, for giving me cancer.” That’s a tough one. I’ve tried to be very, very real with my anger, and not to push it back down. I’ve tried to really face it head-on.
And I found that when I accepted the anger and didn’t let it fester, the anger became less of an enemy. I’ll say the same thing for the fear. Sometimes I have to say, “Okay, I’m scared.” But I am not going to let that fear get the better of me.
I wasn’t like this three years ago. I’m two generations from the Holocaust. My grandparents lost almost their entire families in the Holocaust. For many years I was angry with God. My relationship with God was not one of love; it was one of fear. When my kids would say, “Mommy, when I’m ten …” I would think to myself, “God willing, you should live to be ten.” I wasn’t the most positive person. I wouldn’t say these words, but I certainly thought them. I wasn’t one of those people who had perfect faith that God is in control and everything will be fine.
But I’ve grown since then.
When I thank God for the little things, it helps me know that God is with me for the difficult things. I thank God for my food and my arms and my legs … and when I go to the hospital, though it’s the last place in the world I want to be, I thank God for that too. I know that He’s with me.
Shaul’s Rabbi taught us an exercise to do: every Friday night, we ask the kids (as well as ourselves) to think of a serendipitous event that happened to them during the week. So the kids come up with ideas like, “I knocked over my cup, but I’d just finished my drink,” or “I didn’t want to go to kindergarten yesterday, but I went and they had a birthday party, and I would have missed it.” It really seems to help keep the family focused. And if you have to tell the stories on a Friday night, you want to make sure you notice and remember them during the week.
I try to take pleasure in the good instead of focusing on the bad. When I walk in to get chemotherapy and the nurse smiles at me, I try to take pleasure in that. She could walk in with a scowl on her face and make the whole experience a lot worse.
It’s up to us; what is our focus going to be — worry and fear or blessing and knowledge of perfection, even if we don’t feel it.
LIFE IS A TRAIN RIDE …
Life is like a train ride. The nice thing about this train ride is that everyone has first-class tickets. We often see many people, even ourselves, riding third-class. Why is it that, if we all have first-class tickets, so many of us are riding third-class?
Circumstance is never the problem. It is what we conjure up with our imagination that really hurts us. Often the physical pain and the emotional anguish, in a given situation, is relatively easy to deal with. It’s the worry that torments us.
I was in remission for a while, but I have cancer again. It’s not easy; there’s worry, there’s fear. But that’s my challenge to overcome. Cancer is not a third-class ticket. Cancer is a guidebook to what first-class has to offer.
I’ve gotten a big wake-up call — and I’m slowly waking up. Anything else is worry.
Life has so much to offer. Let’s not allow worry to take away from the incredible goodness we are blessed with. Let’s not ride third class, when we all have first class tickets — no matter what our circumstance. Life really is so beautiful — but it’s up to us to enjoy it.