This past New Year’s Eve, ensconced in a cabin in Sun Valley, Idaho, with my family and some close friends, when it came time to toast, I commented “how about we toast to 2013? 2012 looks as if it will be a wash.” Just diagnosed with breast cancer, on the cusp of beginning treatments, which would include multiple methods of devastation and recuperation, I could see little to embrace about the coming months, preferring instead to look ahead to a future moment when things might be expected to have returned to normal. My friend Josh, who himself battled Hodgkin’s disease ten years earlier, said, “don’t write this year off. It’s true that it’s going to be rough, but it’s going to be illuminating and profound too. It won’t be a wash.”
Now several months in to the year and those treatments, I see what he meant with new eyes. I’m hardly in any place to proclaim any newfound “cancer wisdom,” but I am wading through the present, no longer trying to fast forward through the icky parts.
There is a nice article in Tablet this week about cancer patients counting the omer. In short, the author, a radiation oncologist, discusses how his patients have come to ritualize the counting of the omer in new ways, as they mark off the days of their treatments; some, however, count “la’omer” (to the omer), meaning counting up, focusing on the future, and others consider it “ba’omer” (in the omer), indicating a focus on the present.
For me, I had my first chemotherapy treatment just before Pesach. Leading up to this time, I had participated in the Meditation Intensive led by Norman Fischer—a first time experience for me attempting to meditate, and one that proved profound. Over four weeks of practice and group meetings, I began to get up each morning and “sit.” It felt awkward, sometimes uncomfortable, and like I had no idea what I was doing. But it didn’t matter. Even if I fidgeted, even if my brain was running off in a million directions, even if my kids woke up early and put the kibosh on the whole thing—I got into the hang of being there, present with myself, focusing on the breath. Norman’s teaching, following from Rabbi Lew’s book Be Still and Get Going, focused on the crisis moment in which the Israelites are trapped between the Egyptians closing in from behind and the sea roiling in front of them. In the first meeting, this image, this moment was so astoundingly relevant to me and the deep fears I was tormented by: cancer closing in from behind, chemo ready to engulf me just ahead. But by the end of the four-week period of preparation, I could put aside some of the fear and focus on taking the first step into the waters, trusting that there will be a passage through.
April 1 was the all-day meditation retreat; April 2 was my first treatment. Moving forward also meant not having the same spiritual support I had found in those weeks of meditating together, when you are holding each other up, in silence. My individual meditation attempts often faltered, but in a group setting, I could let go and just be there until the bell rang. As the end of shiva is for the mourner, when there is no longer a house full of others, I feared I wouldn’t have the same resolve alone.
But here I am, surprised once again by the inherent power of the Jewish calendar. Now we are counting the omer, building up from spring to the fullness of summer harvest, from the darkness of Egypt to the light of revelation at Sinai. My chemo treatments won’t be completed by Shavuot, but sometime in the summer (fingers crossed). Counting the omer might mean counting down (the destruction of every last tumor cell!) or counting up (the days until my hair grows back!) but it is another powerful image of mounting fertility, integrity, and health.
Even a few short months ago, I may have been in the group of counting to the omer, just trying to race to the finish line. But now, after the way that meditating has allowed me to embrace the present tense, I am in the omer. Just trying to breathe—and savor each day, one by one.