On September 12, 2001, Micah and I stayed in a suite in the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. It was huge, palatial. It had a marble bathroom bigger than my apartment at the time, with marble lions and gold-plated faucets pouring into the jacuzzi tub. The lobby, which bled seamlessly into a mall of high-end shops, had an eerily lit, faux-blue sky.
Neither of us has ever stayed at the Venetian—or any other mega-resort there—either before or since. For us, nothing ever had to “stay” in Vegas, because we simply never went there. No bachelor parties or girls weekends. No spur-of-the-moment, “Vegas, baby, Vegas!” road trips. Not even a Celine Dion concert or visit to the Guggenheim or ironic jaunt to the idyll of postmodern architecture.
We were there because a day earlier we had been in Sun Valley, Idaho, happily ensconced in my family’s time-share condo, hiking and reading and watching deer walk by on the path above the river from where we were reading Levinas on the living room couch, when we got the call from my mother to turn on the television. Actually, to be accurate, when we got the call, we were asleep. We turned on the news after the planes hit but before the towers fell. After approximately twenty-four hours of watching, when airports were at a standstill and no plane was flying anywhere in North America, we decided to drive home to Los Angeles. We were numb anyway, we might as well be staring into the blankness of the Nevada desert. There were stretches there that we couldn't even get the radio. When we drove until we couldn’t drive any more that day, the place we were in was Las Vegas.
Driving in, after the shock and horror followed by sensory deprivation of the previous day and a half, we expected it to be a ghost town, empty. Or else perhaps that the whole city was grouped around various jumbotrons down the strip, watching and waiting, crying and praying. But that is not what it was like. People were gambling. They were taking pictures of themselves in groups in front of casinos. They were eating themselves silly. They were shopping—and this was way before they were told it was patriotic to do so. In fact, the whole scene was crazy, and surreal, and unbelievably garish, and we felt like we were the only two people in the apocalypse movie who actually know that the apocalypse has come—but looking back, it was also the moment of calm before the storm—the tsunami—of nationalism and rhetoric and jingoism and fear-mongering and legitimate grieving and all of what came after. It was so bizarre, so wildly out of tune with the horror that had just transpired, that we walked right into the middle of it and got ourselves a room, not at the Nellis Air Force Base Best Western, but at the Venetian. For when the whole world has been turned upside down, the mental asylum may just seem like the sanest place.
One of the feelings I remember most distinctly about that moment in time was the ominous sense of “what's next?” They say this is an element of trauma: to have had the momentous violence just have happened, but to feel as if the worst is yet to come. Which American city was going to be bombed next? Which, of course, makes our departure from our remote mountain retreat all the more irrational. But the vacation was over; we couldn't just stay out there in the evergreens and the lupine meadows; whatever happened, we needed to be back with friends and family and quite frankly, media connection. Which is why the best use we got out of that suite at the Venetian was the capability on the big-screen TV to watch several cable-news stations at once.
This year, on September 12, it will be one day after my last chemo session. Please forgive me this heavy-handed and incommensurate analogy. I am not suggesting that any one person’s illness is comparable to the events of 9/11. But the coincidence of the date makes me think about that same feeling of how reality has shifted in some fundamental way. Many, many cancer survivors experience the end of treatment with dread; everyone expects them to be relieved, but it is not that simple. It's like the damage has been done but now you have to deal with the aftermath. I am reminded of that same apprehension that even though the terrible has already happened, you’re waiting for the next shoe to drop. It may just get worse. That’s not necessarily a factual appraisal, but it’s a powerful emotional dimension. How is one to trust the body that’s already deceived you once? And I know this is anticipatory, but perhaps it will be like in Vegas where you just want to yell and scream to all the indifferent, seemingly anesthetized crowds around you, “What's wrong with you? Don't you realize what's just happened?”
Of course, finishing chemo is cause for celebration, and believe me, I'm ready to throw a party. I’m tempted to plagiarize the name for it from a friend who called hers the “It seems like a dream-o, but I'm all done with chemo” bash. I may not be in a faux gondola in the middle of the Nevada desert on September 12, but I do think it will be surreal nonetheless. There's so much yet to determine about how to establish the “new normal” on the other side. How will priorities be reprioritized? How will the passage of time be marked in new ways? How will the rebuilding begin?
I am grateful that this date falls before Rosh Hashanah. Eleven years ago, once we had returned from our stayover in Vegas, Micah and I hosted high holiday services at our house. It was a moment when our 20-something friends wanted not to be at their parents’ shul, a moment when we wanted intensely to be together in a meaningful way, but we wanted it to be personal to us. We printed our own siddurs; we cleared out the furniture from the living room; we borrowed a Sefer Torah from Camp Ramah. Micah played many roles at once, but our several dozen friends all variously participated as gabbai, as chazzan, having aliyot, reading texts. People brought their own poems to read; the text discussions never seemed so heartfelt; imagining death in the myriad ways of the Unetanetokef never so concrete; there were a lot of tears. Those services bound us to the participants in new ways that none of us have ever forgotten.
The days of awe are this amazing amalgamation of sweetness and renewal with solemnity and deep soul-searching as we consider our own mortality. When I found out I had cancer, I had this sense of panic, of urgency, “Oh no! not yet! too soon!”—which is precisely the feeling that the high holidays are trying to get you to feel—“do it now! make a change! don't put it off!”—without actually having the diagnosis. Or by carrying the sense that it could befall any one of us at any time.
For me, this time, it won’t be a mental exercise, an imaginary scenario. I think the touchstone of the New Year will be the precise counterbalance to the disorientation of September 12. A way to acknowledge, with deep gratitude, a new start, another year of life, not in isolation in the crowd, as in Vegas, but held aloft by loving community, woven together in all our wounds, as we seek to move forward into a new phase, humbled, renewed, recommitted to what’s essential.