Birkat Ha-Gomel, pronounced at the time of an aliyah to the Torah, is a blessing that one may recite after recovering from childbirth or from a serious illness, or upon returning from a long journey. After both my children were born, it was significant to me to come to synagogue and “bench gomel” to acknowledge the intense joy of bearing a healthy infant and not having had any complications. The way that the blessing links recovery from illness and returning from a long trip (while I don’t think jet lag quite rises to the same level of challenge as giving birth) is perceptive in that any process of healing is a journey, one in which each person hopes to “cross over” back into the realm of health.
If someone is undergoing heart surgery, once they are “in the clear” it might be time to take them off the Misheberach list, and a chance to bench gomel, but what happens with cancer? There is rarely a definable end-point. The sense of being “in the clear” is both elusive and deceptive.
Just as I haven’t known how to answer the question, sometimes explicitly or implicitly posed to me or to Micah, of when one should stop saying the Misheberach for me, I have not been able to come to shul to bench gomel. The disease is not “over,” and it is hard to know when it might be possible to acknowledge a return to wellness.
Likewise, I let my blog go silent for a long time. After chemo ended in September of last year, I had a strong desire to regain some normalcy. I really, really wanted to stop talking about cancer. I also didn’t know how public I wanted to be about my continuing treatment; I hadn’t come to terms with it myself. But ultimately, I think that silence can do more to raise anxiety than to settle it. You can only stifle the truth for so long.
The facts are these: despite early detection, good health coverage, excellent doctors, aggressive treatment, community support, loving family and friends, prayer, eating lots of kale and crucifers, taking my fish oil and Vitamin D, exercising fervently, meditating, yoga, tapping into my creativity—despite every possible advantage in fighting this disease—my cancer is not gone. Nor will it be. And yet, I feel fine—great, in fact. You will see me and you will think I look totally normal—recovered. But there are two realities: the reality of apparent normalcy and the reality of continued struggle. In the long-term relationship I have entered, there will be periods of calm uneventfulness and moments of crisis—hopefully far more of the former than the latter.
But in restarting this blog as a place of dialogue with the community, one of the things I would like to reflect on is the paradox of “recovery”; I want to trace the contours of what healing means to me now. It no longer means an end point, a finish line, a place into which one “crosses over” or “puts it all behind.” Healing, I am coming to see, is a process of regaining one’s equanimity, finding a precarious spiritual balance. It requires a constant recalibration. Like contentment or calm, it can be disrupted, dissipate, but one can achieve it, and return to it. One can be healed even if there is no cure.
The greatest thing that has held me back from being more open about my condition is my children. I do not want them to live under a cloud of anxiety anticipating when I will get visibly sick again. I do not want them to have to bear that burden. But over the course of the year that I have had to assimilate this diagnosis, I realize that the fine-grained details are a blur to them. Their concerns are more immanent. They already know I’ve had cancer and what stage it is at doesn’t penetrate their consciousness. As long as I am with them, doing all our great summer adventures, like catching grasshoppers and going sea kayaking, they are not worried. They are unbelievably strong, confident, and funny. They are showing their independence: Nathan went to sleepaway camp for two weeks and demands a month away for next summer; Theo went Mutton Bustin’ at the state fair—which means he rode a speeding sheep bucking-bronco style for 4.6 seconds (yes, just as jaw-dropping and hilarious as it sounds!). They are unafraid of the world, and I trust in them.
The gift that the CBS community has given Micah and me by allowing us this summer away from San Francisco has been an unbelievable source of regeneration. Picking berries, playing bocce ball, even the simple freedom of letting our kids roam unsupervised with the neighborhood kids, climbing trees and building forts, we have had unstructured time to be a family, connect with visiting friends, and ignore the news (and our email). We realized at one point that our kids hadn’t seen a screen of any kind in over a week—and hadn’t asked to. All of this has been an incalculable blessing.
The adage goes: time heals. I always interpreted this to mean that as time passes, scars form, trauma recedes. But now I see it a different way: the gift of time, time together, with those we love most, is profoundly restorative. Quality time heals. I want to express my profound thanks to the CBS community for giving it to us.