Celebrate Life

April 16, 2010 by  
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Today I received an email from my sister in law with an attachment from a pen pal of hers in Australia whose brother had passed away a couple of days ago from brain cancer.

As I read the attachment – a letter written by the spouse left behind – my heart ached.  It could have been written by me.  In the letter the wife writes about her husband’s indomitable spirit in the face of incredible pain and loss.  Even as he lay dying he wanted to try one more treatment.  That was my husband as well.  The day before he passed he dragged himself to a restaurant to have lunch with my nieces; just the three of them.

I’ve learned a lot of things from my husband: courage, strength, and love.  And I have also learned that life is really precious.  Even when he had lost his hair, his physical strength and in return was left with incredible pain, he wanted to live.  He wanted to live so much that he would take life even if he had to look gaunt and couldn’t do most of things his 6’, 200lbs frame once did.

I try to remember that when I want to complain or feel sorry for myself.  I have life and because of that I have the whole world.  Think about it.

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Lion Of The Senate

August 26, 2009 by  
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I’m very sad about Senator Kennedy’s passing. I’m sad that he passed away from brain cancer, a horrible painful death, and I’m sad to see a man who devoted forty seven years of his life to public service and still had the passion to fight, die.  But mostly I feel sad to see a man who seemed to have found a level of happiness and love for others die.

Ted Kennedy made his mistakes and lived through a life of many ordeals; the loss of all his brothers, Chappaquiddick, the partying, drinking and the trial of William Kennedy Smith, but it seemed that at some point the Senator got back to his life’s path. 

At age 59 Ted Kennedy married Vicky, a lawyer and a single mother who gave him the structure he so desperately needed.

“I had not ever really intended to get married again,” the Senator once told the New York Times. “The people who had been closest to me over the course of my life had disappeared, with that enormous amount of emotion and feeling and love, I thought I probably wouldn’t want to go through that kind of experience again.”

Ted Kennedy was considered one of the most effective legislators of the past few decades.  Ted Kennedy who became known as the “Lion of the Senate” played major roles in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act.  He was an outspoken liberal who knew how to work with Republicans to get important legislation approved.

With his passing it is also the end of a generation of Kennedys that has so impacted this country. Gone are John, Robert and Ted.

Ted Kennedy will not be here to help support Obama’s health care reform, a reform he called his life’s dream. 

Ted Kennedy also had a personal meaning to me.  Whenever my husband Chris wasn’t sure about a political stance he would look up Ted Kennedy’s view and that was good enough for him.

Today on what would have been my third wedding anniversary neither Chris nor Ted Kennedy remains.

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My Last Cancer Treatment

August 23, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured

By Rabbi David Wolpe

In 2003 I suffered a grand mal seizure followed by the diagnosis of a brain tumor. After a 10 hour MRI assisted brain surgery and a year on anti-seizure medication, life calmed down. In 2006 I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and had months of chemotherapy. Now after two years I am completing Rituxan, a follow up on the earlier treatment that is intended to extend remission.

Recently I had the final infusion. But I was not at all sure that pulling away the safety net was a cause for celebration. My doctor poked his head into the curtained chamber to assure me that he expected a long remission. Kind of him, but what could he say?

Remission is cancer’s suspended animation. The renegade cells are poised to return but no one knows when. It could be a month or a decade; for my type of lymphoma (one of the more than thirty varieties of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) there is no cure. So I am stuck in what Dr. Seuss — in a book I used to read to my daughter — calls “a most useless place. The Waiting place….”

I have been here before; my wife was diagnosed with cancer when she was 31. Our daughter was ten months old, and we waited. Following my brain tumor and surgery, we waited. We thought then we were done. No more bullets in the chamber. We felt safe, but tentative.

A swollen lymph node was the first warning of this new cancer. A biopsy confirmed our unspoken fear. It seemed incredible, overwhelming to think it was happening again, happening anew. The doctor called me at work. I came home to tell my wife and she was in the shower. I walked in fully dressed and we held each other; our tears combined with the cascade of water.

I had the strange, surreal experience of hearing my congregants’ shock that this could happen to the family of the Rabbi — as though professional piety was a shield against disease. As though God played favorites.

Right before my brain surgery I appeared in front of the congregation and asked them for their patience and their prayers. Three year later I was standing before them, bald. I witnessed the realization in their eyes that there are no guarantees, no protected people. No one is safe.

At moments, my wife and I will look at each other and understand the unspoken. We have both been scared, on and off, more and less, for a long time. And now with the end of treatment we are scared anew and waiting once more. Well, what now?

Do you live as if remission will go on forever? Or do you allow the thought of death to be before your eyes always, so as not to waste a precious moment of life?

Every patient is surrounded by people assuring him “you will be fine.” A woman in my congregation told me, with a sage look, “You are going to be ok. I know these things.” I told her I would feel more comfortable if she had foreseen the cancer in the first place. Statistics are meaningless. Neither my wife nor I had risk factors. No one knows. We’ve rolled snake-eyes too many times to count on breaking the bank.

What have I left undone? That marching song of purpose is quickly undermined by the whisper of nihilism: so what if you’ve left something undone? Will the world really be poorer for that article, that book unwritten? Then I hear my own voice counseling others, love more, care more, risk more, be more thoughtful.

One afternoon in the middle of chemo, when my hair was gone and most of my energy with it, my wife was bringing our then 9 year old daughter home from school. I heard my daughter say as the door opened, “Is Daddy on the couch again?” Nothing has ever made me sadder than those words.

There may be stem cell transplant in my future. There may be a new regimen of drugs. They are always ‘in the pipeline’ I am told.

For now I am just waiting. I am trying to find my own way through this because, inevitably, I will be asked how I did it. Rabbis are supposed to be figures of authority and calm. It was hard enough to reassure my congregation that a fickle universe does not mean that God is absent. That belief does not indemnify me against adversity. That my faith through all this is unshaken. How does one live, Rabbi, is the question my congregants ask, of not so directly. Tell me, Rabbi — it is your job to know.

My answer, I now realize, is: Live as if you are fine, knowing that you are not. Death is the overriding truth of life but it need not be its constant companion. My safety net is gone. I feel, as all people in remission do, that each time I fly my hand may slip from the trapeze. But to live earthbound is to give the cancer more than it deserves.

I was never taught that God promises us forever. Each day is graced with beauty, with the certainty that this world is not all. I am not owed more years. I do, however, desperately wish for them.

I am grateful for the time I have been given. I am scared it is running out. And I pray with a new intensity — not that I will be promised a cure, but that I won’t waste my waiting in fear. I owe it to my family, my community and to God not to be done before I really am done.

Named the #1 Rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine, David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California. Previously he taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, The American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Hunter College, and he currently teaches at UCLA. Rabbi Wolpe writes for many publications, including regular columns for the New York Jewish Week, beliefnet.com, as well as periodic contributions to the Jerusalem Post, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. He is an ethics columnist for Campaigns and Elections Magazine and a monthly book columnist for L.A. Jewish Journal. He has been on television numerous times, featured in series on PBS, A&E, as well as serving as a commentator on CNN and CBS This Morning. Rabbi Wolpe is the author of seven books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. Rabbi Wolpe has a new book coming out on September 16 entitled Why Faith Matters, A Personal Faith Journey And Response To The New Atheists.

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