And finally, after avoiding the subject, in a phone conversation with her this week, we started to come to grips with the unholy trinity: Surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy. This has turned into the dreaded nightmare from which you cannot wake up.
I’d rather not remember the details of Mom’s surgery. My parents stayed with us a full week, Dad sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the living room, Mom sleeping on the couch before and after her hospital stay, everyone in the house stressed out to the max. I had to stay out of work to play babysitter and chauffeur. Attending services with my parents on the first night of Rosh Hashannah and leaving early because Mom didn’t feel well. Ferrying them back and forth to Kaiser in Sacramento for testing, admission, post-operative doctor visits. Mom crying on the phone to Kaiser because she’s being transferred from one office to the next, no one seeming to know what time she should report for surgery. Meeting the surgeons after they put an IV into Mom. Not knowing what to say to them. Not knowing how to reassure Mom. Not knowing freaking anything anymore. Feeling dumb as a sack of beans. Horrible pain for Mom, endless waiting for the rest of us. Carrying around my laptop and trying to get some work done during the waiting. Hobbling around the hospital with my cane.
Mom, pumped full of morphine and still in pain despite the drugs, begging the hospital staff to let her stay in post-op a little longer. Request denied. Kaiser trying to send her home before she was ready, resulting in Mom crying and horribly abusing the nurses. Mom being fitted with a catheter, but not before being shown a scary film about catheter care and the awful things that can happen if you mess up. Mom yelling that the catheter felt like someone trying to forcibly have intercourse with her. Going into the bathroom with Mom to assure her that she did not break the emptying valve. First night back at our house, Mom waking me up by kicking my bedroom door at 2 in the morning, yelling that she was having an emergency and needed to go back to the hospital. Carrying on about red streaks near her wound and how the literature given to her by the hospital said she should contact her doctor immediately if she experiences such symptoms. Mom dropping her pants so I could see. Um, a son isn’t supposed to do this, uh, right? Me assuring her that it’s just normal bruising. Go back to bed, Mom. Mom blurting out that my wife hates having her here and that she is going to divorce me. No, Mom, she’s not going to divorce me. Sigh.
A full week after their arrival, my parents finally headed home. Thirty minutes after they left, my grandnephew was born at a different Kaiser hospital, two months premature. He weighed just over a pound and a half and went straight to neonatal intensive care, where he remains. My wife and her sister drive down there about four times a week to be supportive of my young nephew and his wife. I go about once a week. You know me: Have cane, will hobble down hospital corridors. Hit the sink and scrub up to my elbows so I can see the baby in his incubator. Hobble back down the hall to sit with family.
I think there’s an ancient oriental curse: May your life be filled with hospitals.
As for Mom, she is recovering nicely, feeling better with those heavy teratomas removed, but feeling too tired to do much. It will take time, I’ve assured her. At least it isn’t cancer. A blood test before the surgery reassured us of this.
Then one of the surgeons called Mom last week. Um, we looked at the contents of the teratomas under a microscope and squamous cancer cells were found. We were shocked! We’ve never seen this before. We have to do a PET scan in November to see whether cancer has metastasized to other parts of your body.
I now call Mom three times per week. She vents and I listen. Listening is good, I tell myself. All you can do is be there for her. I can only hope that I am doing this right. For after spending a life as a writer, a man of words, I find that they have disintegrated into a meaningless babble of syllables, vowels, consonants. The words, my trusty tools, my stock in trade, have deserted me. And I don’t know what to say.
I find myself in a mixed bag of denominations of Judaism, with the bag well-shaken. I grew up attending an Orthodox yeshiva, attending a Conservative synagogue with my mother, and asking a lot of confused questions of my non-believing father. Dad says he’s a Jew by ethnicity, not religion. He claims to be agnostic, but Mom says he’s an atheist.
Labels! They’re enough to drive you crazy. At Kol Nidre services this year, the rabbi pointed out that labels are good for whiskey bottles, but not for people.
The only synagogue in my immediate area is a Reformed congregation that holds services just once each month. For the High Holy Days, I generally attend a very Orthodox Chabad congregation, about a half hour drive away. This year, however, I decided to split the difference by attending Chabad in the evening for Kol Nidre, and then the nearby Reformed synagogue for Yom Kippur services the following morning.
Admittedly, I had an ulterior motive. Kol Nidre at the Reformed synagogue involved a musical performance by a cellist. I attended such a service years ago, and it’s more than I can stomach. (The cello seems to be popular for Yom Kippur in some circles, due to its sad and somber tone, matching the mood of the day.). Conservative and Orthodox traditions consider the playing of musical instruments on Shabbat and holidays to be a desecration of the holiness of the day. While I like to think I’m more than a little flexible in my religious practice, the cello thing is where I draw the line. It just feels wrong to me.
Several weeks ago, as Mom was preparing for her surgery, she asked me to locate a Jewish funeral home in the area, “just in case.” I called up the rabbi at Chabad, whom I knew would have the information at hand. Toward the end of our chat, he asked if he would see me for the High Holidays. I hemmed and hawed, finally admitting that the Reformed synagogue is so much closer to my home. “Well, come for the second day of Rosh Hashannah. They don’t have the second day at Reformed.” I remained noncommittal, not wanting to fess up to the fact that Mom would be having surgery on that holiday. “Reformed isn’t really my cup of tea,” I admitted to the rabbi, mumbling something about wanting to support the synagogue in my local community.
The day before Yom Kippur, I visited both synagogues’ websites and made a modest donation to each. I left work early, went out to dinner with my wife and her sister well before sundown (when we start our 25-hour fast), and was dropped off at Chabad. In some sectors, the local Chabad congregation is popular at High Holy Day time, as they have a policy of eschewing tickets and charging nothing for seats or attendance. As many barely observant Jews attend synagogue only once a year, on Yom Kippur, it has become a standard practice among American synagogues to set a fee to purchase a ticket for a seat. Not Chabad. (The whole “pay to pray” concept is a complex subject that would require a post of its own.). So, to avoid paying, many essentially nonreligious Jews head for the free Chabad synagogue and, for one day, put up with Hassidism. What exactly are they “putting up with?” For one, they put up with men and women sitting out of sight of each other on opposite sides of the sanctuary, the mekhitza
(divider) separating husbands and wives. Also, if you’re male and arrive before the sundown start of the holiday, you’re likely to be collared in the vestibule (as I was) and asked to don tefillin
(“phylacteries”), wrapping a leather strap around your arm and pulling another over your head to say a Hebrew prayer. Then there are the Hassidic melodies, unfamiliar to many from other denominations, and a stern sermon that is likely to rankle the less observant Jews among us.
Last year at the Kol Nidre service, for example, the Chabad rabbi preached on the importance of following the dietary laws of kashruth
, urging congregants to make a start by firmly committing to eat only kosher food for breakfast. This sort of thing (and that was mild compared to the fire-and-brimstone offerings on tap at some Orthodox congregations) turns off many of our nonobservant fellows.
This year, by contrast, I felt that the Chabad rabbi went a lot easier on us. In fact, after our recent phone conversation, it almost seemed that his sermon was addressing me personally. I like to think that perhaps I even inspired the content of his sermon.
Thinking about my remark that Reformed services aren’t exactly my cup of tea, the essence of the rabbi’s remarks were that we are all Jews and that we should strive for unity rather than fomenting division by pasting labels and raising walls at every turn. I wholeheartedly concur. But I’m still not a fan of the cello service.
The following morning, I attended the Yom Kippur service at the Reformed synagogue nearby. When I arrived, the service had already begun. The rabbi was a woman, a refreshing change in my view, and not something you’d ever see in an Orthodox congregation. In attendance were eight old ladies and two old men. Not that I’m young or anything, but a congregation composed of octogenarians, and not many of them, can’t survive for long.
Reformed congregations tend to hold a more abbreviated service, with most of the prayers read in English rather than Hebrew. But the prayer book they used had more than a bit of a hippy-dippy cast. To be fair, many traditional prayers appeared, with interwoven alternate, modern verses. For example, there was a prayer for Mother Earth that referenced climate change and global warming. (Which isn’t to say that this is not a vital topic of public discourse; it’s just that, when found mixed into my religion, it comes off a bit like a fly in my soup.). And the traditional Al-Het
prayer, in which we confess our sins by name, made reference to sins of disrespect committed “because I was drinking.” This falls about six standard deviations from what one can expect to see in a prayer book used by Chabad. Ultimately, it’s a matter of preferences, and a matter of what you’re used to.
In her sermon, the Reformed rabbi referred to her dysfunctional upbringing by an alcoholic father. The previous evening, by contrast, the rabbi at Chabad told the story of a Jewish woman going to the post office to buy stamps.
“What denomination?” asked the postal clerk.