Rosh Hashana 5775: A Time to Heal
Rosh Hashana is my favorite time of year, as the summer fades and my family comes together again for hugs and smiles of the Jewish New Year. I called my mom in excitement and asked her if she was making apple jelly. It’s traditional in my family to have it with our round challahs over Rosh Hashana dinner and lunch.
“I can’t this year, honey,” she said with that somber tone. “It’s just such a long process, and I get tired so easily.”
“Well, why don’t I do all the work?” I said. “You can sit there and tell me what to do. And I need to learn anyway.”
“Yes. Yes you do.”
It was the tone of voice in that phrase that caught me. In the Jewish year of 5774, my mother was confronted with her mortality. I sat in her hospital rooms and kissed her bald head, watched her go from doctor to doctor and forced myself to see her mastectomy scars. Even though her hair was growing back in a soft peach fuzz and her tests looked positive, she was now thinking of a time that she wouldn’t be here to make apple jelly for Rosh Hashana. And remembering how that every day for almost six months, she thought she was experiencing a series of last events in her life.
“Mom, you’re not dying,” I said. “You’re getting better. The doctors have told you that.”
“I know, but I have to pass these things on,” she said.
“You will.” But deep inside of me, my heart started ticking like a clock, wondering how long the countdown would be until death finally had his way took her away from me.
How could one year make everything so different? I stood in front of G-d on Rosh Hashana last year by myself, not knowing how the days after would change me. How that call in the chill of February shook me, her voice wavering as she said, “I have breast cancer.”
It crashed on me like a fast car, shifting everything in my body. I took up freelancing in fear of being tied to an office, not knowing where my mother’s treatment would end up, putting myself in serious financial danger later on. I left evening plans and my friends behind, rushing back to Thousand Oaks with an overnight bag whenever my mom had go back to the hospital due to complications. I couldn’t date or have a relationship with anyone; after all, how would I introduce a guy to my family and say, “Hey, this is my mom. She’s got cancer, you can tell by her bald head”?
In July, six months after her diagnosis, we were told that my mom was much better but not in remission, because her type of cancer was the type that could only be kept at bay, not go away entirely. But even as results looked positive, the fears washed over her, the mortality constantly questioned. The friends asking about my mother’s condition dwindled, hearing that she was improving. But then the problems begin, because even after the bad event is over, you have to live with all the ramifications of what just happened to you. And in my mother’s case, the fact her breasts were gone and she was taking a hormone pill that may be less difficult than chemo, but still gives her good and bad days.
And then there was the rest of us: My father, who had put aside all of his job searching to be my mother’s caretaker, who had shown tremendous strength of character that he always had but my mother possibly couldn’t see; what was to become of them as a couple, and him as a man who had plenty of his own issues to take care of? My sister, who lived at home and had to see my mother nauseated and broken, changed my her wound dressings and gave her antibiotics twice a day through a port; could she find the strength to grow despite the circumstances? My cousin, who had lost her mother and her father in less than two years, and now whose aunt, who was the closest relative to her, was sick; how could she hold on as all the people she loved were suffering or dead? And then me, who was somehow removed in living away yet in pain and angry as hell, having to hear about the issues later and having the excuse of “you’re not here” used; how could I keep my independence that I love so desperately while being tied to my family that made me feel like they didn’t want me?
As I got off the phone with my mother, I saw the flash of my phone’s wallpaper: Jerusalem, overlooking the Western Wall. My sweet, beautiful Yerushalim. I took that picture in March as the stones echoed the Muslim call to prayer, the church bells rang and the men sang at the Kotel loudly. I stood with my friend Brad as he told me how he came out there the previous Rosh Hashana, seeking meaning beyond his regular existence. Finding what he was looking for.
In the chilled wind whipping at my black dress and sweatshirt, I found my redemption. Torn away 15 years previously as a child, now standing in the Holy Land as a free woman. Never thinking I would see it again, not until I was old and gray, experiencing pure joy that took two years of suffering to achieve. Yet for the two Friday nights I was in the country, lighting five candles on Shabbat instead of the traditional two: For my father’s strength, my mother’s health, my sister’s compassion, my cousin’s innocence and my inner peace. Carrying them with me wherever I traveled, dragging them along in my heart like the bright pink suitcase I stored my baggage in. Hoping my prayers would get closer to G-d now that I was in his kingdom.
Each struggle rushes over us, but it’s amazing what we pick up sometimes. I saw my mother let go of a lot of anger holding her back. My cousin grew closer and truly became our sister, which is what I hoped for her after her mother died. My sister shifted and found a new voice for herself beyond the day-to-day doldrums of a seven-year hellhole job. My father rekindled his love of theater and Shakespeare. And I claimed my humor as an outlet for the creativity and insanity inside of me that needed an outlet.
So this year I will stand before G-d next to my family in temple, as the Cohanim, the descendants of the Jewish priests of old, call out their blessings and I embrace my family under my father’s talit. It will be tinged with remembering how we thought we might not have it again; how it felt to hear it at the Western Wall on Shabbat, echoing 2,000 years of my ancestors; and how Rosh Hashana is more than my mom’s apple jelly and round challahs. It’s the fact that we never know what life will deliver us tomorrow, but we will face it head on, together.