Beliefnet
"I heard the rabbi is dying of brain cancer."

That was the word flying around the synagogue. I should have expected it. Rumors were rife, and they were uncomfortably close to the truth.

Last Oct. 23, I was speaking at the University of Pennsylvania, to inaugurate the new Hillel building on campus. At dinner, I sat beside my parents. As I spoke, I felt a little strange, nervous and hot. I had trouble keeping to my train of thought. It occurred to me that I was coming down with a cold. As I sat down after my speech, my father asked, "Is there anything wrong?" "No," I said, and that is the last thing I remember.

Almost immediately, I had a violent seizure. The seizure would not stop until in the ambulance, I was administered large doses of drugs intravenously.

I was lucky. Not only were there several doctors present, but as one of them told me later, had I been swimming, driving or in the bath, I would likely not have survived.

I do not remember anything of the seizure. Mercifully, I was unconscious.

From the moment I woke up in the University of Pennsylvania hospital and for the next few days, I was confused. I asked the same questions over and over. I saw people and a day later forgot that I had seen them. The CT scan showed nothing, but when we returned from Philadelphia, my wife took me for an MRI. Now with the more precise images, the radiologist told us there was "an area of concern." The following day, we were told I was to have surgery to remove a lesion in my brain.

Two weeks separated the seizure and the surgery. My wife has since told me that during that time, I was not entirely myself. I did not make jokes; I was automated.

I remember thinking that as I read, I was somehow separated from the me that was reading. I felt like a character in an Oliver Sacks book, a dulled spectator of my own life.

We sat in the surgeon's small examining room at UCLA and learned that lesions or tumors in the brain are rarely treatable by surgery alone. While he believed the operation looked pretty straightforward, he also considered at least a short course of radiation nearly inevitable.

As Eliana and I spoke to him, he said I would be in a special operating theater, where they could do a continuous MRI to track exactly where to excise the lesion. He did not anticipate any problems.

Then with a professional sigh, he added, "Of course, in brain surgery anything can happen."

My family flew in from the East Coast. I appeared briefly in the synagogue, arriving toward the end of the service and standing hand in hand with Eliana. My appearance had not been announced, and the congregation rose to its feet and applauded. I held my voice in check with difficulty as I told them what was happening and asked for their patience and their prayers.

Samuel Johnson famously remarked that "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it clarifies his mind wonderfully."

At crucial moments, our bedrock priorities shine bright. I realized with some surprise that I was not so afraid for myself. I did not want to die, but I had been very lucky in life and the outcome was not in my hands.

I was afraid for my wife and especially for my 7-year-old daughter. How would she cope with what could happen to me? What would my death or disability do to her life?

The morning of surgery, as my bed was wheeled out of the prep room, I said the "Shema" with the acute knowledge that it could be last time. I felt with powerful intensity the ephemerality of everything, how life, friends, family, love, this entire world is a wisp grasped between our fingers and how a moment can take it away.

We walk on a tightrope, and there are some who look down and tremble and others, like myself, who live looking straight ahead. I do not know which is wiser, although I have always known that only the former are fully awake. Suddenly forced to look down, the current below, the ones that swallow our lives, seemed swift and strong. As I fell to sleep, I knew it was only a step away from darkness.

My first memory after the operation is of the surgeon standing over me, telling me it went well, but that there was still an 85 percent chance I would need radiation--perhaps one treatment, perhaps several. Then the nurse offered me morphine. I told him no drugs until I saw my wife, because I did not want to be cloudy when I first saw her.

When Eliana walked in and I said hello, she told me later, she could tell instantly I was once again myself.

A week later, they called with the final pathology. It was totally benign. I would need no further treatment.

I was joyous, but cautious. It is the same feeling that my wife, a cancer survivor of six years, always told me about when people insisted she was now "fine." I felt fine then, she told me, and I had cancer. I felt fine, too, and then I collapsed. There is no more fine. There is fine for the moment, fine for this MRI, but once one has been seriously ill, fine is a concept that always carries a footnote.

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