My father has recently been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He just started a five-week course of chemotherapy and radiation treatment to shrink the tumor, to be followed by surgery. The cancer has not spread, and so we are all hopeful that he will join me on the other side of this journey, in remission.
This is not the first time my father has faced a life-threatening illness. Away at summer camp when he was six years old, he contracted typhoid fever. He often recalls watching his mother outside the hospital room, and how the doctor told him that if he cried, he would not let him see her. I cannot really imagine a scarier experience than that moment, 60 years ago, my dad as a little boy holding in his tears, trying to be brave even as he overheard the doctors say, “He is probably going to die.”
Coming so close to death at such a young age, my father sees his own life as a miracle. When I told him I felt lucky to live to 35, he told me, “I was lucky to live to seven!” If there is anything my father has taught us it is to take hold of the miracles in our lives, both big—his survival, my survival—and also the small— a deep human connection, an empathetic exchange, a moment when it almost seems like God has opened up a divine space for people to take care of each other.
My father, the rabbi of 43 years, thrives in these interpersonal, vulnerable moments. He has a unique gift for helping people cope with loss, trauma, and all kinds of life struggles, for finding words that console, or challenge, or inspire. I’ll give you just one example among a thousand, this from a published piece.
Sean lost his brother in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Sitting on my father’s living room couch, meeting for the first time, my father and Sean discuss their beliefs, their faith in God. Sean recalls my father saying “he believed in God very intermittently. To him, life was like a lightning storm. For the most part he found belief to be very difficult, but every once in awhile there are brilliant, almost violent flashes, where God is so real and present it’s undeniable.”
I happened to read these words just days before my father was diagnosed. At the time I was in Spain, an ocean away from him. I wondered if when talking to Sean he thought about the moment his six-year old body’s 108-degree temperature broke—the brilliant, undeniable flash of God’s presence.
How can I possibly find the words to comfort the man who is always the one to comfort?
“I’ll be with you every step of the way, Dad. That’s what you told me the day I was diagnosed.”
My mind swirls with the images he will have to face: IV chemotherapy, the radiation monster, post-surgery bandages. Will God save my father again? How can I save him from all of this?
A story comes to mind that my father tells again and again, one I shared in a post during my own treatment:
“God extends a string of faith around the world. He commands a messenger at both ends to shake the string violently throughout our lives.”
A six-year old gets typhoid fever.
A young man dies in a terrorist attack.
A young mother gets breast cancer.
“Many will try to leap up and hang on to faith and hope. Some will fall off but always try to cling back on again. Others will fall off and walk away in despair. Some will fall off, but then help others to have the strength and courage to leap on again, and again, and again….”
It is a story about God acting in the world, stirring our lives and challenging our faith. In my version of the story, however, God isn’t to be found in the shaking string, in the chaos of tragedy and adversity. Rather, for me God becomes present in those moments when people help each other find the strength to carry on, to leap back onto that string of faith.
My father, always the helper, now feels the violent shaking of the string. But there is a precedent in our family for surviving cancer—my own journey. There is reason to have hope.
“Adina, you give me courage.”
Hearing those words spoken from a father to his daughter, I feel the brilliant, undeniable flash of God washing over me.