In times of trouble

Pessah is a time not only to remember our communal past, but to appreciate our communal present.

greer fay cashman (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
greer fay cashman
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Pessah, even more than Rosh Hashana, is a herd-mentality festival. To religiously observant Jews, especially those with large families, it is inconceivable that someone should not have place to go on Seder night. Even the poor, with their paltry rations, manage to find room for the stranger at their table. Pessah is a time in which we think of the less fortunate, and a vast network of charitable enterprises ensures that most every poverty-stricken family on the books is provided for on Seder night. The concept of giving is not exclusively Jewish, but it's something that Jews can be very good at. Once we make up our minds toward a cause, no social or political barrier will stand in the way. Thus on any given day of the week, in hospitals all over the country, one can see volunteers going from ward to ward visiting the sick, helping male patients put on tefillin, feeding the families of patients gathered around a bedside, and taking patients in need of escort outside for a breath of fresh air. All this is a preamble of recognition of the many good people from whose graciousness and kindness I have benefited in recent months. Some of them were total strangers. Some were people with whom I had a casual acquaintance, but with whom I'd never actually engaged in conversation, and some were friends with whom I'd shared meals and outings, but have never asked for a favor. In fact, I didn't ask for favors this time around either, because like many people who live alone, I am obsessively independent. When my husband was alive, I was able to ask him for things, but could rarely bring myself to ask anyone else for anything more than a ride in their car if they happened to be going in my direction. Thus when I went to hospital for a lumpectomy in November, I didn't bother to tell anyone. I knew I was going to be there for at most a day or two, and I really didn't want anyone fussing around me. I hadn't counted on Nariman, an Arab patient and her family who "adopted" me when they noticed that no one came to see me. I was so moved by their generosity and concern, particularly considering political and military events of the day, that I wrote about my experience with them in The Jerusalem Post and opened a can of worms. "Why did you go off on your own? You know we're here for you," scolded my cousin Aviva. Other friends were angry with me for traveling to and from the hospital in a bus instead of allowing them to chauffeur me. Two months later, when I needed another operation, my friend Barbara who is religiously observant, insisted on taking me. I wanted to leave the house at 6 a.m., though I know that she goes for an early morning swim nearly every day. I felt guilty about her coming to my home so early in the morning, but every attempt I made to dissuade her was brushed aside. "What's the matter, you're looking for a mitzva?" I asked her. "Yep," she replied. "We're clean out of mitzvot." She came with another Barbara, also a good friend, and the two of them sat with me almost until the time I had to be wheeled into surgery, which was some four hours later. One of the Barbaras returned that evening with Audrey, another friend. And then there was my friend Rena who has so many mitzvot to her credit, the angels have lost count. Rena is a serial mitzva-doer. She can't help herself. Needless to say, Rena turned up at the hospital after the surgery, and she was back the next morning to drive me home. Later she called to find out if I wanted her to bring any food for Shabbat, and was somewhat annoyed with me when I told her I was going out for dinner. As it happened, I recovered instantly from both operations, partially because of my constitution, but mainly because of my brilliant surgeon Dr. Tanir Allweiss, who aside from her surgical skills, is one of those old fashioned humane physicians who has all the time in the world for her patients. On both occasions she was at my bedside almost as soon as I opened my eyes. ALTHOUGH THE surgery was a great success, the pathology was not, and my oncologist, Beatrice Uziely, who in the past had never tried to persuade me to do anything that I didn't want to do, took a firm stance and told me that I had no option but to undergo chemotherapy. Having lived with cancer for well over a decade, the chemo did not scare me. I'd heard discomfiting reports about what people suffer during and after chemotherapy. But what concerned me most was my hair. It's a well known-fact that one of the side effects of chemotherapy is hair loss. It may not be such a big deal for men - especially when shaven heads are in vogue, but for women, the concept of having all their hair fall out is nothing short of traumatic. My first question to Uziely was whether she was absolutely positive that there was no alternative to the chemo. The second was: "How long will it take before I start losing my hair?" She said that it would begin to shed soon after the second treatment. Later, when I put the question to Ilana Kadmon, Hadassah's dynamic and empathetic clinical nurse who specializes in breast cancer, she said it would take about 10 days. When I spoke to Rana, who is another of Uziely's patients, and whose chemo started earlier than mine, she told me about the clumps of hair that had fallen out of her head. Rana's hair was much shorter than mine, so that got me worried. My hair was almost halfway down my back and I didn't fancy having a carpet of it in my shower stall. I decided to take control of the situation, and shave my own head. Marva, a good friend who is also one of Uziely's patients, said that she would not allow me to go through it alone. Initially, I thought of going to a hairdresser, but then I started to think about all the sympathy sighs and the many blessings that would be heaped on my bald head, and thought it was just too much. I'd be much better off going to barber. Marva and I met in town and gorged ourselves on an English high tea replete with delicate sandwiches, scones, jam and cream, and then we went off to Marcel's. Marcel Saluk is the premier barber in Jerusalem. Now 80 years old, he has shorn the heads of every president and prime minister of the state, not to mention leading politicians, entertainers and members of the business community. Marcel was not in attendance. He doesn't always work in the afternoons. But his team of trusty assistants was on hand. When I explained to one of them that I was going to be having chemo, and that I wanted to shave my head before the treatment took effect, he didn't bat an eye. "You want it all off?" he asked, to ascertain that he'd heard me correctly. "Yes, shave it all off." Ten minutes later, I looked like an oversized billiard ball. Marva had blanched slightly during the process, but I found it quite fascinating to discover the new me. I also quickly learned how important hair is when it comes to keeping one's head warm. Later, when we got out into the street, Marva gave me a strange look, but said nothing. Recalling that my reactions are almost always opposite to those of other people, I said to her: "I wouldn't have been at all surprised if my hair hadn't fallen out." "I was just thinking the same thing," she admitted. At synagogue services two days later, someone remarked that I'd cut my hair. A week later, my synagogue had a communal Friday night dinner, and Richard, whose grandson died of cancer, looked at me, and immediately asked if something was wrong. "What happened to all your beautiful hair?" he exclaimed. After I told him, I received a message from his personal assistant Sapir, whom I had once interviewed. She also sent me mishloah manot for Purim. Estelle, who lives around the corner from me started bringing me bunches of flowers, and Rachel who lives opposite Estelle in the same apartment block, and whose husband died of cancer, began telephoning me every morning between 5:30 and 6 a.m. to make sure I was still alive. Michelle, who has several health problems of her own, but works as a volunteer with a cancer patients support organization, also began calling me to check on my progress. Members of my congregation told me they were praying for me. Some asked if they could drive me to hospital on my treatment days. One woman, with whom I have a casual acquaintance, offered me a wig via my friend Rena. Others asked if they could do something to help. Actually, there's not much that anyone can do other than to keep me company on treatment days. Sali has come in a couple of times from Herzliya Pituah; Libby has been there, and Rachel and Marva - and of course Rena. When I ask her how come so many people know that I have cancer, Rena looks at me as if I'm a total imbecile. "They can see you haven't got any hair." The urchin cap I wear completely covers my head but not the bare back of my neck. It doesn't take much to put two and two together. Michelle, another senior clinical nurse at Hadassah's Sharett Institute, runs interference between patients and staff when tempers fray. "Just call me Mrs. Kissinger," she says in her very British fashion. Although I didn't know her before, we discovered that we had several friends and acquaintances in common, a factor that makes her treat me less as a patient, and more as someone who just happens to be there. When my hair started to grow back, I asked her whether the baby fuzz I had acquired would fall out with subsequent treatments. "That's not hair," she said as she looked at the top of my head. "It's too fine to be hair." If it's not hair, I don't know what to call it, but whatever it is, it's starting to cover my scalp, and I'm curious as to whether the texture and type of hair will be different than before. In many cases, the hair is stronger and darker. Hair that was straight becomes curly and vice versa - so it's wait-and-see time. Occasionally I feel a little guilty because relatively speaking I've had an easy time of it. Yes, I did have one stomach churning episode that lasted for eight days, but otherwise I've been fine. The bonus of those eight nauseous days was weight loss. I could never have the lost the same amount of weight on the most strenuous of diets within the same time frame. It was wonderful to be able to get into an Anna Karenina-style coat that I hadn't worn in 25 years. IT MAY sound trite to repeat that old adage that every cloud has a silver lining, but until you're caught in the cloud, you don't find out. My Arab friend Nariman continues to call, even though she's having a much heavier treatment than I. People stop me in the street or the supermarket to tell me how well I look. It may come as a surprise, but there are more people with cancer who look well than sick. It has to have spread to several parts of the body before facial features become distorted. It's also part of a mind-set. Tanir Allweiss is the kind of doctor who answers the phone all the time. When I went for a check-up after one of my operations, she had some medical students with her, and the phone kept ringing. After the fourth call she apologized. "Come on," I said, "there are other sick people. You also answer the phone when I call." "Yes, but you're not sick," she retorted. I got the message. I'm a healthy person who happens to have cancer. Actually all my tests indicate just that, so it's not a matter of being in denial. At this time of the year, some people might regard what I have as the 11th plague. I don't see it that way. It's a blessing in disguise. Without it, I would not have come across so many wonderful, truly kind and caring people, nor would I be aware of how much goodness lurks beneath the surface in people whom I thought I knew. If an episode with cancer added to their respective mitzva tallies, I feel privileged to have been the conduit. I remember after Shas leader Arye Deri was convicted of accepting bribes, he said again and again that he accepts everything that comes his way with love. At that time I didn't believe him, because unlike him, I had not experienced that humbling yet elated feeling of people rallying to one's side in a time of trouble. It's part of that Jewish herd mentality. When someone is in distress, everything else goes on the back burner - the most important thing is to be there for them. In that sense, I'm extremely lucky. It seems there are a lot of people in my corner - some whom I didn't even realize were there.