Much of what I am going to say was captured long ago by a sage of the Ewe people of Ghana.
When night or day approach, do we know what is going to happen to us on either occasion? But whether we are in a stream or whether it is night, we are everywhere still in the world. This is why we say that God is the world. Everything in the world is the creation of God; the fish in the water, men, good and evil, God has sent them all.
You only know what you can know today. Not that which will take place in the future. God alone knows what will take place to-morrow.
Or, as in the Yiddish proverb:
Der mentsh tracht, un got lacht
Man plans, God laughs
Cancer as part of my life began almost 25 years ago with a diagnosis of prostate cancer. It actually began long before that, in the complex history of the Jews and the genetics passed on to my mother who died of breast cancer in her 50’s, a genetic legacy I share with my younger sister who had ovarian cancer and who died from a glioblastoma two years ago.
My reaction to my first cancer was, given my age and temperament at that point, rather simple and direct.
“Life is short-move it! Cut the cancer out and let me get back to work.”
Wendy recalls that one of the first things I did after diagnosis was to get in my skull and row the more than two hours back and forth across the Great South Bay-just to prove to myself that I could.
More significantly, cancer became a turning point. I left my law practice and moved into the non-profit world that more deeply engaged my passions.
“Life is short-move it!”
This time is very different.
I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in February of this year.
My immediate reaction was fear and panic. A medical team was recommended and we met each specialist almost immediately and accepted their strategy without question.
The treatment was debilitating. I could think of nothing but getting through the chemotherapy, radiation and surgery and the uncertainty of our future.
The view of my physicians was that this course of treatment would, as I had experienced with prostate surgery, most probably be curative. My reaction was, as it had been 25 years before. “Get through it and move on!”
Well, it didn’t result in anything even close to a cure.
In the recovery room after surgery, my surgeon informed us that the cancer was more extensive than they had thought. He decided not to do the planned esophageal resection because removing the primary tumor would not have resulted in a cure and would have had serious consequences for the quality of my life.
The chemotherapy and radiation had been symptomatically effective. I am able to eat normally, regained some of the weight I had lost and have resumed work, swimming and, most importantly, have gotten back in my boat to row.
Things have, however, changed. I was, would be, and am living with an active cancer of unknown prognosis. Life is day-to-day.
We found a new medical oncologist whom we trust. After leaving my original oncologist, who casually told me that I might have 2-3 years to live, we are taking this one day at a time, making treatment decisions based on the activity level of the cancer.
Most important for me is how all of this is affecting my emotional life. The change has been completely unexpected. Most simply put, I pay much more attention. Life will be what it will be, but I find myself much more aware of what I have and of what is around me.
One early morning- rowing around the island that I always row around, I found myself stopping and being taken by the beauty of a curve of beach I had seen hundreds of times before and never appreciated.
I became mildly ecstatic when I discovered a way to use my hands on the oars that allowed me to correct a flaw in my stroke that I had been struggling with for years. The change led to a smooth glide of the boat that was deeply moving.
Meeting with clients, I find myself listening and concentrating intensely on who they are, their strengths and the challenges they are struggling with. I love the connections; engaging with them to find the paths they need to travel.
I have coffee on the deck of our house on Fire Island and am taken by the complex beauty of willow leaves moving in the morning breeze.
I sit amidst the noise and exuberance of our grandchildren and experience the wonder of the people they are becoming.
I value to the point of tears, all that Wendy has brought to my life and the idiosyncratic mutual love that we share.
When day or night approach, do we know what is going to happen to us on either occasion?
Or, as in our tradition:
I call as witnesses concerning you
Both heaven and earth, both life and death
That I have placed in front of you
a blessing and a curse.
Choose life that you may live.