CREDOS : Gift in guise — I

I stood by the hospital bed of a friend who was dying of cancer. He wanted to know why he was sick, why he must die, why he must leave his children and grandchildren. As his rabbi, I was armed with few

answers. I could tell him that it was part of God’s

plan or I could confess to him that I did not know. Neither seemed like the right response.

So, instead, we exchanged stories about chemotherapy. My hair was just beginning to grow back after a bout with lymphoma; his, wispy to start, was gone from the drugs that had targeted all the fast-growing cells in his body. They had done a thorough job on his hair but not on his cancer. We talked about the strange gratitude we felt for the medicinal poison as it coursed through our veins.

“But at least you understand,” he said. It reminded me anew that my cancer was a gift; as a rabbi, it validated my compassion. People knew that I really did understand, that my family and I were not unscathed. Needles seemed forever to be dangling from my arm and I was always being shoved into metal tubes for scans and pictures and tests. Enduring the technology of survival creates a kind of tribal solidarity.

“So,” he asked, “why did it happen to you?” Did I get cancer for a reason? Four years before my lymphoma I had a surgery for a brain tumour, thankfully benign. Five years before that, after the birth of our daughter, my wife had cancer and surgery that left her unable to bear children. —