December 15, 2016
This year, when Hanukkah arrives on Christmas Eve, I will remember the holidays back in 2011. At that time, my doctors believed I had only a year or so to live.
Very sick from cancer and chemo, I wanted to survive long enough to see my younger daughter settled. At the hospital for yet another blood test to see if the white cells had regenerated sufficiently to be zapped again, I received an email from her: The apartment her fiancé had found would be large enough “for a you-know-whatee.”
“What do you think ‘a you-know-whatee’ is?” I asked my husband, Don.
“A piano?” he guessed.
There and then, in the hospital waiting room, I decided it was time to buy a Christmas tree.
This rite had always sounded like a grand adventure, for I envied friends with a living tree in the house. None had ever been in my home, where my girls had prayed that Hanukkah would fall around the same time as Christmas so we would not feel cut off from the cheer of carols and twinkling lights. Menorah candles, chocolate gelt and dreidels were not to be found in our small town in Indiana. That they had to be mailed to us by relatives on the East Coast plunged me into an annual funk.
Later in life when I married Don, who has had a tree of his own for decades, I had to honor his traditions as well as my own, so I adopted the neologism Chrisnukkah.
It was cold that year when we schlepped to a neighborhood Christmas tree stand — was this one bent, that one misshapen — and then dealt with the hassle of getting the tree into the car, out of the car into a bucket in the garage, then out of the garage into the house. In his 80s, Don — lying on the floor (which could not have been easy) — used pliers to tighten the prongs that held the tree upright inside its stand. Weakened by too many operations and drugs, I failed to prop it straight.
I nudged away thoughts that my prognosis — standard care could keep me alive until 2012 or 2013 — predicted I might not experience another Chrisnukkah. It helped to take out the menorah and pop one candle at the center and one on the far left side. Latke Larry, a battery-operated toy that sings a doleful tune (in the voice of Jerry Stiller), sat next to it. On the mantel, I plunked a miniature teddy bear wearing a sweater with a Jewish star. The Hanukkah decorating was done in the twinkling of an eye.
But the tree had to be trimmed! From the basement, Don hauled up boxes full of ornaments: the usual luminous balls and also birds of every conceivable hue. Of course the lights had to go on first.
The lights were a tribulation, a gantse megillah, gebrotene tsoris, a kapore, a brokh. Don untangled, plugged, tested, cursed, connected and started stringing, while I pondered what it meant to have a plump past to look back on, but hardly a sliver of future to look forward to.
Finally it was time to hang the globes, birds and some wooden stars painted blue and silver. Visiting friends sipped their wine. We turned off the lamps and plugged in the tree.
“For Unto Us a Child Is Born” resounded through the house, as I reflected on not being a “Jew for Jesus” (except that I love Jesus’ parables). And on not being a convert (look, the menorah and Latke Larry are here!). Neither am I a Christian wannabe: Yiddish, after all, probably has more words for catastrophe than any other language.
But I will always cherish the beauty of Isaiah’s words and Handel’s music, the conviction that the sick and the well will be transformed by lifting our heads to hear glad tidings of a baby born to receive wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessings. How wonderful: Unto us a son is given. Let him be a prince of peace!
Back in 2011, Don’s erroneous guess that my daughter was talking about a piano cracked me up — she really meant that the apartment would have room for a baby. I still laugh about it today as I go online to find presents for that child and for his precious little brother, and for my beloved other grandchildren who have never once commented on my baldness or my wig or my lethargy or forgetfulness, but just hang in there with me.
This year the conjunction of the two holidays gives me an occasion to marvel at the miracles of medical science that have made it possible for me to witness events neither I nor anyone in my family believed I would live to see. Through a clinical trial, I have received an unanticipated gift from many people I know and many I do not.
Like others acquainted with the grief of cancer, I kvetch mightily about the need for better prevention, detection and treatment tools. But lots of us realize that we would not exist without the dedication and determination of the researchers, physicians, nurses, and aides who get us to our various goals — for some, a confirmation or a wedding; for others, a graduation, a trip to a foreign place, a quarrel resolved or a project completed.
Behold and see, Isaiah and Handel tell us: These landmarks deliver us. We have been, we will be, we are changed.