Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Resolution, 5777

Tonight begins the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The more common knowledge about this holiday is that it's the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and that people fast, refraining from food or drink, if they are physically able to do so.

What people may not know is that in addition to taking stock of one's own personal inventory of blessing and curse, good deed and sin, is that the day is ultimately about rehearsal for one's death.

It's a shocking and startling concept, one which I never thought about too deeply. My religious observance was mostly out of obligation when I was younger. When I had children it became a matter of education. And over the past few years I have had the privilege to serve a congregation as a cantorial soloist--a musical worship leader. The complexity of my role--not just my job description but my public persona--is that I'm not of the clergy. Not ordained. On paper, this isn't my vocation. The music comes first.

My spiritual connection to the observances which I demonstrate for others is less important than how I serve them...it's my job to create an experience for them.

And yet, in following the example of my clergy, I feel compelled to examine this more deeply.

I'm examining the impact of my life as it stands right now. I'm not in danger. I'm a bit frightened of death as is typical of any person, but it's not something that weighs heavily on my mind as I walk out the door in the morning.

What are we? What is our life? These words are found in the text of the Yom Kippur services. Simple questions.

I'm a wife. I married young. I married a man six years my senior, to whom I was initially attracted partially because he already had his life together. We weren't good friends first; there was no long awkward period of regular interaction where I secretly pined for him and then finally one or both of us had the courage to make a move. My previous relationships were like that, and while I still enjoy watching that type of interaction on TV, I was just as happy to meet a person, talk a bit, and then go out on a few dates while not seeing him regularly over the course of the rest of my day. It felt as though his becoming a part of my regular routine was more special. Perhaps there was less risk that way--if it had never worked out with us, I wouldn't have had to see him.

He's a great person. He's a great partner. We take care of each other, and it's always been because we wanted to. As adults, we "could" take care of ourselves with no issue. As parents, we have assumed responsibility for three smaller incarnations of ourselves. His personal growth, and mine, has stemmed at least partially from our being parents. Despite our individual confidence in our own abilities as adults and as educators, we've become people whom we may not have recognized if our past-selves met them ten years ago.

So, I'm a mother. Sometimes as the parent of school-aged kids, that job description feels more like that of chauffeur. Or secretary. I wonder if I'm pushing my kids to do too much. Would they be just fine if they weren't playing instruments seriously and devoting energy to various sports? I guess the question is, what would they do? What would we talk about? How would they meet other kids, as other kids seem to keep the same schedules as ours do. They love us. They love each other.

Cancer. It's impossible to talk about my experience as a person, as a parent, without talking about the most ridiculous part of my history, in which my baby had kidney cancer. My first child. This gorgeous little person with light sparkling eyes and perfectly smooth skin. I thought I knew everything about being a parent. I breastfed. I pumped diligently at work. I practiced baby-led weaning for introduction to solid food and he ate healthy food. I carried him in slings and carriers a lot. I secretly thought that my kid was the most adorable. Because everyone thinks that of their kids. I remember taking him to for photographs after his first chemo treatment, before he started to look sickly or lose his hair, thinking, I need to capture the perfection of this child before the unknown. I remember a few of the early post-surgery photos, after he was out of the hospital. His beautiful midsection marred by a 4-inch scar where they removed 2 pounds of kidney-tumor amalgamation. Crawling around in a little froggy cloth diaper cover. Still smiling. I didn't know at that point that his treatment wasn't going to work and we'd need to change our lifestyles to accommodate more frequent scheduled and unscheduled hospitalizations. I didn't know anything about what would come next...just this constant feeling of dread and uncertainty.

Fast-forward through his journey and mine, through radiation which was really something of a break when his hair temporarily grew back like velvet and he finally started walking all the time at 19 months old. Through my pregnancy with my second child which happened before the treatment plan switched and we thought we'd be all clear by the time he, or she, arrived. Where we just gave up and left and moved in with my parents, which we should have done at least a year earlier.

Therapy. Arguments. Misery. Lack of purpose.

The day our pediatric oncologist "broke up" with us and said, we're stopping treatment because his body isn't recovering fast enough, but it's pretty likely that he'll be cured because he's already had a lot of it. And we wondered...and waited...and his hair grew back and his brother got bigger. And they kept getting smarter.

Then, surprise, another chance. Another child. A little person who looked just like our oldest...but without the cancer. An opportunity to see what he might have been like...except he is the way that he is.

Three young men. Three different personalities. One with scars dividing his midsection so that it resembles a diagram. Another with scars in his soul, probably from us dividing our attention in those early years and him coming out with very little. When he was born I felt like he was my little mistake and no one else really wanted him. This golden child, who excels at everything and is loved by everyone, feels something big that he can't explain, and it manifests in his still sucking his fingers, in public, for comfort. A third child, who never witnessed any of this and was born into a world where he had four adults at his beck and call, and the Pirates were in first place in the NL Central.

I was a teacher. I taught music, probably to 1,000 children all told, if I had to run the numbers. I wasn't great at being socially involved with my colleagues, because I was different. But I was ultimately respected for my talent and intellect and well-liked for my diplomacy and work ethic.

Now I have a different role as a music educator--in Jewish music. Maybe the music comes first. But really, it's the people, because without the people, there is no music. My musical partners inspire me, lift me up, make me better, make me believe. Make me feel like less of an imposter, that I belong. My husband, my partner in life, believes in me and supports me with his time and his actions. I direct two dramatically different ensembles, and I care deeply for all of my singers.

If, heaven forbid, some force of nature or tragedy were to take me out this year, there would be several varieties of job postings, because I'm very busy.

We have no control. That's essential to understand. We can do our best. Eat better. Exercise more. Try to reduce our stress. Or try to give ourselves more direction. But we never know, who lives and who dies. The thing about stressful lives is, they can often lead to increased eloquence. Small sample size, really more anecdotal...but comedians and songwriters don't often write material about how awesome their lives are. It's an oddly gratifying experience to be asked, "How are you?" and be able to sigh lightly and say "I'm doing well" and mean it. The light sigh is a quick half-second reflection about all the elements that have been malfunctioning and now they're okay. Or at least somewhat. "You know, I'm doing just fine." And a closer friend would be able to fill in the blanks. "Thank G-d I'm not spending most of my time in the hospital with a cancer-stricken toddler." "Thank G-d I have fulfilling work to do." And we're thankful when things are going well. Even if it means we have fewer stories to tell.

I'm prepared to take this emotional journey on Yom Kippur. I'm not an emotional person. I'm not a crier. I didn't cry at my own wedding. I don't get upset easily. I'm more of a person with an occasional temper--if I'm losing it, it's serious business. At Kol Nidrei, we renounce our vows. We take ourselves through the fast of Yom Kippur and at the end, we mostly pick ourselves up and go on with our lives. But that's our choice. Whether it is this rehearsed experience of Yom Kippur, or a real-life trauma, we take ourselves through it somehow and we choose to keep going. And we rehearse for the time when, whenever it happens, we actually don't come out the other side. Or someone we love doesn't come out the other side. I'm remembering all the people who were here before and are not here now.

The world continues to turn.

When you see me tonight, on the pulpit or on video, I'll be in white, and I'll be wearing little to no makeup. I'm not getting dolled up this year. No fancy hairstyle. I'm taking it seriously...because...what if?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Not in MY house of worship

Had a weird experience today. 

There's this guy who has been attending services for the past few weeks, as a guest, who seems to be trying to drum up support for a presidential campaign. Yes, of the USA.

At the kiddush, I heard his voice, with a bit more country in it than that to which I am accustomed, say something about "Not Adam and Steve."

Hackles up.

After several others including the rabbi let him know that we don't hold by anti-gay rhetoric here, I stepped in and rearticulated, since he wasn't taking the hint. "But I'm in favor of marriage! Man and woman!" he said.

"Most people are born liking the opposite sex. Most people are born right-handed," I said. "But some people are born liking the same sex. And some are born left-handed. We are a progressive congregation, and you won't find support here."

I don't think he spoke with anyone else there but he sat there for awhile. I looked at him a few times.

I hope he takes the hint. Families come in many forms and the way some people build their families...does not affect what others do. The Gay is not contagious.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Facing demons

Today I attended a funeral. This was the second Friday afternoon I had spent at the Jewish funeral parlor. Last week, it was a great-uncle, aged 91, who had a long and healthy life. He will be mourned and missed, but it was very expected.

This week it was my second-grade teacher whose daughter was in my class.

Without going into excessive detail--although I'm sure it has been mentioned before--elementary school was a traumatic experience for me. I was bullied and rejected by students and teachers alike for being too much this and not enough that. Who even knows or cares anymore? All that matters is, my children will never attend that school.

My second grade year was my first year attending the school where I would go through the end of sixth grade, and it was the only year in my recollection where I did NOT want to throw myself out the window of that school. Which had two stories and a basement, so what would be the point?

Anyhow, my mom was very impressed with my second grade teacher. Everything was done in such a way as to make me feel as though she knew me and cared about me. I still remember my very first spelling pretest. I correctly spelled all the regular words, all the bonus words, and the elephant word, "constitution." And I felt really special.

I knew it would be hard to go to this funeral. I have been dealing with the reality of having more and more of my peers lose their parents. This teacher was four years younger than my mom. She was the same age as my mother-in-law, who died after a lengthy illness.

I'm not sure which is worse.

The other difficulty in attending this funeral was seeing people who reminded me of my miserable school experience from whence this teacher came even though her class was a decent place. It reminded me that the things that stick with us from our childhood are likely forgotten by those adults who were there. Not that I don't remember anything that happened during interactions with my students or my own children, but I would imagine that I've glossed over my fair share. And if I hurt any feelings of students, or my own little ones, by not validating their experiences, I am sorry.

We talked this evening about some of these eventualities. It's not pleasant, but it is a part of being a grownup.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Years 2015

It's 2015. Where's my hoverboard?

This has been a year full of ups and downs. So should most be, because that's what keeps life interesting.

Positives for this past year included a fantastic trip to France, a new career direction for me, continued advancement for Musical Daddy in his new career path, excellent barbershopping experiences for him and me, new musical opportunities for the two older children, recreational baseball, and the cultivation and enrichment of several amazing friendships and working relationships.

Negatives for this year included a hospitalization for Musical Daddy, more money spent on car repairs than we would have preferred which resulted in us purchasing a new kidmobile (ultimately exciting but not financially ideal at all), broken leg for The Baby (who is 3.5 now...), and a third visit to the ER for chin stitches for Little Bear.

I'm certain that if I were to sit down and categorize everything, I'd be WAY ahead in the positives column. Overall I feel pretty darned good about this year, as evidenced by my very few but very powerful (commence horn-tooting...) posts. Powerful to me, anyway.

Last night we had a party at our house for New Years Eve. We had a few families come by, one of which stayed until midnight, and my parents and another friend also stayed until midnight. Good times. Great kids, all of them. And it's a game-changer when all children who stay up until midnight are toilet-trained and are independent enough to either play together or contribute meaningfully to games with adults. The two hits of the evening were Phase 10 and Spot It!  as well as some Wii Sports. The TV was playing some quality movies.

One of my resolutions that I made with The Boy, my oldest and most challenging child, was that we were going to treat each other better. I started this by honoring his unusual request to have a backwards meal day. So it was sandwiches for breakfast, leftover hors d'oeuvres for lunch, and french toast and eggs for dinner. And ice cream cones for dessert. 

The Boy is strong-willed and obsessive. Persistent and a lover of scripts, he often enjoys following the rules but will frequently eschew his responsibilities around the house in favor of electronic games, unless he is sufficiently motivated. We clash because he will make up a rule or a script to something faster than I can anticipate where it comes from, and he sometimes just wants to be contrary because that's how he rolls. I need to pay better attention to his currency and his desired modes of communication, because he ultimately doesn't want to hurt me any more than I'd ever want to hurt him. 

The other aspect of my relationship with The Boy is that I'm clearly his third favorite adult, if I'm lucky. Fortunately, his number one and number two grownups (Daddy and Grandma, respectively), are not so in need of the ego stroking that they would ever fan the flames of favoritism. They cherish their relationships with The Boy and also nurture mine. 

As such, I really want to improve my connection with The Boy. There may still be remnants of the hard times from five years ago, where I was only the bad guy in charge of medicine and shots. 

Despite a mostly awesome day, the kids have been a bit twitchy and antsy. Bath time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A long night, long ago

It was six years ago, right about now, when we took turns sleeping and trying, and failing, to soothe our sweet Boy, as we smelled him, smelling not right to us anymore.

He was 22 pounds at nearly 10 months old, and 2 pounds of that was tumor.

To be removed the next morning, as we waited. And waited. Me diligently hooked up to my Medela Pump-In-Style every few hours.

Our wedding anniversary is in 2 days. It will be ten years for that, but one countdown forever intertwines with the other.

We are forever changed. We are lucky. We are scarred, and scared, relieved and yet still on our guard.

I remember looking at his abdomen after the surgery and thinking, he'll never be the same. And that was only one scar.

More scars have faded, except for one of his port scars did the keloid thing and is still puffy. From far away you can't tell, and from close up nobody else cares.

Ten years ago on Friday, we thought we had everything all figured out.

Six years ago today was when we were first told that our baby had cancer.

Today our lives are delightfully simple, but nowhere near what we thought they'd be.

Most importantly, we are together, all five of us now, and we are stronger.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review of Procedure for the ridiculous

Mom and I are in the process of helping a family whose infant son is undergoing treatment for neuroblastoma. It's a different course of treatment but still calls to mind our experiences. It puts us back in that mode, but by the same token it doesn't, because we are (B"H) viewing his situation through hindsight.

Today we gave his grandmother a foam floor mat. This is the reason why:


Toddlers like to play on the floor. Toddlers with cancer (I cringe to even have to say it) are susceptible to germs but have little understanding or respect for the concept, but a set of floor mats are perfect. Also, it creates a sort of "clean zone" for the little one. Not to mention, this mat has numbers and our friend has letters, so there's the education value. And don't knock it--without ever having to use a single flash card (except when he decided he wanted to play 52 flashcard pickup), The Boy took to letters and numbers at a very young age. He spent so much time in the hospital with not much else to do. 

We are so blessed and so thankful for the good health of our children, and we pray for this other little boy every day and every week. I don't want to give out any identifying information about him without the consent of his family but you need to know that there are still children, every day and every week, being diagnosed with cancer. Some, like this boy and like my Boy, were 10 months old at diagnosis.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Thank you for being a friend...

What happens when a person has many friends, so many people who speak kindly of her, so much positive recognition within her community...and it is insufficient?

What happens when the treatment becomes worse than the disease and instead of being a balancing force, it pushes her over the edge?

I know the answer. You know the answer. It isn't pretty.

Accompany the dead for burial. Comfort the mourners. Those aren't just nice things to do; they are commandments. So I do those acts. I sing for them. I hear their names. But the whole situation is awkward because no one wants to talk about the real problem.

The following remedies are socially acceptable: medication. Therapy sessions, but only if you can afford them.

The following remedies are not socially acceptable, and requests for such remedies are frequently followed by some form of "pull yourself together" "cheer up!" or "back in my day there was no such thing as 'mental health days.'": Taking time for oneself. Reaching out to people, in person, even at odd hours, if you're not on their list of acceptable companions. Taking days off from work for emotional and mental recovery, if you cannot afford to do so.

I'm guilty of this: I talk about my friend and how great she was and I find myself thinking, if I had reached out to her, she'd have thought it strange, because we weren't that close. If I'd had any clue that she was struggling like this, even as I saw her successful personal endeavors through social media, I don't know what I could have done. I maintained a positive image of this superstar woman who deserved nothing but happiness, this wonderful and talented woman whom I had known since we were children. But I'm guilty of dismissing my own power as a friend and source of comfort.

Emotional displays never came easily to me. That's my husband's job--he can feel all the feelings and I can be stoic and insensitive. Logical, rational. Helpful skill to have in order to keep the ship running, but probably what stunted my abilities as a singer and made me uninteresting to watch as a performer. No one cared what I sounded like because, when I was younger, I had nothing to say. I am rediscovering myself through surprising new idioms and embracing the emotional aspects of singing, for work and for fun, and even the ability to evoke emotion in other people.

I don't know where to go from here. I don't know that I've sufficiently learned the lesson of how to be a good friend because I stay stuck in my world with my own family--my husband and children, as well as my parents who still care for me unconditionally. And I try to return the favor. It's hard because I do call people, and they don't call me back. Or they do call but they're too busy.

I don't miss the companionship of one person or another until it's too late.

I wish it were never too late.