Passover, Pancreatic Cancer and Finding Miracles
I wrote in my journal on December 31st with a grand flourish: “Good-bye 2018. Hello 2019.” For good measure, I added, “And good riddance to 2018!” Before I put the journal away, on a sudden impulse, I flipped back to the first entry, March 19, 2018. I had just returned from a three-month sabbatical and wrote with excitement about plans to bring all I had just learned to my work as a synagogue rabbi. And I was already complaining in a good-natured way about preparations for Passover. I had absolutely no idea that eleven days later, my life would come to a screeching halt.
On Friday night, March 30th, I made a seder for 35. The food was delicious, my eight-year-old nephew played God in the annual play, and I rejoiced in the gathering of family and friends. I felt open-hearted and grateful for my countless blessings. I went to sleep that night expecting to be tired the next morning, to find more matzah crumbs to be swept, and to get ready to do it all again. But rather than celebrating at a second night seder, I was prone on an emergency room bed, felled by an intense case of what turned out to be pancreatitis.
Ever the optimist, I expected the nurse to tell me I was being discharged. Instead, she told me that a lesion had been detected on my pancreas and I was being admitted into the hospital. A new reality began.
Over the next nine months, I experienced unexpected illness, a shocking diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, major surgery, the unexpected death of my brother, a limited ability to fulfill the mitzvah of shiva, the difficult effects of chemotherapy, and radiation. Suddenly, I was a person with a life-threatening illness who often felt weak, nauseous and sad.
I know that life is not easy. Faith is a challenging, ephemeral thing to hold. I have never accepted that life is about suffering. Despite the many sorrowful experiences I have shared with cherished congregants, I believe that life is in the joy despite the sadness. And though we struggle with faith, God is always right there for us, just one request for help away.
Throughout the months of illness and treatment, God felt entirely present to me. My son-in-law, Sagi, asked me a profound question. He wanted to know if I was acting strong and optimistic or if I was feeling strong and optimistic. I explained that the way I was behaving was because of how I felt – held by family, friends and community, and most of all, held by God. Despite how tired, ill and sad I often felt, I always felt strong and whole.
As it turned out, the pancreatitis that was so painful (and inconvenient, happening on the first day of Pesach) was also my personal miracle. If I had not had such an acute case of the inflammation that sent “stubborn me” to the emergency room after a day of “waiting for it to pass,” the small, encapsulated tumor at the head of my pancreas would not have been found.
I will stand by my certainty that I was blessed by God with a miracle. I will not try to defend this belief theologically because – I know – it is indefensible. Why should I receive a miracle and not the patient in the next hospital bed? God is neither cancer nor oncology. It is indefensible. Yet it is true for me. God granted me a miracle for which I am grateful.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned came from getting very quiet. Only by turning off the noise of the world could I go below the surface. Only by shutting out social media, phone calls and emails, could I vanquish the worry and anxiety. I listened in the quiet I created and heard the promise in my soul. It is amazing what our souls have to say when we stop and listen. I was going to get through. I was strong enough to handle whatever came. I have a lot of work yet to do.
Today, I am more capable of focusing on what is important. I am kinder to myself, recognizing moments where I push myself beyond reasonable effort and calling a halt to such perfectionism.
I will not take gifts and blessings for granted. I am grateful every day. On the last Shabbat of December, I walked with the Torah procession, shaking hands and embracing my congregants for the first time since last March. I had tears in my eyes and an enormous smile on my lips. I felt that I had completely and truly returned to myself.
Upon consideration, the days and hours from March until the middle of December feel like the longest, slowest period of time in my life. It also feels like the time went speeding by.
I had so many blessings along the way: doctors who are healers, compassionate nurses, the newest chemotherapy and technology protocols, health insurance and a loving, understanding workplace. (I think often of ill people without any of these essential pieces in place.)
My husband and family, friends and Orangetown Jewish Center community provided unstinting support.
My self-care practices of healthy eating, yoga, walking, journaling and meditation supported and eased the regimen of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
But nothing was as powerful in my healing process as my faith in God.
Make no mistake: I am not saying that the seeming success of my course of treatment and potentially complete healing are the result of my faith. God did not make me sick and God is not healing me.
I am saying that my optimism, positive energy, gratitude and sense of blessing are all a result of my belief in God Who cares about me. My spiritual life does not remove moments of fear and despair, but does give me the ability to cope. It buoys me in optimism.
Spirituality allows me to experience transcendent meaning in this precious life. For me, it is expressed through my relationship with God. For you, it might be about nature, family or community – whatever beliefs and values give you a sense of meaning and purpose in life. When we attend to these beliefs, we feel a deep sense of belonging to something greater than we are.
For me, my spirituality translates into an unshakable trust that God has plans for me. This idea has carried me through my treatment for cancer. And it will carry me through the months and years ahead from scan to scan.
Praised are you, Adonai my God, Who has helped me feel safe and free from undue suffering. Thank you, God for helping me find moments of joy in the midst of this time of challenge. Amen.
Wexner Graduate Alum Rabbi Paula Mack Drill (Class 11) has served as one of three rabbis of the Orangetown Jewish Center, Orangeburg, New York, since 2004. Prior to Rabbinical School at JTS, Paula worked for eleven years as a social worker, serving in various positions at the Daughters of Israel Geriatric Center and at the Golda Och Academy in New Jersey. Paula and her husband Jonathan are the proud parents of four children. Paula can be reached here.