September 19, 2019

Make Each Day Count

Recently I have been doing a fair amount of funerals. It is work I love doing. Having grown up in a household reverberating from the impact of the Holocaust and a mother who was the only survivor in her family, there were a great deal of tears shed and grief wafted throughout the rooms of our home. As a young child I didn’t always grasp its meaning nor did I know how it would impact me as a second generation and an adult later in life. It seemed to attune me to a great deal of empathy, which I now have in abundance for those I serve. 

Having become and a cantor and then a rabbi as a late bloomer, something I wrote about a number of weeks ago, from a school that serves many second or even third career people (AJRCA), our graduates have been known to be in their 60s and 70s so confronting illness and death amongst our alumna is not necessarily shocking but still very disturbing.

Amongst the many causes of death is of course cancer. Not a surprise. However, what is a surprise to me is the one cancer I have seen too often causing the death of many of the people whose funerals I have officiated at is pancreatic. Like ovarian, which caused my mother’s death, it is a silent enemy that is most frequently discovered too late. The symptoms are few and often never felt until the prognosis has reached its last stage. There have been very few miraculous recoveries though they are not unknown. I have had people say to me, “Rabbi, s/he was so healthy and then suddenly s/he’s sick and gone so quickly.” Shocked and full of grief, I can only hold their sadness and walk them to some kind of satisfying closure, which of course is challenging and discomforting for months to come.

I write about this because I recently discovered it is the fourth leading cause of death. I highly recommend an episode of Dr. Oz, featuring information about possible cause and prevention for this terrifying killer of so many. The more information we attempt to shield ourselves and guide preventative action, the more we at least feel we are participating in creating a longer and healthier life. Of course, even the healthiest among us have surprising diagnoses that come our way. So far I feel fortunate but as I teach and preach we all have an expiration date, we just don’t know when it is. We need to live as if each day could be our last – fully present, creating meaning and purpose for our souls and in our relationships. Psalm 90 reminds us to “count our days,” which really means ‘make each day count.’ The unexpected and sometimes dark realities we must confront often open possibilities. We don’t always have the ability to choose what comes next but we do have the ability to choose how we embrace and face it. 

I feel very blessed to have come to my work, to have met and served so many in need of comfort and shepherding. I am also distressed that so many will succumb to this dreadful disease and pray for a cure that we can all see in our lifetime. Until then, as Judaism reminds us, choose life and have hope.