At the end of 2014, ABC News printed what it considered the 10 most heartwarming stories of 2014. There was the story of the Boston Marathon victim who married a nurse. The defensive tackle of the Cincinnati Bengals who took off to take his daughter to the hospital for cancer treatment (she is now in remission). The aunt who stopped her car in Miami to perform CPR on her nephew, saving his life. These stories were all touching to me, but something was missing from them for me-the fact that I did not have a personal relationship with the people. Because of this I would like to share two anecdotes about people from my former congregation (with their permission) which illustrate to me the importance of life well-lived.
For a year and a half, I have been getting weekly e-mail updates from a former congregant, whose wife Irene and whose grandson Adi were both diagnosed with cancer last fall (breast cancer and leukemia, respectively). Both underwent chemotherapy at the same time. While the situation was dire, the e-mails indicated that life continued to be lived in a spirited way, while fighting the cancer. Irene went into remission in November and is at present cancer-free. This congregant wrote regarding his grandson Adi, “he’s had a million blood tests, many bone marrow biopsies, spinal taps and courses of chemotherapy. Yet he has a smile that lights up the room.” While undergoing procedures, Adi went on a trip to Holland with 50 other children who had cancer and went parasailing and jetskiing in Eliat. I received an update in January that Adi was cancer-free and living at home. While one who has had cancer never knows if it will return, it made me smile knowing that he had persevered.
One of my friends in Tucson was not so lucky. Anna was the first friend that I made at my congregation there and quickly became my running partner. She had lost 90 pounds between January and September 2011. We ran an 8 mile race on Labor Day Weekend 2011 and she ran a half marathon in October-a race I thought of running but decided not to because it was the day after Yom Kippur! On Yom Kippur, she noticed a lump in her leg, but she thought it was just swollen from all the running she had been doing. I spoke with my father, a doctor, who gave me a number of possibilities as to what it was, most of which were benign. I remember that she asked me about it being cancer, and I said “I don’t think so.” Unfortunately I was wrong. After the biopsy they diagnosed Anna with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that spreads through the bloodstream. Anna survived for a year and a half, even after the cancer metasticized in her lungs and in her brain. During that time she went to her brother’s wedding, hosted a New Year’s Party and went to Las Vegas to meet Bette Midler, who sang the song “Wind Beneath My Wings” as a tribute to her. A new word, “Annatude,” was coined in honor of her positive attitude. While inside I’m sure she was angry and upset, every time I saw Anna in public she was joyous and celebrating life. She called her hospital room the “party room” and always had visitors who she would cheer up and “treat” pastorally as much as they would to her. While she had great inner strength, motivation and fortitude, I saw Anna get weaker and weaker as the cancer took over. She passed away at age 28.
Why am I sharing these examples, two of recoveries from cancer and one of a death? When I’m having a rough time, or hitting a wall (as I was when I wrote this sermon), I think of these examples and they give me hope and inspiration. I realize that so much more is possible than we think-all it takes is fortitude, courage and a little faith in creating a better future. I can’t answer why God took Anna at such a young age, nor can I answer why God took any of the loved ones who we are here today to remember. The losses of parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, grandparents and children leave us bereft and in grief, with questions we cannot answer and at times feelings of sadness, anger and frustration. These are real feelings which we need to acknowledge-we all have them. At the same time, let us look towards those who give us the hope and the courage that enable us to continue on each and every day. The greatest danger is that we let our grief and our anger stop us from moving forward and continuing to try to make our world a better place. Yizkor enables us to remember our loved ones-the lives they lived, the values they taught us and the experiences we shared with them. Not every experience was rosy and many of them might have been difficult, yet I hope that each of us will look back to the moments of joy that we shared and that it will cause us to smile, laugh, shed a few tears, center us and give us hope for our future. As we remember those from our past, so too may we bring those memories, those experiences and those values into the present, as we join together as a community to pray on this final day of Passover.