Blossoms (Hadeish Yameinu)

The blossoms are here, and they are fleeting.

As a stage IV colon cancer survivor and a liberal Jew, I am finding that my spring is haunted by echoes and anniversaries from this time last year, but that they don’t always sync up to the Roman calendar dates. My “cancerversary” was April 26, but my memories of that day were triggered weeks earlier, because what I recall most vividly, from Diagnosis Day into the weeks that followed, is: blossoms. This year, everything bloomed a few weeks earlier than it did last year. The brilliant magnolia trees I stared at while frantically calling friends for advice and processing the news are already losing their flowers. The tree in Cedar Creek park that my daughter climbed the day before we told her about the cancer is already a flurry of white.

Passover, which came much later this year than last year, was a challenging anniversary, too. It has long been my favorite Jewish holiday, but I was powerfully relieved not to host the seders this year. Last year, I was frightfully fatigued while I was cooking, and started to notice a pain in my lower right side that would not go away. I pushed through it to get past the seders, assuming it was just stress, or too much matzah. Then I spent the middle days of Passover in the ER and the hospital. I had an emergency surgery to remove a 20 cm ovarian cyst, a surgery in which we didn’t yet know it was cancer, or the cancer’s origins: but I had experienced those frightening words —”there is a mass in your abdomen”—and got a Very Bad Feeling. I did not worry about whether the food in the hospital was bread or not. I was too shocked and ill for it to matter. In terms of Jewish law, at that point it didn’t really matter, either.

It was hard to experience Passover this year, try as I did to engage in its joys. How do I reclaim a holiday of liberation when I feel like I’ve spent the last year entrapped by a frightening cloud of uncertainty?

I know that is a melodramatic statement. Remarkably, I currently have no evidence of disease. The chance of recurrence remains high, but 50/50 odds are perfectly good ones. Treatments are available if there is a recurrence. My next scan is still over 2 months away. But the fear lingers, and is amplified by the sensory memories of last spring.

I am deeply aware of the fact that my writing about cancer is an attempt to impose order and a narrative onto something I cannot actually control. I’m also starting to realize that there will never be closure on this experience. We try to write ourselves into happy endings and then to act accordingly. But that, too, is a kind of narrow strait. My push to run a half marathon this spring—to make up for missing the same race last year and to celebrate a (ptuey! ptuey!) year of survival—is an attempt to give this year’s narrative a “happy ending,” to impose a through line on lived experience. It’s hard. The training is so hard. My body is simply not what it was before surgeries and chemo. I still want to run a marathon, too. I want to persevere in spite of everything. And yet, I am so tired of projecting strength, after almost a year. 

The blossoms this year are shot through with fragility. Of course they are. They always have been. That’s why there is always something so wistful about the turning seasons, spring and fall. The new colors and smells are marked men. Blink and you miss them. I need to walk over to my favorite lilac tree on campus because I saw on a social media post that it, too, has already bloomed. Blossoms herald the rebirth of the tree but they are gone in an instant, especially on a windy day. Even in the return of life there is loss.

Hadeish yameinu k’kedem, I thought to myself, walking to my office a day before Passover, pondering prayer and bottles of kosher wine. This line from the Torah service liturgy can be translated as “renew our days as in the past.” I sang this prayer by rote for many years as a child before I learned more Hebrew in college. When I learned Hebrew, this prayer literally came to life (chai) for me. Yameinu—”our days.” Hadeish—”to make new.” Although I usually think of this liturgy more in connection with the fall High Holy Days, right now it seems fitting to spring. It is sung to a plaintive, almost pleading melody.  The world is being made new and I want to be made new with it—but I cannot pretend that the last year did not happen. The cancer has been removed from my body like chametz, the leavened items Jews remove from their houses in the days before Pesach, but the physical and mental scars still pulse.

Yameinu, a first person plural possessive. Again, I return to community. Those renewed days do not happen alone, and we do not experience the blossoms alone either. In early April, I was walking guests across campus and found myself getting emotional as we passed the biggest magnolia tree and saw its blooms. It’s the one I saw while I cried on the phone with a friend who is a cancer survivor, the lifeline friend who knew all the places to call and that they were indeed on our health care plan. I apologized for my lapse in conversation, but didn’t explain why that tree meant so much to me. Perhaps there is no need to apologize for emotions, if they do not cause harm to others. “Hadeish yameinu,” renew our days, is the wish of a lot of people, but it resonates differently after cancer. I have so many friends struggling with so many kinds of pain right now—and I hope for a renewal, however fleeting, for all. We can never fully rid ourselves of the chametz in our lives, literally or metaphorically. The best we can do is to try.

Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religion Studies and Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University. She teaches and writes at the intersection of Jewish Studies, religion in North America, and gender studies. Her next book, Paper Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community, will published by UNC Press in October 2020.