Good-bye Forever Denial
It cannot possibly be okay or right or acceptable to have to say good-bye forever.
Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur thrust me into thinking about morbidity and of course reflect on the unknowns of the future and my life. I’m miraculously in remission for the second time. MIRACLES. So why do I think about death? Why would I need to worry about that right now? Today, everything is fine, praise G-d. Yet, the decorations I never got around to taking down from the Sukkah are fading and winter is nearing and I’m wary of jumping too far forward and pushing the hope out of balance with a bit of unexpected bad news.
As Humans, we are born with the ability to deny. Our denial allows us to live and breathe and function as forever-creatures in a very temporary world. My first brush with mortality was at age three. My parents instilled a great love and respect of animal life in me from birth. We always had pets; cats, dogs, hamsters, gerbils, and even goats, sheep and other farm animals. I was entrusted with their care. I was reliable. At age three, I was gentle and took painstaking care of my pet gerbil until one fateful day. I was playing “house” and I was the mommy. It was bedtime for my baby (the gerbil). As a doting mother, I read my “baby” a bedtime story, Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now, to be exact, and tucked baby gerbil into bed. Unfortunately for the gerbil, bed was between the pages of the Dr. Seuss classic; a bunk bed. I took the top bunk, which obviously didn’t provide a happy ending for “baby”. When nap time was over, I experienced death for the first time as I peeled my poor (flattened) pet gerbil from the pages of, Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now. “It’s NOT moving! My baby won’t wake up!” I wailed and wailed. I’ve heard this story repeated so many times. It’s a favorite in my family, a legend. That was the day I learned about death and saying goodbye forever. When I was 8, we left our Golden Retriever, Ruby, overnight in the care of our eccentric next-door-neighbors who buried her less than 12 hours before we returned, when she died suddenly while in their care. I’ve since had to say goodbye to countless pets because, for some reason, cats and dogs were given a fraction of the lifespan we, humans, were blessed with.
From birth, we know that the worst thing that could happen, in the whole wide world, is death. If someone died, that was the very worst thing. When I lost my Grandma Frances, that was the first time I felt the true searing pain of losing a loved one. When Grandma Frances died, I met death. I was very fearful of it. After that, I started sneaking into my twin baby brothers’ room at night to place my hand lightly on their chests and make sure they were still breathing. If my dad was late coming home from work, I feared a car crash had taken him away forever. I didn’t want my parents to get older. I considered myself lucky to have young parents and I never wanted to think about the worst thing in the world. At some point, my nightly fears and insomnia were again replaced with the delicious denial that allowed me to forget that my parents and all the people that I love would not live forever. Instead, every night I said prayers. I had a ritual in which I would list each member of my family and ask G-d to bless and protect them from danger, sickness, or death and I begged for long lives for each and every loved one. We are born with the gift of denial because how is it possible to survive the pain and anxiety that would accompany the truth of human fragility?
I made it through my army service in the Givati Brigades of the IDF and experienced Human fragility again and again; over the Lebanese border and on the southern front too. After a bus bombing, in Kfar HaDarom, we lost 7 of our own on one day and it was impossible to attend all of the funerals because there were too many. I came in contact and more comfortable with impending death during my university studies. For two years, I dissected human cadavers in my Human Anatomy course. I cared for hospitalized patients and experienced losses. We talk about “getting that call in the middle of the night” and we fear that “knock at the door” and then one day I got a call. It was my mom calling and my dad was very sick. But… he had just run a marathon! But… he was barely 50! But… my dad “suddenly” had stage four colon cancer and was dying. That magical denial gets broken and you run out of tools pretty much on the spot when you get that call. That’s when faith is priceless. When doctors gave my dad little hope for survival, we had to cling to miracles and praise the L-rd we received them. My dad beat the odds and the statistics and is thankfully healthy and cancer free almost 10 years later.
Then it was my turn. Stage 3 ovarian cancer at age 36. Recurrence and stage 4 less than a year later.
There’s no more denial. I have looked death straight in the face and I’m no longer afraid. I fear not death. Not at all. The tears of my young children put a chill in my bones and curdles my blood. “Mommy, PLEASE, don’t ever leave us! Mommy, don’t ever die!”
My own daughter sobbed, just the other night. It was the first time that those words came out and it opened the flood gates. The magic denial, that lets children sleep at night, no longer dwells in the Lange house. My children have seen their mother go bald from chemotherapy and when the cancer went away, we celebrated and rejoiced. And the cancer came back. You can’t fix the denial magic once it’s broken into so many pieces, it’s gone forever. The only thing we can do is acknowledge it and make it okay.
I’ve said good-bye to many friends. Friends who are my age and younger. As my circle of grief grows wider, it also makes me wiser. I’m crying for my friend who was snatched away by the gnarled claws of ovarian cancer, leaving a bereaved husband and four young children. I’m celebrating that she’s no longer suffering and yet I want to put my fist through a wall and smash everything in sight. I want to scream… but what good will that do? She is gone forever. Good-bye forever. I will pray for her family. I hope her husband finds new love someday… when his heart heals, when he is ready.
What does a mother say to her crying frightened children?
I don’t know what mothers say but I can tell you what I always try to do: tell the truth and speak from my heart. When God chose to make me your mother, He knew exactly what He was doing. God chooses the best possible parents for every child that He creates. My job, as a mother, is to love, nurture, teach, protect and discipline my children from pregnancy and birth and as long as is appropriate. I will always work towards that goal of preparing each of my children to survive and thrive, happily and fully, in the world. I hope to impart love and kindness, strength and courage, morals and goodness, and faith and more faith. I tell my children that I’m doing the very best job that I can to prepare them so that when they’re ready to be grown-ups, they will have all the tools and all the skills to make their own decisions and build the lives that they desire. “But Mommy, if you’re not here…. how can we go on?” and I have a response to that as well. I tell them, I’m here now. I’m in no danger of leaving you today or anytime soon but when that time comes (May it be in 100 years!) you will go on and you will make your life as happy and rich as you can. God willing, I will do my job well, and you will be ready and prepared to build your life exactly how you decide and I will be so proud that you are able to make your own choices. I will be happy, wherever I am, to know that each of my children is happy in the lives that they choose. There’s a calm in our space when I say those words and I take the opportunity to insert an example. Some of the most accomplished and unique people had to go through terrible tests in their lives. A stark example, in our time, is the aftermath of the Holocaust. Thousands of survivors endured pain and suffering that is beyond the scope of imagination. Many of the survivors of the Shoa left Europe with little more than their skin and bones, yet they retained their dignity and most of all, their integrity and ability to not only survive but to thrive! They found love and meaning. They built families, homes, and communities. Not without pain and regret. They never forgot the loved souls that they lost. They glorified their memories by excelling and finding joy, love, and success.
I don’t want to die.
I don’t want to leave my babies behind.
I don’t want to make people sad.
People die and the world keeps on spinning. It’s the right thing to do. Bereaved spouses remarry. Children can and should feel free to connect with a new parent. I would want these things for my husband and my children. It’s not okay to have to say goodbye forever but I know that it will be okay. I can make it okay. It HAS to be okay! It’s not right or acceptable until it happens. If it happens, it needs to be okay.