Every year when I was growing up, my father’s first act as Yom Kippur ended surprised me. Before he took a sip of juice or a bite of babka to break the fast, he went down to the basement to get a long wooden board. Heading out to the dark backyard, he began the new year with a mitzvah, and ceremoniously started building our sukkah. Though young, I knew this to be sheer madness as sizzling golden cheese blintzes patiently awaited dollops of sour cream.
The day after Yom Kippur 2020, squeezed in a tiny dressing room under harsh fluorescent bulbs, I began the ceremonial ritual of relinquishing my street clothes for blue hospital gowns—two of them, “for optimum coverage.” I took longer than usual primping. Looking at my pale reflection in the mirror, I adjusted the neckline and contorted myself, tying strings in impossible-to-reach places. I patted down my hair and smoothed over my cheeks, wishing I’d brought lip gloss. Taking even more care than I did dressing for synagogue, I fussed before entering the MRI. I was preparing to meet my Maker. The one who hovers in oncology radiology waiting rooms. The real one.
It turns out God does not only work in mysterious ways. God also works quickly. Just a few days before, I was lying inside a CT scanner to explore the cause of new persistent symptoms. On Yom Kippur, while I fasted and prayed in synagogue, multiple voicemail messages were being left reporting findings of a worrisome, growing cyst. My medical team needed to schedule more investigation. Now we were taking a closer look to see if that pouch was packing heat.
Half of me was certain, after recklessly Googling late at night, that my cancer (or a new worse cancer) had advanced rapidly, offering less than a five-year survival rate. For the past decade, I lived with Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, a rare lymphoma that had responded well to chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and surgery but carried an increased risk of secondary cancers, or the dreaded “transformation.” I feared ovarian cancer was coming out to play.
The other half—the hopeless optimist (denier?) part of me—was certain this was a false alarm. A near-miss story we’d all laugh about over French toast at brunch one day. My loving husband of 30 years and my two grown children would tell the tale of when Mom totally lost it, as they passed buttery maple syrup around the festive table. My imagination, anxiety, and sketchy medical knowledgehad simply gotten the best of me.
All mankind will pass before You like members of the flock. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living. You shall apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.
—From the liturgical poem “Unetaneh Tokef—Let Us Speak of the Awesomeness,” recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
Entering the hospital waiting room, I was not alone. Other gowned women wordlessly waited their turn, flipping through magazines, sipping barium, simmering softly. Anxiety bubbled beneath the rough institutional carpet. The soundtrack to our solemn waiting game was a giant, blaring television demanding our full attention. As we prepared for critical diagnostic tests and potentially life-changing news, each of us faced an enormous flat screen conspiratorially set to HGTV, the home improvement channel.
We were forced to watch couple after couple passionately disputing square footage, kitchen farm sinks, outdoor rock showers, and the brilliance of bidets. Each decision was debated as if their lives depended on it. We gowned ghosts in the waiting room stared wide-eyed and worried, silently mesmerized, watching the drama intently. Not looking away, as if our lives depended on it.
Yom Kippur might get most of the attention, but the life-affirming lessons of Sukkot bring it all home.
It is a mystery who chose this channel for every waiting room television. Do hospital administrators believe it’s the most benign, least offensive thing on TV? Or is it a coded message about our own brokenness? Will a structural renovation be performed on us that will elicit ooohs and aaahs when the final results are revealed? Or are some of us not deemed “fixer-upper worthy,” destined to become helpless teardowns?
Our test results will tell us a lot. Who will live and who will die? But more importantly, who will renovate and who will sell?
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning.
We stand in the shadowed hope of a cure and endure side effects that leave ruthless scars, radiation burns, surgical stitches, debilitating nausea, loss of appetite, hairlessness, breathlessness. The trick is to hold on to your spirit when the body falters.
In one shared space, tired homes and exhausted patients are stripped to their bare-naked frames as experts find hidden leaks, clogged pipes, disastrous drips, and unexpected blockages threatening to shut the whole system down. Fluids must flush in and out smoothly in order for this project to flow. Specialists marvel over frayed cords, precarious wiring, and overloaded circuits causing pins and needles, sharp shooting shocks, or the nothingness of numbness. Once opened, it is found that our control box is much more of a mess than anticipated. Everything will cost more than expected and take longer to fix than promised. Nothing is up to code.
Seeking multiple bids and expert opinions, teams will arrive on the scene with specialized tools for invasive poking, robotic prodding, and careful measuring. Unforgivingly bright lights will peer into the most hidden, darkened crevices. The only “best” option may sometimes be a sledgehammer. Brace yourself.
When the dust settles, there will be analysis and assessment of the next action to take. Tough choices demanding the weighing of risks, costs, and stress. Vastly over budget and way past sworn deadlines, these moments have a way of breaking both promises and hearts. Who can handle waiting for test results, managing the fear of recurrence, shouldering the hidden costs, surviving the ache of not knowing. … There is so much not knowing.
Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
Desperately chasing peace, we run from a constant state of anxiety. We strive to be meditative, mindful, and mantra-dependent. We light scented candles, fill bedtime journals, and determinedly downward-dog our damned asses. But nothing diminishes the shadowy awareness of how fleeting, vulnerable, and risky this all is. It will be over sooner than we’d like.
I want to stand up and warn both headstrong homeowners and gowned ghosts alike to cut bait and run. Burn the house, trash the tchotchkes, kiss it all goodbye. Whether you have 200 years or two days left, you need far less than you think. The only necessity is love—deep, true, unconditional love—of all those you cherish most. I know firsthand. I have a basement and garage filled with dead family members’ belongings. I do not see dead people. … I only see their clutter.
Which brings us, mercifully, to the holiday of Sukkot, immediately following Yom Kippur. This festival celebrates all that is impermanent, inside and out. Leaving the safety and comfort of our homes—just as the days shorten and sunlight wanes—we step outside to sit in a flimsy hut providing no real protection from the elements. We are instructed to live in this booth for a week, to clearly see the starry skies through the branched roof. Out in the darkness of night, we face the cold, unsafe, utter unknown. But we are taught to look upward, illuminated by stars, and embrace our own fragility while still feeling joy. Sukkot is literally the “holiday of our happiness,” but it is also the festival of frailty. Anxiety tends to fade beneath the sukkah’s canopy of coziness, an ultimate glamping with God.
Sitting in tiny huts on rickety folding chairs, the fantasy of false security is stripped away and we are liberated to feel victorious in our own vulnerability. I finally understand what my father, the soft-spoken, distinguished, humble, and wise pediatrician, was teaching us every year after the fast: Yom Kippur might get most of the attention, but the life-affirming lessons of Sukkot bring it all home. This trip may not last forever, but if you can taste goodness and grace without being paralyzed by the gnawing dread of mortality, peace under the stars is forever yours.
But … repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree.
(Recited aloud in unison by hazzan and congregants)
My late father understandably struggled with Unetaneh Tokef after my mother and sister both died prematurely of cancer. Coming from a cancer-cluster family, eventually I simply stopped reciting certain lines. But Dad wrestled with it each year, striving to make it still meaningful. He taught me to view the final words of this liturgical poem as comfort, a recipe for resolution: “But … honest self-reckoning, selfless service, and acts of lovingkindness will help you rise above the bitterness of a life that is all too fleeting.”
A technician in scrubs stands in the doorway, waiting patiently as I gather up my belongings and bid adieu to the blaring TV. I will miss the grand finale, where the architectural makeover is revealed and (hopefully) saves the dueling couple’s stress-fractured marriage. Inside the MRI scanner, hearing the rat-tat-tap drumming of its asynchronous beat, I close my eyes to the encircling beige plastic walls and imagine the boundless sky reaching beyond my sukkah’s rooftop. Smelling pine needles instead of antiseptic cleanser, I float into the vastness of what lies above. One decision becomes crystal clear: This Sukkot, I will host a festive brunch in my delicate little booth. Holding close all those whom I love, I will bask in joy while passing around hot golden stacks of French toast served with a sweet side of laughter.
Lisa J. Wise is working on an essay collection about family legacy, loss, laughter, and living fearlessly with third-generation lymphoma.