OyChicago blog

Marriage, Religion or Cancer?

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09/25/2013

Editor's note: Jamie has been fighting breast cancer since April and has been brave enough to share her reflections with Oy! You can read her previous blog entries by clicking the posts below, or you can follow all of Jamie's posts on her personal blog, J-Strong.

Gone, Gone, Gone (8/20/2013)
J-Strong: Battling breast cancer during the craziest time of my life (7/26/2013)

Marriage, Religion or Cancer? photo

I have never been a religious person. I wouldn’t consider myself a very knowledgeable Jew. Sure I went to Hebrew School and Sunday School and had a Bat Mitzvah. But I really can’t say I absorbed much of what I learned now that I am old enough to really appreciate and understand my heritage. My family hardly ever celebrates a Jewish holiday on the actual holiday. I don’t keep Passover or fast on Yom Kippur. You get the picture.

There is one aspect of being Jewish that I have always enjoyed. I came home from college every year on the High Holidays and went to temple with my parents. There is something about the idea of a sweet new year, asking for forgiveness and starting fresh – a clean slate for the year to come. This I could relate to. Sure I didn’t really enjoy the services, but knowing that I could reflect and repent and start over each year is a nice feeling. It isn’t that different from the New Year celebrated around the world in which we make resolutions for things we want to change about ourselves. The added bonus is that we not only propose to change, but we also get to be forgiven for all of last year’s sins and mistakes.

The thing is, I wish I was “more Jewish.” I wish I remembered learning about all of the holidays. When I taught in the city at a school with zero Jews let alone white students, a first grade teacher asked if I would come in and tell the kids about Chanukah. I agreed. I then went home and Googled it. I didn’t feel confident enough in my knowledge of the story of Chanukah that I had to research it on the Internet. Their teacher could’ve done that!

Anyway, now that I am working at the JCC, I get to learn about the holidays all over again, and from the perspective of a four year old so it is in basic enough terms for me to understand. I can’t help seeing that a lot of the holidays are actually sad ones. We are celebrating overcoming horrible things. I can relate to this. I can’t wait to celebrate being cancer-free. Instead of looking back on it as a sad or negative time in our lives, we will celebrate that I kicked its butt!

Anway, I love it because I not only get to relearn what I lost over the years, but I get to have it fresh in my mind in little kid terms to pass it along to our currently frozen children. I remember a few years ago, going over to our friends’ house for dinner on Friday night. Their son was barely even three years old but he wanted to do Shabbat. He said all of the prayers (which sounded cuter in baby-like talk) and covered his eyes while doing so, sang the songs, and held the challah proudly in the air. It was the cutest thing I had ever seen and I couldn’t help laughing at this tiny Jew.

Who knows, maybe I did that when I was younger and just forgot because it was a tradition that didn’t stick. But all I know is fast forward to this kid being five and the tradition is still going strong. I hope to model that in our house, and when I do, I will now actually know what my kid is talking about because he or she won’t only have learned it at pre-school, he or she will have learned it from me.

Remember how I said my family barely “does” the holidays? We haven’t done a Seder since I was about four years old when my great grandpa was alive to lead it. The first time I went to Passover at Joe’s house, I was dreading the Seder. Especially this past year when there weren’t any kids coming so we had to do a “grown-up” version. But now I look at it in a positive light. At least our kids will have one grandfather who can and wants to lead a Seder and when, G-d forbid, he is gone one day, we can all carry it on.

The thing is, it isn’t just all of the recent Jewish holidays that have me reflecting. I’ve been doing it for a few months now. Interestingly enough, I both got married and started chemo two months ago. So what is it that has got me so reflective? Is it having cancer or is it being married?

I find myself far calmer in traffic, which says a lot for those of you who have been privy to my road rage. Maybe my patience is because I am learning to not always be in such a hurry. Or because you never know what is going on in the other driver’s life. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t turned into a saint on the road. I still do my fair share of speeding. I even have a plan if I get pulled over: whip off the wig and cry nausea. (Playing the cancer card is appropriate sometimes, right?)

As silly as this sounds, I even find that I have stopped posting complaints and negative comments on Facebook. Clearly I have discovered there are worse things in life to focus my energy on. I also find myself trying harder at work. Sure, last year I was consumed in wedding planning and then house hunting and eventually my diagnosis. All great excuses, but it still doesn’t mean you can’t give your all at work. But this year I walk in with a new energy and it is a desire to give 200 percent. Yes, the chemo has me pretty run-down, so I can’t do this every day. (Trust me, I’ve tried, but my co-teacher yells at me to stop picking up kids or to make sure I am eating and drinking.)

But on the days when I feel good, I want to do everything perfectly. I want to enjoy the kids rather than be annoyed with them. I want to show them new things rather than just letting them play dress up for two hours. I might not be in an elementary school classroom or using my reading specialist degree yet, but these preschool years are just as significant even if not for academic reasons. These kids are here with us more than they’re with their parents and they are so perceptive. I might not be teaching them how to read, but I am teaching them how to be little people in our sometimes cruel society. If they can learn to speak up for themselves rather than tattle, or to get their own cup of water rather than always having someone do things for them, then I think they will be ready for the real world. Or at least kindergarten.

I also wonder if wanting to be a better person is stemming from being a married lady. Married life doesn’t feel different for us, other than the name change and referring to each other as husband and wife. But marriage to me is the ultimate sign that I am without a doubt a full-fledged adult. Granted, having cancer was the biggest wake-up call, one that instantly made us grow up (as if the wedding and buying a house weren’t adult enough.)

But maybe the fact that I am somebody’s wife makes me want to care more and do more and grow more. It isn’t just me anymore. My actions kind of represent both of us now. Then again, maybe it is the cancer. Maybe if I am lucky enough to get to live this life, I want to live it better. I want to be better. Whether it is my new absorption in all things Jewish, my cancer wake up call, or my new husband, I am fortunate to have flipped a switch. I am ready for the New Year and hopefully next year, I won’t have as much to repent for.

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