B.J. Yudelson – Official Author Website http://bjyudelson.com Fri, 21 Aug 2015 18:42:06 +0000 en-US hourly 1 58932937 B.J. Yudelson 1939-2015 http://bjyudelson.com/b-j-yudelson-1939-2015/ http://bjyudelson.com/b-j-yudelson-1939-2015/#respond Fri, 21 Aug 2015 18:39:05 +0000 http://bjyudelson.com/?p=293 Died August 8, 2015, at age 76. Predeceased by her parents, Bert and Joe Heyman, and daughter, Ruth Leah Yudelson. Survived by her husband, Julian; son, Larry; daughter, Miriam Katz; grandchildren; and sister, Margaret Cohen.

She loved family and friends, Judaism and the outdoors, writing and learning. B.J. was an active volunteer in many areas of the Rochester community. She shared her life’s story in her book, “With an outstretched arm: A memoir of love and loss, family and faith

B.J.’s service was held at Congregation Beth Sholom. Please consider donations to Congregation Beth Sholom or the Jewish Community Federation or a charity of your choice . How you do for others is your choice, that you do for others is B.J.’s wish.

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Geriatric Picnic http://bjyudelson.com/geriatric-picnic/ http://bjyudelson.com/geriatric-picnic/#comments Mon, 13 Jul 2015 20:59:52 +0000 http://bjyudelson.com/?p=289 We are at a Catskill resort to celebrate my parents’ 50th anniversary. Even in its heyday, the Homowack would not have been up to my family’s standards. It’s not that it wasn’t fancy enough—my parents gravitated toward rustic North Carolina lodges. It just attracted a different type of guest, those from Brooklyn or the Bronx, where most patrons are more religiously observant and perhaps less refined than those of us who hail originally from Atlanta and Seattle. But we sought a place with kosher food near my parents’ New York and New Jersey children and grandchildren.

When I asked in advance about wheelchair accessibility, I heard with my ears the answer that Mother will have to use the entrance near the kitchen. With my ears, not with my brain. I picture my kitchen door, and that doesn’t seem so bad. Arriving a bit ahead of my folks, my husband Julian and I check out the back entrance. I am horrified that my 78-year-old mother, the guest of honor, will enter through a swarm of flies buzzing about the garbage cans. How can I be subjecting my mother to this indignity? She finds her limitations indignity enough.

I don’t recall inviting my aunts, but one by one they accepted. “I was at the wedding; I’m going to be at the 50th anniversary celebration,” they declared in almost identical words. “Along with my friend, or my daughter, or my regular aide.”

At Friday night services, I discover that the featured guest is the evangelical Rebbetzin (Rabbi’s wife) Jungreis. Oh boy, I think, as I look around at my genteel Reform cousin who looks like a swami in her impromptu head covering. I fear that the Rebbetzin’s fervor will overwhelm my family, who take their Judaism in small, manageable doses.

The next afternoon, Aunt Jo, whose beliefs are as fiery as ever, even though age –84 – has toned her flaming hair down to a dusty red, complains. “They must know I’m a Reform Jew. No one says ‘hello’ when they pass me in the hall.” I gently explain that most guests are New Yorkers, who lack the southerner’s innate friendliness. My “nothing personal” doesn’t seem to reassure her.

Julian and I suggest a picnic at a state park for the geriatric members of our group: my parents, my three aunts, Mom’s nurse, and my aunts’ three traveling companions. First stop is the resort kitchen to get sandwiches made to order: this without mustard, that without mayonnaise, another with no onion or garlic. I drive my little car and Julian steers my sister’s station wagon, leaving her and her husband behind to care for our respective children.

As we go up the mountain, I hear something scrape the ground under the car. I stop, climb down from the driver’s seat, and peer under the car. No branch that I can see. We continue, and the scraping continues. I climb down, peer, nothing appears. We drive a little further, more scraping, another stop. This time we all climb down and look. There seems to be more space between the floor and the road with the load lightened. Darn, I hope I don’t pop my springs. Too bad I have two extra-large people in the back seat of my little Dodge Aries on this steep road.  I load my weighty passengers back into the car. Please, no disasters. I can’t imagine where the closest repair shop is.

“B.J., darling, I need a bathroom stop. Can you find a place?” Aunt Emilie’s voice sounds more desperate than her words.

At a crossroads, I pull up in front of a restaurant with a sign, “If you’re not planning to eat here, don’t even ask about using our facilities.” I park anyway, and with Aunt Emilie accompanying me in baby steps, cross the highway to another eating establishment. This one claims no public facilities. We creep back to the car, then drive across the other way. This time I ask Aunt Emilie to wait in the car while I negotiate. I know I’m going to have to say things that will embarrass her, and I prefer that she not be listening in.

I convince the deli servers to let my aunt use the employees’ facilities, a third-world embarrassment to the clean, first-world, New York State in which we supposedly travel. And I worried about what I’d have to say? Phew!

Mission accomplished, we continue to scrape our way up the mountainside to the state park. Now it’s Mom’s turn to use the facilities, a large, rustic, handicapped-accessible rest room with a toilet on one side and a sturdy hand rail five feet away from the toilet. It’s fortunate that Mom’s nurse and I are there to help.

At last we head down the paved path to lakeside picnic tables set among tall hardwoods. Mom’s smile while her nurse pushes her along the pavement among the trees displays her pleasure at the view of the lake. Julian and I move the canoe from car top to water, And I help my beaming Aunt Jo climb in. “She sailed away on a bright and sunny day,” flits through my head as Julian pulls away from shore. They paddle back and forth, Aunt Jo mostly resting, Julian doing the work.

Meanwhile I unpack the lunch. The paddlers return to shore, and we help Aunt Jo to the table. We maneuver my aunts’ legs over the picnic benches chained to the tables. Who would carry them away from this remote spot? We all settle down to eat, lake in the background, leafy canopy overhead. Now I pass out the food: “without mustard” for Aunt Dorah, “without mayo” for Aunt Emilie. With a seriousness that’s hard to describe, the eleven of us spread over two tables, dappled sunlight landing on our sandwiches, and dig in. We remind me of a cartoon with only one possible caption, “Are we having fun yet?”

Are we having fun yet? Are we having fun at all? Why is this family group, who know and love each other, so serious, almost morose looking? Are the picnic benches too uncomfortable, the picnic food not fine enough?

And yet, at the end of the day, they rave to the stay-behinds about their good time. The final day, they all proclaim the picnic in the Catskills to be the highlight, after the anniversary party itself. I will never again hear the phrase, “Are we having fun yet?” without picturing the dour faces and grim expressions of my aunts and their travel companions on one sunny afternoon in the Catskill Mountains.

Fun? They thought so.

 

 

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Loving Nurses: Refined by Fire http://bjyudelson.com/loving-nurses-refined-by-fire/ http://bjyudelson.com/loving-nurses-refined-by-fire/#comments Sun, 28 Jun 2015 12:26:22 +0000 http://bjyudelson.com/?p=285  

It was three days before I noticed it. The third night that Molly was my nurse, I spotted her wrist tattoo: a graphic of some kind, and what seemed to be Hebrew writing. At first, I tried to sneak a better glimpse. When my surreptitious peeks didn’t work, I broke down and asked this delightful, soprano-voiced nurse about the tattoo.

“Is that Hebrew?”

“Yes.”

“Why? You’re not Jewish are you?”

“No, so I worked diligently to be sure I had the letters right.” She explained the tattoo to me. “The heart is anatomically correct. The Hebrew says, ‘Refined by fire.’”

The first word I don’t recognize, but the rest is certainly correct. But what’s the significance to you, and why Hebrew?”

“The heart is because I’m a nurse. The reason I’m a nurse is that I had a close childhood friend who died of heart disease when we were eleven—we were born only a month apart. The idea of refining is because I’m also a metalworker, with both a bachelors and a master’s degree in the art form. Each time you pass the metal through the fire, more impurities run off. And in life, our hearts are refined by the difficulties we face.”

Later that day an Israeli friend visited and confirmed the accuracy of the Hebrew. It turns out that Molly’s father is a Protestant minister, who teaches Hebrew Bible. Molly says she checked and rechecked with his books. Still, I think she was relieved to know that she had gotten it right.

Molly was just one of the interesting, caring, even loving nurses who cared for me during my two weeks in the hospital. Ashleigh was a young, bouncy Patient Care Technician who performed non-skilled nursing duties. They were a great team, giving my roommate Susan and me the best possible care with good cheer and wide, inviting smiles.

***

Love’s taffy pink uniform popped out against her gleaming black-brown skin and caught my attention.

“May I clean your room?”

“Certainly. What’s your name?”

“My mama named me ‘Love.’”

“Then she must have loved you a lot.”

Her answer was a broad grin.

When she had finished sweeping, dusting, and cleaning the door handles, she thanked me for letting her clean my space.

Each day she asked permission to clean; every time, she thanked me for letting her. When I moved down the hall to a private room, we continued the ritual, just earlier in the morning. On our last morning, a few hours before my discharge, I asked about her accent. “Where are you from?”

“Nigeria,” she said in her gentle voice.

I prodded softly. “Tell me more.”

“I came here fifteen years ago with my husband and our two sons. My husband died five years ago.” By then, she had two more children, another son and a daughter. To keep her children fed and clothed, she works two full-time jobs: cleaning nights at the Jewish home, days at Highland Hospital. And I’m sure that in both places she is equally beloved and admired.

I asked Love about her older sons. The second is a computer person. The eldest will graduate in another year as a doctor of ophthalmology. I can barely imagine the pride with which she’ll see him graduate in his cap and gown, a contrast to the uniform she’ll no doubt leave behind for the ceremony. As she finished cleaning, I contemplated what people can make happen when they work hard, and steadily, and keep their eyes on their goals. What a lesson in resolve, always with a strong dose of love. Her heart, and her children’s abilities, were surely forged in the fire of their lives.

***

Perhaps the most caring of the caring was Ellen, a short-ish redhead who was not necessarily the most skilled Patient Care Tech, as Highland Hospital calls its aides. I was her patient, and she came into my room not long after Dr. Angel, my oncologist, had recommended hospice on the theory that the latest chemo hadn’t worked. There were others she could recommend, but each was tougher on the body than the one before it. They might or might not work for awhile, but while extending my lifespan, they would surely diminish my quality of life. As I repeated this to Ellen, my fountain of tears opened. Instead of turning aside, as some nurses and/or techs might do, Ellen lay her head on my knee. Together, we sobbed. She stroked my knee and wept with me. Her tears were a comfort, reminding me that I wasn’t alone. That everyone dies. That cancer patients may reach the end sooner, but they need not face the future by themselves.

Every weekday after that, Ellen popped in sometime during the day. Even when I wasn’t her patient, I saw her smiling face, felt her loving touch, experienced her caring voice. My last conversation with her was when she pushed my wheelchair to the discharge door. While we waited for my husband to bring his car around, she and my daughter discussed custody arrangements stemming from their respective divorces, the difficulty of facing up to their own tough situations. I understood then that her exceptional tenderness stemmed from her own pain, a different pain from my own, but one that had softened her into a truly beautiful person. A person I was lucky enough to encounter when I most needed her.

“Refined by the fire.” A perfect sentiment for a nurse, or, indeed, a patient, whose heart, like mine, has been purified by loss, by illness, by sorrow and joy; indeed, by life ”

 

 

 

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To Be Alive http://bjyudelson.com/to-be-alive/ http://bjyudelson.com/to-be-alive/#comments Mon, 01 Jun 2015 18:32:07 +0000 http://bjyudelson.com/?p=276 Tennis, dance, swimming, paddling, gym workout, stairs—all my life I’ve been an active person, though the particular sport or exercise has changed from time to time. I wonder now, as my physical world has shrunk, if I am what I do. If so, there’s not a whole lot left of me.

Now, as cancer consumes my body and I have lost more weight than I ever intended, I ask myself: how identified are we with our bodies? Who are we when our bodies fail us? When illness—or accident or age—diminish our abilities, do they also diminish us as people?

No one today would call me the Energizer Bunny, as my sister and some friends dubbed me in the past. On the other hand, I know that being fit has made the journey easier.

***

Anything I can do to help?” I pose this question to my friend who is packing up to go home to Florida after almost a week’s visit with me. She faces her own physical limitations caused by various illnesses and a recent fall that resulted in a severely broken leg.

Would you see if you can close my suitcase? My hands just don’t have the strength.”

Last week, my husband Julian and I converted the living room into a bedroom for Elaine, who barely makes it up the three steps into the house. A full flight to the upper story is beyond her at this point in her recovery. A friend in my writing class lent a folding bed. Julian turned the love seat around so it faces the bed and serves as a suitcase rack and shelf for her clothing. An end table and a Lenox lamp from other parts of the room make a fine bedside table.

Good to know. If or when I can’t climb the stairs, this won’t be a bad bedroom.

Out of my way,” I say. I easily moved the zipper on the small, purple suitcase to the corner. Pushing down in the right spot to maneuver the zipper around the bend isn’t so easy, but I have the manual strength and dexterity to do it. Just as I reach for the other zipper, Elaine spots a stack of multi-colored tissue paper that she wants to take home with her. I move the zipper back around the corner that I have just navigated. Yep, it will still close with the paper. I push a blue print garment back into place and begin again. Got it. Now I tackle the other zipper from the opposite direction. Got this one, too. Together, we listen to the scratch of the zipper traveling its track to meet the first one. Done.

And so am I. Though my hands are strong enough, it takes all my bodily strength to close that suitcase. With a rueful laugh, I make my way to the couch and collapse. My heartbeat seems to fill the room. How wonderful to be able to do something for someone else. It’s hard to be always on the receiving end of help. I’d much rather help Elaine than have her cook and shop and drive for me. Even with these arms that are as skinny as a child’s. No fat left anywhere on my body. I hate this feeling of wasting away.

I lie here, looking at the upholstery I love, a soft floral print. I admire again the lamp, with its own floral design and purchased years before in Cleveland, where Elaine and I first met. Though acquired for a different room and different furniture, it blends perfectly here. Sort of like Elaine and me. We treasure our easy, comfortable forty-plus-year friendship in which we each do for the other whatever is needed. Gradually, my heartbeat slows and my strength returns. I lie listening to the quiet until Elaine says it’s time to head to the airport.

***

I was always an active kid: kickball or softball at recess, riding my bike or scooter or jumping on my pogo stick after school, amusing myself with made-up ball games against the garage door, playing in the wooded ravine behind my house, running with the neighborhood gang, dancing lessons, tennis, and even walking the half mile from the public bus stop to my house on a daily basis. Not that I set out to be active; except for the dancing lessons and the daily walk from the bus stop (which I hated), I was just a typical kid at play.

At summer camp I became enamored of both tennis and canoeing, activities I continued into adulthood. For years after I graduated from college and was married, I was in a weekly tennis game. The trouble was that my husband, Julian, didn’t play, and I sought activities that I could do with him. When I suggested taking up a winter sport together, acknowledging that we no longer lived in the South but “up north” in the cold and snow, he retorted, with a perfectly straight face, “How about Dominoes?”

For the years between my retirement in 2006 and my cancer diagnosis in 2013, I went to the gym a disciplined three times a week. There I spent thirty minutes or more on weight resistance exercises, then another half hour or so on cardiovascular activities. I worked out with a trainer for thirty minutes every two weeks, so I always had new exercises and my routines never felt stale. I detested the twenty minutes I spent at home on my Nordik Trak the days I didn’t go to the gym; nevertheless, I tackled the machine faithfully and did, at least, hear a lot of good books while my arms and legs went back and forth, forth and back.

There was a period of a few years when I climbed flights of stairs for cardio exercise. Counting only the upward flights, I climbed between thirty and sixty flights of thirteen steps at a time. It was perfect preparation for the trips we took every winter to someplace warm and interesting. While my trip mates groaned about the intimidating flight of stairs that would take us to the upper level of a town, I danced up them and was the first to arrive at the top. When my knees started squawking, I ditched that exercise for another. Did that limitation make me feel diminished? Not a bit—I just moved on to something else. But when I came home a year ago from more than two weeks in the hospital with a lung infection, I had to haul myself up the stairs with my arms on the handrail. Then I felt less than myself. Not able to climb a flight of stairs? Me? After all those years of practice? With the help of a physical therapist, practicing his prescribed exercises with the diligence I once attached to the gym, and with time to regain strength, I can now climb a typical flight of stairs fairly easily.

This makes me question my hypothesis that we are what we do. I didn’t feel the least reduced when I stopped climbing multiple flights of stairs for exercise. So why now do I feel lessened by today’s limitations?

Perhaps because I have had to change the whole pace of my life. It’s not just one thing that I don’t do; I’ve dropped a constellation of activities, from housework to gym workouts, from swimming to paddling. I can live happily if I never again do a load of laundry, but paddling is a different matter. For years, I drove around with my solo canoe atop my car all summer. Whenever the mood struck, I drove ten minutes to my favorite local paddling spot, lifted the canoe from my car, launched it, and paddled for an hour or two. Afterwards, I threw the canoe back on the car, tied it down, and resumed my day. I never turned down another paddler’s offer to help, but I was perfectly capable of handling my little red boat by myself. Now, when I think about that, I find myself tearing up. Of all the activities that I can no longer do, that’s the one that most readily evokes the sorrow I feel at my limitations.

I can still paddle, but I am taking a narcotic that prevents me from driving. Moreover, the energy it would take to launch my canoe would leave none for climbing into the canoe, much less propelling it. I’ve lost the independence as well as the energy to just pick up and do my favorite activity. Now that the weather has warmed to a level that my lungs can handle, I have resumed the neighborhood walks I dropped with last autumn’s falling leaves. A thirty minute stroll on the level streets surrounding my home demands a thirty minute—or longer—nap. I wonder how much sleep it would take to recover from getting the boat into the water by myself. Energizer bunny? Not exactly.

***

Throughout this past long, dreary winter I pined to be in my canoe. Not just any boat, but my red, 10-foot long, 20-pound craft. Finally, we are blessed with a warm, sunny Thursday on a week I don’t have chemo.

Julian, what’s on your calendar for this afternoon? Would you be willing take me canoeing?”

Sure. Tandem or solo?”

Solo, please. You can rent a kayak across the road from the park where I put in.”

After lunch, I go to the garage. My canoe is already off the rafters where it sleeps all winter and on my car. Julian searches for the tie-down ropes. I put the paddles, life vests, and my canoe seat in the car. Along the way, I find the ropes.

I think we should go in the tandem.” Julian tries one more time.

I understand that he is worried about me, that he wants to take care of me, that he wants to be in a position that if my strength fails, he can take over. Exactly what I don’t want.

Nope. All winter I have craved paddling my canoe. Not the tandem. Not with you as my guardian angel. On my own. By myself. I’m happy to have you paddle next to me, but not for me. I’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

Reluctantly, he gives in. At the postage-stamp sized park on Empire Boulevard, where Irondequoit Creek meanders into the bay, he puts my canoe in the water. He holds my hand while I step in, then quickly sit on the cane-back seat that keeps me just off the bottom of the boat. He gives a push, and I’m off. On my own. On the water. A full-size smile on my face. I am surprised that there is a stiff breeze swooshing by me, straight off the bay, from the north. I didn’t feel that wind at home. With my life jacket serving as the perfect windbreaker, it pushes me toward Empire Boulevard. Under the bridge, I watch the birds flit back and forth. While Julian arranges for his rental kayak (a sacrifice for him; like me, he prefers canoes, but this place doesn’t rent solos), I drift in front of the dock. Red winged blackbirds swoop and dive, reminding me of the essay I just read about a writing classmate’s sky diving experience. I wonder where the ducks are, but I’m satisfied to watch the smaller birds playing in the wind. The landscape is a bit strange: it is filled with the remnants of last year’s dead, brown reeds. A few young, fresh, green cattails add life to the early season view.

10542686_10204976715950913_9042267532920651430_oJulian joins me and we begin paddling upstream. I set the pace: slow and gentle. No sense in using up all my energy in the beginning. I am right that I have the strength to paddle. What I don’t know is how much stamina I have, how long I will last. I have been on this stretch of water—my favorite within fifteen minutes of home—so many times that every bend is familiar. I see a swan just where I expect to, along with a couple of cygnets and a few mallards. We chat amiably with a couple who are inaugurating their new canoe, tell them where they might find a picnic spot.

At one curve, I paddle hard against the current. Ten or fifteen strokes at my full strength, and I am exhausted. Back to my slow, steady pace. I recover quickly and reach a point at which it seems wise to turn back. I have paddled in 45 minutes what I used to do in 30, but I’ve done it on my own, with no problem.

But I could not have done it without Julian’s help. As we approach the rental spot, I suggest that he go ahead to return the kayak, handle the finances, and drive across the street to help me out of my canoe. He arrives just in time to walk cautiously onto the nailed-together boards that serve as a pier of sorts. It takes most of his strength to pull me up and balance me as I step out. I carry my paddle and chair to the car and collapse onto the front seat.

At home, I head straight for the hammock.

So there, World. I can still do it. I still have strength. I can still be self-reliant (with the right kind of help). I can still enjoy the serenity of the water, the reeds, the birds. Later in the season I’ll see turtles sunning and hear the frogs’ deep bass music. But not today. Today I am satisfied—delighted, in fact—with a clear blue sky, warm sunshine, trees just beginning to leaf out, last year’s desiccant cattails. When asked a few months ago by a friend if there was one thing in particular I wanted to do, that she could perhaps help me do, I found myself answering through unexpected tears that I wanted to go out in my canoe at least one more time. And now I’ve done it.

And yet, in my most honest moments, it’s still not enough…

***

My physical strength is less that it used to be, but it’s not gone. My cognitive functioning doesn’t seem to have slowed anymore than others in my age cohort. And that brings me to Descartes. I first encountered his cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” in college. This bit of philosophy made perfect sense to me. I can think of no time when I was more full of myself and more certain of my mental prowess than during my university years. And then life moved on, and I discovered that the smartest people weren’t necessarily the most successful or the happiest. Maybe there is more to us than our brainpower.

In college I wrote a paper in which I came to the certainty that being in the image of God means to be creative. Is it perhaps my creativity that makes me me? The book I wrote is as much an expression of creativity as a painter’s portrait or a baker’s wedding cake. We certainly cannot create whole worlds, ex nihilo, like God. But we may be most Godlike when we are creating.

Physical activity, thinking, creativity—which, or what combination, of these makes me me? And does the attenuation of any of these make me less me? Or do I carry my “me-ness” in a spirit, an attitude, that supersedes any of these? Perhaps I should rewrite Descartes to say “I am grateful, therefore I am.” Grateful that I could once be so active. Grateful that I can still walk around the block. Grateful that my children and grandchildren—who know far more than I do about a host of subjects—still turn to me for advice. Grateful that I still take pleasure in the hard work and creative exercise of writing. And most of all, grateful that I have outstanding doctors, kind and skilled nurses, and a platoon of friends ready to march with me.

Last summer, when our youngest grandchild came to Rochester from Los Angeles for her eleven-year-old “alone” visit, I was not able to take her canoeing or hiking every day as I had done with her older siblings and cousins. She spent more out-of-the-house time with Grandpa, and she and I occupied ourselves with more homebound activities. She had a fine time, but I felt cheated. I had always wanted to demonstrate for my grandchildren the art of growing old actively, vigorously. I wanted her to experience with me my love of the out-of-doors, especially water and woods.

A note that grandson Sam, 21, gave me recently suggests that perhaps I am teaching these nine descendants something more profound. “Grandma,” he wrote. “You’re so cool! You constantly teach me how to be alive!” I have taught him that? How unexpected! That’s bigger than I ever dreamed of doing.

Diminished? Devalued? Only if I measure myself against my former physical activity. Not if I keep my illness in perspective and realize that I am not my cancer. I can think of no greater gift to my grandchildren than to teach them, at any and every age, how to be alive.

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To Miriam, My Adult Daughter http://bjyudelson.com/to-miriam-my-adult-daughter/ http://bjyudelson.com/to-miriam-my-adult-daughter/#comments Sun, 26 Apr 2015 21:37:59 +0000 http://bjyudelson.com/?p=272 “Mom, cheer up. You’re still here. Cancer is just a word, a scary word, but just a word.”

On her plane ride from California, Miriam had started reading the library books she had brought for me. Neither of us had ever heard of Dr. Bernie Siegel, but we quickly found out that he specializes in helping people who face imminent death from illness to live fully and to die in peace.

As Miriam and I hugged tightly, I took a deep breath and tried to stanch my sobs. A week earlier I had received the definitive cancer diagnosis. Only hours after that phone call we had begun the first Passover Seder. Instead of being in California, as planned, with Miriam and her children, my husband and I were home in Rochester with understanding friends. Throughout, one thought hounded me: this, and tomorrow night’s, could be my last Seders. I hadn’t yet had all the diagnostic tests that would show where the cancer was, how much it had spread, where exactly I was affected. But I was frightened and shaky throughout the supposedly festive meals.

Miriam flew in for the final days of the holiday, both for her peace of mind and my own. A mother with cancer wasn’t in her life plan anymore than it was in mine. When she was young, I had often helped her deal with the difficult issues in her life by reading appropriate books to her: Richard Scarry’s Nicky Goes to the Doctor or When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers. I remember bringing her library books about grieving for a sibling’s death after her sister Ruth died when Miriam was ten.

So often, in those first years after Ruth was struck and killed by a drinking driver, parts of the Sabbath service had reduced me to tears. Miriam would lean over, place her arms around me, and offer what little solace she could. That was the first time she reversed roles on me, assuming the task of mothering and consoling me. I had hated that switch in our relationship, but there it was. This time, some thirty years later, it felt less painful. After all, she, too, was an adult now, and I welcomed whatever comfort she could offer.

In the two years since my cancer diagnosis, Miriam and I have become even closer than we had been—and we had already enjoyed an unusually warm and trusting relationship. Like most mothers and daughters, it wasn’t always that way. There was, for instance, the case of the yellow dress. I hadn’t meant to put it in the dryer. I knew that the care label said to hang to dry. It might as well have read, DO NOT MACHINE DRY IF YOU VALUE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THIS DRESS’S TEN-YEAR-OLD OWNER. Any amateur laundress, much less one with my twenty years’ experience, could see that the nylon accordion pleats could not withstand a dryer’s heat.

The dress had been Miriam’s favorite, the one she had begged for from the Sears Catalog, even when I was willing to buy one that was finer and more expensive. But this is what she had wanted for her sister’s bat mitzvah, and she had looked beautiful in it. As my trembling hands removed the dress from the machine, I saw that the soft, lemony yellow, nylon-masquerading-as-organza hung limply. Not a pleat remained. Not even the hint of one. Though still the right size, the dress had lost its shape, its panache.

As I smoothed and folded the rest of the load, only one thought pounded at me: how can I tell Miriam? At first I didn’t. I tucked the dress out of sight while I called Sears: out of season, out of stock. I presented it to a dry cleaning establishment where I was informed that it would be impossible to recreate the pleats. Finally, in a conversation so painful that neither of us recalls the details, I confessed. I’m sure that I did my best to console my distraught daughter, but nothing I said could compensate for the loss of her favorite dress, a dress that had made her feel beautiful and grown up.

In an attempt to buy Miriam’s forgiveness, I dragged her to Sue Handlin’s girls’ shop. There I bought her an outrageously expensive Gunne Sax dress. I had always told my girls that what made them pretty was not the clothes on their backs but the smiles on their faces. I was right, as no dress, no matter how lovely its style, no matter how attractive its tiny pink rosebuds set against a navy blue background, could compensate for Miriam’s sour look. Despite the new dress, she did not forgive me, not then and not for years or even decades after.

Interestingly, it was not long after that I discovered that Miriam could be good company. She, her father Julian, and I drove to Wisconsin for Julian to attend a conference at the university in Madison. First we visited friends in Milwaukee, where we had lived for five years and where both girls had been born. We cried and grieved with friends who remembered Ruth as a baby and toddler. Miriam, who had been only a year old when we moved from Milwaukee to Cleveland, felt no connection. Her big excitement was for our planned trip to Chicago while Julian was at his conference. At Chicago’s Art Institute, we would visit the Thorne Miniature Rooms, sixty-eight dioramas of European and American furnishings. We would go to the Museum of Science and Industry especially to see the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle.

My concern was not for our Chicago activities, planned to appeal to my doll-house lover’s interests, but for the time in the car. What would we talk about for two hours each way? Could a depressed, recently bereaved mother and her young surviving daughter entertain each other? All I could think about—tearfully, of course—was that Ruth had turned the corner from little girl to budding teen who could talk about reasonably adult matters. She and I could converse easily on a variety of topics. But Miriam? Still too young, I thought.

By the time we arrived in Chicago, I had learned otherwise. Instead of the awkward silences I anticipated, we filled the car with animated chat. While I enjoyed the Thorne Rooms and Fairy Castle along with Miriam, my standout experience of our two-day jaunt was the discovery that my “baby” could be a delightful conversationalist.

That’s how our communication continued throughout Miriam’s middle school and high school years. Despite the yellow dress hanging quietly in the background, we found we could talk about anything. On our weekly walks to and from Sabbath services, she chattered about school, friends, and the stuff of teens. I became a trusted listener. Her usual good cheer helped pull me out of my depression into the sunlight.

When our easy relationship failed, it was not because of the Yellow Dress but the Boyfriend. Even so, even despite the wedge he succeeded in driving between my daughter and me, even despite our suspicion that this marriage would never measure up, her father and I eventually gave Miriam the wedding of her dreams. And then, when she had to admit that she had made a mistake, that her husband was abusive (which we had been too naïve to suspect), Julian and I supported her in every way we knew how. That included biting back all the “I told you so’s.” We proved to be less self-centered and more understanding than her husband had insisted during their six-year friendship and three-year marriage.

Looking back, I wonder if Miriam and I had learned something from the yellow dress episode that helped us with this crisis. I had discovered back then that there are two narratives: the child’s and the parent’s. In her view, I hadn’t paid enough attention to hang rather than machine-dry her dress. Wherever my head was in that crucial moment it hadn’t been on my laundry or my ten-year-old daughter’s favorite dress. Now I tried my hardest to be with her in the moment, in the terrible, horrible moments she described of my son-in-law shouting at her, throwing a TV remote at her, giving her a black eye and missing my baby granddaughter’s head by millimeters.

She was honest. I was receptive. Little by little, she exposed the truth of what she had been through. I waited patiently for her to reveal the details at her own pace. I never pushed. Rather, I listened. I understood that she had tried her best to make the unworkable work. I have heard of parents who blame their children for the break-up of a marriage, even when, as in Miriam’s case, it posed a threat to their children’s and grandchildren’s safety. What could I do for her? Buying a Gunne Sax dress would have been easy, but it wouldn’t have solved any more problems than it had ten years before. But what I could do was pay her the honor of listening, of believing her, of not countering her narrative with my own, of accepting hers as truth. Of being with her in the moment.

And later, when she was trying to make it as a graduate student and single mother, I could buy clothing for the baby—not expensive, fancy, buy-your-love-and-forgiveness clothes but a practical wardrobe that helped Miriam and Leah survive their difficult life.

That was the turning point. Little by little, as she healed from her abusive marriage, she discovered that I was less selfish and more trustworthy than her former husband had convinced her I was. I was willing to let go of the past—by now she had let go of the yellow dress—and rebuild our earlier patterns of communication.

Miriam married again and followed her man to Los Angeles. On one visit, I was appalled at the way he communicated with her. Or failed to. I watched him give her the silent treatment and refuse to speak to her for almost my entire five-day visit. When she asked why—what she had said or done—he refused to answer. There was no way for her to fix it because she didn’t know what needed repairing. Worst of all, her children watched and undoubtedly absorbed that this is how we treat people we purport to love.

But at least this time around she knew she could confide in me. If her husband tried to drive a wedge between us as the first had done, he was unsuccessful. I had proven that I would be there for her, no matter what.

And now she had proved the same for me. By the time she left, after this first visit following my cancer diagnosis, I was deep into Siegel, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen (“Blessing life is about filling yourself up so that your blessings overflow onto others”) and others who emphasized the importance of attitude in dealing with cancer. The authors informed me that I had two choices: I could be a bitter, down-in-the-mouth person whose bristles brushed everyone away, or I could be the cheerful, upbeat person I preferred to live with every day. I could admit that, while I didn’t like the diagnosis, my best choice was to find top-notch doctors and follow their advice. Or I could waste my days, however many remained, grumbling and bitching and making me and the people around me miserable. After Miriam’s visit, the choice was obvious, and she became, and remains, my biggest fan and cheerleader. She is realistic about my prognosis, and whatever tears she may shed on my behalf are hidden from me. In short, without trying to reverse our relationship and displace me as the mother, she cares for me as daughter, best friend, and adult.

A few years ago, after Miriam was divorced for the second time, I visited her in her Los Angeles condominium. The girls—now four in total—split their time between the two households. They had been raised on the story of the yellow dress, the way some children are raised on Uncle Remus’ Br’er Rabbit and the Briar Patch and others on Abraham smashing the idols or George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. In the basement with their mother, I noted girls’ clothing hanging on the drying rack. While the whirling dryer sucked moisture from a full load of clothes, the ones that were supposed to hang dry were doing just that. With a twinkle, I complimented Miriam for paying attention to the labels on the school uniform skirts and Sabbath dresses. Laughingly, she plucked a pink camisole from the dryer and told me it used to be white.

She had learned there was no such thing as perfect, always-in-the-moment motherhood.

In those same years, we have both learned to listen, really listen, and to trust each other. That seems to be the formula for mother-daughter communication that we both value and that brings us both comfort as we continue to face the challenges presented by my cancer. How grateful I am to be her mother.

 

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Matzah of Hope http://bjyudelson.com/matzah-of-hope/ http://bjyudelson.com/matzah-of-hope/#comments Mon, 30 Mar 2015 14:14:30 +0000 http://bjyudelson.com/?p=267 You may remember that back in the ’70s and ’80s, we added a fourth matzah to the three required for the Seder and called it the Matzah of Hope. It was a symbol of the three million Soviet Jews who had no freedom to be Jews. Some twenty or thirty years later, our united voices had changed the situation. I propose that this year we once again add a fourth matzah to our Seder table and read the following. What do you think? Maybe together we can change the situation for the Agunot, women anchored to men who neither want them as wives nor are willing to free them to lead their own lives.

Matzah of Hope

Passover, 2015

 This matzah, which we set aside as a symbol of hope for the thousands of women who are anchored to marriages in name only, reminds us that slavery comes in many forms. Three thousand years ago, Jewish women were forced to see their baby sons die. They themselves were forced to follow the orders of the Egyptian masters to make bricks and perform other onerous tasks.

Today, there are women enslaved to unsustainable marriages. The common term for them is “chained” women. But the Hebrew, agunah, comes from the root that means “to anchor.” These women, who have asked for a divorce but are dependent upon their husbands for the “get” that completes the divorce procedure, are anchored in place by men who refuse to comply. Tethered under water, it is as if they are mired in the muck on the bottom. Although the water that swirls about them represents opportunity, freedom, the ability to navigate to new and different Jewish places, they can barely breathe. How tantalizing to be surrounded by freedom yet to be prohibited from leading the free, fulfilling Jewish lives they crave.

These women can dream of a new life, of new experiences that await them in a different part of this lake or sea they are trapped in. But they can’t, by themselves, hoist the anchor to change their situations. They need our support: our prayers, our petitions, our demonstrations. They need for us to convince our rabbis to take action, for where there is a rabbinic will, there will be found a rabbinic way to free agunot.

As we set aside this matzah in their honor, let us pledge to do more in the coming year to free all agunot from the bondage that weighs particularly heavily as we celebrate freedom this Seder night.

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To Shirley, My Sister-in-Law http://bjyudelson.com/to-shirley-my-sister-in-law/ http://bjyudelson.com/to-shirley-my-sister-in-law/#comments Fri, 20 Mar 2015 19:34:19 +0000 http://bjyudelson.com/?p=260 Oh, Shirley,

Is this good-bye forever?

Will I see you again?

Fifty-three years ago I married your brother.

You welcomed me into your family.

You, with two sisters and other sisters-in-law already,

were a model of friendship and

gentle advice.

You told me, when we first moved to Milwaukee,

that it was up to me to pursue friendships,

that if I liked someone and wanted to be “intimates”

(as my grandmother would have called them)

that it was up to me to call, and call, and call again.

They had their friends and didn’t know they needed me

to join that august group.

I had to show them by being their friend,

even when over and over I called,

not waiting for them to invite me back.

It worked in Milwaukee and Cleveland and Rochester.

Now I reap the reward of those years spent

building a tower of friends.

You, Shirley, my beloved sister

(your mother always called me daughter,

never daughter-in-law,

and I offer you the same)

you deserve the credit for all who today support me as friends.

Now, when I so need them.

Oh, Shirley,

Before you left for the airport,

we didn’t kiss and hug because

you feared giving me your unknown stomach bug.

I don’t want or need your bug,

but I have wanted and needed and cherished your sisterly hug

for a half century and more.

Oh, Shirley,

Will I see you again?

Will my cancer take me out

before we can part with the hug

we awkwardly avoided this morning?

Oh, Shirley,

My sister-in-law, forever my sister.

 

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To Ruth, On Your Birthday – February 25 http://bjyudelson.com/to-ruth-on-your-birthday-february-25/ http://bjyudelson.com/to-ruth-on-your-birthday-february-25/#comments Wed, 25 Feb 2015 01:56:38 +0000 http://bjyudelson.com/?p=254 Your best friends and favorite dresses

parade down the runway of my mind.

I see you, a slim, young teen, surrounded by children

who think you sweet and smart and funny.

 

Through a tearful scrim,

I imagine you in high school and college,

bubbling with life, striving to excel,

sighing over first love.

 

But now…

Why can’t I see you now?

Would your face be lined?

Your hair streaked with gray?

Would your children rise up and make you happy?

Your husband praise you?

 

Last night I tried to see you as a mother,

but you hovered out of sight.

I lay in bed and mourned my child

who never turned fourteen

and won’t appear at forty-eight.

 

Today you smiled at me through crisp blue sky,

still sweet and smart and funny.

Tonight I huddle in my bed and yearn.

You’re still here:  forever thirteen.

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Tutoring: Nourishing the Spirit http://bjyudelson.com/tutoring-nourishing-the-spirit/ http://bjyudelson.com/tutoring-nourishing-the-spirit/#comments Fri, 13 Feb 2015 00:39:54 +0000 http://bjyudelson.com/?p=248 …The single most important predictor of academic success is the amount of time children spend reading books—more important, even, than economic or social status (Atwell, 2007).

At the start of a new school year, I walk down the hall with the mild-mannered fifth grader I have tutored since she was six. “How was your summer? Did you read any books?”

“Only baby books to my sister,” Karly responds. Her pink t-shirt with “princess” in sparkly letters contrasts beautifully with her dark brown skin.

I remember when this princess, whose behavior was always royal in the best sense of the word, struggled to first decode and then understand those “baby books.”

Karly’s first grade year was my second as a volunteer tutor in a school that draws students from all over the city, from Rochester’s infamous “crescent of poverty” to its more comfortable neighborhoods. The previous year I had worked with a first grader who never caught on to the pattern of at-bat-cat or an-man-van. He was sweet, polite, and tried hard. But his educational needs exceeded my capabilities.

After that experience, I reminded the teacher that although I am a lifelong reader, a writer, a mother and a grandma, I have no teaching credentials. “I’d love to continue in your classroom,” I told her, “but please let me work with a child to whom I can make a difference, someone who just needs extra attention and encouragement so that we can both succeed.” My goal was to get kids hooked on stories, to nourish the “soul” while feeding the brain.

Karly was one of three children I tutored my second year. Even without training, it took me little time to discern her deficient vocabulary.

“A. hot. dog. g,g,g,got.”

“That’s right. Got.”

“On. a l-log. in the…” Her voice dropped to a whisper as she tried to figure out the next word. “F – o – g, f – o – g, f – o – g,” she sounded it out under her breath.

“You’ve got it. Say it out loud,” I encouraged.

“Fog?”

I realized that she couldn’t read the word because she didn’t know what it meant. Despite the fact that she lives in an area where fog is not uncommon, and she surely knew the concept, she didn’t know the word.

Not long after that, I discovered that little Karly spoke fluent Creole. She was born in this country, but her parents were born in Haiti. I have always known, abstractly, that children bring their family backgrounds into the classroom. But now I saw just how big a part it plays in a child’s education.

This proved true not just of Karly’s vocabulary struggles, but of social situations as well. Her classmate, Asia, was a hardworking student for the first three-quarters of first grade. When she learned her parents were divorcing, she began to express her unhappiness with name-calling, hitting, and other unacceptable behavior. I rarely saw her the last weeks of school; she was invariably “serving time” in the principal’s office. A year or two later, a little boy, who struck me as quick, alert, and eager to learn, also suffered the consequences of a divorce. The last two months of school, he never appeared on my day. The teacher sadly told me that he seldom showed up; this first-grader’s education seemed to be a casualty of the turmoil surrounding his family life.

Karly finished first grade at grade level. The following year I progressed with her to second grade, where I learned that she didn’t have the storehouse of fairy tales that my children and grandchildren grew up with: “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Three Little Pigs.” No doubt she had heard folktales as a toddler—her father completed his M.S.W. degree that year, and the parents were loving and concerned—but the stories she heard were not the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen tales that make up the American corpus. Her lack of background continued to impede her as we progressed together through the grades. In fifth grade, a book by Roald Dahl spoke to her spirit, and suddenly she turned from a reluctant reader into a more enthusiastic one. The next year she switched to a charter school, and I will never know the rest of her story.

One of the first graders I worked with was Janae. At our second session, she moaned that her older brother told her she must be stupid if she needed a tutor.

“You tell him that it does not mean you’re stupid. It just means you need a little extra help to be the best you can be. People who get help when they need it are smart.”

And smart she was. The one-on-one attention, sight-word drill, and chance to make mistakes in a safe environment proved just the nourishment she needed. Her reading score rose from nine in September to sixteen in January. By June, she was top reader in her class. Credit the teacher for excellent teaching and recognizing Janae’s needs. Credit Janae for hard work. Credit her family’s encouragement. I’ll take credit only for giving her undivided attention, praise, and an occasional hug for a mere 30 minutes every Wednesday morning.

Family background can be deceiving, I discovered. One year I started off by reading The Cat in the Hat first to Davonne, then a half hour later to Janelle. I invited them to chime in with the rhyming words. Before I turned the final page, I asked each one if he or she would tell mom about the Cat’s visit.

“Oh no,” Davonne answered quickly. “I’d just get into trouble.”

Later, I asked Jannelle the same question, “Would you tell your mother about the Cat in the Hat?”

“Yes!” The word flew out of her mouth. “I would never lie. Lying is the worst thing you can do.”

Her response reverberated with the family information she had shared with me: her daddy was in jail. I supposed that her mother had heard innumerable lies from Jannelle’s father and harped to her children about the negative consequences.

Despite Janelle’s unfortunate family situation, she shone under my tutelage. At first, she was reluctant to tackle a word she didn’t recognize immediately. She jumped from her chair at our desk just outside her classroom and ran down the hall.

“Get back here, Jannelle!” I called in a tone that I hoped conveyed both firmness and love. “You can sound out that word. I know you can.” With a little prompting and a large dose of encouragement, she puzzled it out.

One June day, we sat at our desk in the hall. Each of Jannelle’s braids was clipped off with a different color barrette that matched her pants and t-shirt. Months before I had asked if her mother re-braided her hair every morning, and had felt somehow reassured to know that she only did it about once a week. Janelle was reading me a Dr. Seuss book when the principal walked past.

“Mr. Kuter,” I said. “Jannelle has almost finished reading this book, and when she can read it, it’s hers.”

He smiled at her. “Janelle, I want you to come to my office later to read it to me.” He looked at me and added, “Please tell her teacher to send her down.” He moved on, and Janelle, motivated by the prospect of possessing her own book, her second, sat through more pages at one time than was her custom.

Before I left for the day, I repeated the conversation to the teacher. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” she asked me. “At the beginning of the year, she wouldn’t even read aloud in front of the three other children in her reading group. You have given her so much self-confidence.”

My reward was knowing that Jannelle would enter second grade reading at grade level, with the self-assurance, desire, and determination to succeed in school.

First graders need to memorize sight words. As the year progresses, we work our way from the yellow flash cards to the purple, from frequently used words like “can” and “day” to irrationally spelled words like “should” and “night.” I flip card after card, and my students get better and better at identifying them correctly.

“Which kind of ‘to’ is that?” I ask.

“I’m going to the store.”

A big smile, a high five, and we continue.

One year I tutored two first graders, both vying to be the first to work with me each week. Our final session, I consented to Jeylin’s request that all three of us work together. I had brought an end-of-school gift for each, books of course, Frog and Toad Are Friends for one, Little Bear’s Visit for the other. Jeylin read a chapter in hers to Briyah, then Briyah read a chapter of Little Bear to Jeylin. It was a perfect year-end wrap-up. The following week, I saw them one more time at an ice cream social the school put on for its tutors and their kids. We stood in a seemingly endless line awaiting the ice cream that had been left too long in the freezer and was being spooned out, one tiny hack at a time. I asked the girls if they had had time to read their new books. Jeylin shook her head, no, but Briyah smiled broadly.

“Yes,” she said. “Little Bear’s Visit is my favorite book.”

A favorite book. This may not sound like a big deal to parents whose children have many books, are read to often as toddlers, and become avid readers themselves. But for these inner-city youngsters, who have virtually no books except the ones I give them, it is a HUGE deal. To have a favorite book means liking it enough to want to read it more than once. In Briyah’s case, it may well have been despite, rather than because of, her home environment. It means that I succeeded in my primary goal as a tutor: to convey my love of stories and reading to my young charges.

Alas, this was my capstone experience as a tutor. The next year, I quietly faded away midyear because of illness, no doubt disappointing two children who deserved better from me than I was able to give them. Now I dare not go into that hotbed of germs known as an elementary school. Instead, I sometimes volunteer at the local food cupboard. It’s what I can handle, and it’s better to volunteer there than nowhere.

But I miss tutoring. I miss the relationships I formed with those budding learners. I miss the second graders who see me in the hall, run over, and beg me to please tutor them again this year. I miss watching them grow as readers, learners, and people. I miss their hugs, and I miss their appreciation. I still treasure the note Karly sent me in ragged, first-grade printing at the end of our first year together: “Thank you for making me smart.”

I didn’t make her smart—she was smart, as I told her—but I did give her a chance to discover her own intelligence.

If eyes are a window to the soul, to paraphrase Shakespeare, then perhaps watching a child learn to read is a window to the mind. What a privilege those years were of gaining access to the minds and spirits of inner-city children who, with a little extra help, may blossom into solid learners. For me, it was soul food.

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All I Want For Hanukkah http://bjyudelson.com/all-i-want-for-hanukkah/ http://bjyudelson.com/all-i-want-for-hanukkah/#comments Sun, 21 Dec 2014 17:04:16 +0000 http://bjyudelson.com/?p=238 I want my hair back. My own hair. Not some stranger’s. Mine. Please.

I really hate the bodiless, insipid excuse for hair I see in the mirror these days. It’s as if someone snatched my own dense mane and replaced it with limp, straight locks that make every day a bad hair day.

In every childhood picture I have a thick, short mop. In some shots, you’d even call it bushy. My sisters went through their long-haired stages, bushyhairbut if the photographs I’ve seen tell the full story, I never did. I don’t know if I never asked or if my mother just knew that long hair wasn’t right for me.

When I was in my late teens, my then-boyfriend asked me to let my hair grow long. I tried, really I did. After a few months’ watching hair grow out and not down, I gave up and got a short, stylish cut. My boyfriend, now my husband, either didn’t notice or chose not to comment.

In my thirties, shags were the hot style. I thought maybe I could handle short sides with a longer back. But once it grew, I didn’t know what to do with that layer of hair tickling my neck. After a few months of fiddling with it, I gave up and returned to a short, crisp style.

In my forties, my hairdresser told me that people paid her good money to make their hair look the way mine did naturally. I was lucky: a streak of white frosted the front of my short, black, wavy hair.

In my fifties, I commented one day to a friend sitting behind me as we waited for a program to begin that except for that frosted front, I wasn’t very gray yet. Through her laughter, she said, “You can’t see the back.” As soon as I got home, I adjusted a small hand-held mirror so I could see the back of my head in the bathroom mirror. Sure enough: a large, white blob, probably two inches in diameter, smack dab in the center.

silverhairIn my sixties, an acquaintance insisted that I colored my hair. “Why else would you have that black fringe extending from your ears across the back?” she asked. I could only repeat that I had never colored my hair. By then, the front was no longer frosted but salt-and-pepper gray.

In my seventies, I began losing my hair—first a bit at a time as the chemotherapy took hold, then by the handful. I had thought I would get it shaved but found I couldn’t bring myself to go bald that suddenly. And then I became intrigued by the falling-out pattern: first that bright white spot in the center of the back, then the silvery gray top and front, and last of all the black fringe.

To my surprise, I was more captivated by the thought that white hair might be weaker than black than I was upset at losing it. “Hair is only hair,” I told my family and friends, “and I’m still here. With or without hair, it doesn’t matter.” Those weren’t just empty words; I believed them then and still do. One day as I passed a mirror, my father—gone for over a decade—looked back at me. Bald, I looked just like him, as noted in the following weeks by my son and a cousin, who independently commented on how much I looked like Granddad/Uncle Joe. This made the hairless thing almost fun.

Friends who had been through chemo told me that my hair would grow back thick and curly, but they were wrong. It arrived slowly, barely noticeably, and it was thin, straight, and a totally different, limp texture. I was almost looking forward to losing it again as I began to repeat the chemotherapy I had a year ago. But this new pseudo-hair wasn’t even cooperative enough to fall out. After the first few fistfuls, it departed only a wisp at a time, just enough to make it thinner, but not enough to give me a shiny pate.current hair

I know I’m still the same person, through thick hair or thin, but if I’m going to have hair, then I want my own back: my real locks, my own thick tresses that make me look and feel like me. I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. I’m not asking for the level of energy and stamina I was used to before cancer crept into my body. I’m not demanding that the sand that seems to surround my feet, thanks to neuropathy brought on by chemotherapy, disappear. I’m not even hoping for a return to the healthy immune system with which I was blessed for most of my life. But all I want for Hanukkah, damn it, is my own thick hair.

The king in A.A. Milne’s “The King’s Breakfast” comes to mind:

“Nobody,”

He whimpered,

“Could call me

A fussy man;

I only want

A little bit

Of butter for

My bread!”

 

Nobody,

I whimper,

Could call me

A fussy dame;

I only want

A little bit

Of thickness on

My head.

 

 

 

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