Cancer is not magic

by Brian on June 20, 2020

in Cancer,Food,Travel

When I was first diagnosed with cancer over two years ago, I so much wanted to believe in magic. Not that there would be a cure – follicular lymphoma is a chronic cancer; treatable but incurable, with no magic bullet hovering on the horizon. It’s not unlike the long-term prospects for COVID-19 – mostly manageable but probably with us in one form or another for the foreseeable future.

Rather, the magic I sought was that having cancer would somehow transform me. I would become a different person: my values would change, I would stop stressing over minutia and would spend more time doing what I loved with people who I cherished. 

This “new me” would embrace the moments when I felt well and throw myself fully into whatever I chose to do, without hesitation or regret. 

It was fiction that led me to believe in this kind of magic. 

So often in books, movies and TV, the protagonist who goes through a major crisis always seems to come out conclusively changed. 

Following a panic attack, Randall on the TV show This is Us decides he’s fed up with crunching numbers for a living and runs for city councilman. 

After many repetitions and too much Sonny and Cher, Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day turns into a sweetheart who finally gets the girl.

Walter White was a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher before his terminal cancer diagnosis. By the end of Breaking Bad, he’d become a drug kingpin and a mastermind in cooking crystal meth – changed for sure, albeit not necessarily for the better.

In my experience, however, real life seems to be less about sudden, dramatic transformation and more about making small iterations and incremental adjustments.

We get a new job which is mostly like the old one with a few tweaks. Do that enough over a period of 20 or 30 years, and you’ve built yourself a career. 

Even getting married and having children, which might seem to be the ultimate transformative acts, can be broken down into smaller steps, each of which builds sequentially upon the former.

That’s not to say the end results can’t be deeply satisfying. Still, I was hoping for real magic when cancer came into my life. 

One area in particular where I hoped there could be a change – and which now, with COVID-19 bearing down on us, seems cruelly unachievable – was spontaneity. 

I’ve always been a very planned out kind of guy. If my wife, Jody, and I wanted to go on a vacation overseas (back when you could do such things), I would first exhaustively research where and when to go and what to do. I could easily spend more time looking into all our options than the trip itself would take.

A few weeks before the COVID-19 restrictions began, all three of our adult children announced they were going out of town for Shabbat. 

“Let’s go away, too. We could get a Daka 90,” I said to Jody, citing the name of an Israeli website specializing in last-minute, low-budget trips.

I immediately jumped online. There were amazing deals for a weekend in Crete, Kos or Rhodes: a short flight and a 5-star all-inclusive resort for not much more than buying food for a Shabbat at home. 

But then reality sunk in. Jody had clients she’d have to cancel on Thursday and Sunday. I’d need travel insurance, which is not a simple (nor inexpensive) thing when you have cancer. I’d have to scramble to get a note from my doctor. 

“Maybe we should do this another time, when we can plan it out properly,” Jody suggested.

Jody was right, but I felt crushed – I wanted to be impulsive for once. I wanted the magic. 

That decision feels doubly depressing now: who knew then that, just a few weeks later, the very concept of vacation would become verboten?

“I feel like I’m stuck in perpetual status quo,” I complained to my therapist. “Not just about being spontaneous. Nothing seems to have changed since the cancer.”

“Do you really have to transform yourself into someone entirely brand new?” she asked. “Maybe small steps are enough. What could you do this weekend that would be modest but still spontaneous?”

I was quiet for a moment. “We could go out to a nice brunch, in Israel, instead of flying to Greece,” I suggested. That would at least be different: Fridays for me are usually a day of doing errands – washing clothes and cleaning the kitchen – before squeezing in just a little more work before the sun sets.

“There’s a place I’ve been dying to try out up in the hills outside Jerusalem,” I added. “It’s supposed to be really gourmet.”

“How would that feel?”

“Good, I think.” I paused. “Yes, very good.”

And that’s how, with just a day’s notice, we made reservations to eat at Rama’s Kitchen – a rustic restaurant in the Judean hills with a spectacular view over Nahal Kfira, its own organic garden and some very creative dishes (two thumbs up for the eggplant knafeh).

We followed up our meal up with a leisurely mountain walk to work off our food. 

It wasn’t the big transformation I originally had craved. But, looking back now, in light of the health and economic devastation to come, it was truly magical.

A COVID-19 update: Rama’s Kitchen has added a magic new option: take-away picnic baskets fit for a foodie – collect yours at the restaurant, then pick a tree in the nearby woods under which to feast. 

I first wished for magic at The Jerusalem Post.

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