Or Hapanim

Tomorrow, Ann and I go off to the Reform movement’s Santa Cruz Kallah, for a few days of study, prayer, eating, schmoozing and sleeping. She’s driving; I’m walking with a cane. (She’s already (and quite rightly) accused me of having “caneitude,” a reference to my using the cane for gesturing, emphasis, and general prop-ness as much as (if not more so) than as a walking aid. Bwahahaha.)

I feel… well, apart from the four-inch stitch in my extreme lower right abdomen, the pain and stiffness of the surgery, and the grogginess of the (still-necessary) painkillers, I FEEL *G*O*O*D*!*!*! Wow. I mean REALLY good, psychically, physically, emotionally, etc. I’ll post something I just sent to both of our tight-knit social circles (our synagogue and our Renfaire tribe) which describes that in a general way, but the thoughts and feelings are flooding me by turns: relief, awe, gratitude, fatigue, triumph, grim determination, overwhelming appreciation of my family and friends, puzzlement, frustration at the inhibitory effect of the narcotics on my ability to express myself (self-expression is a cornerstone of my sense of identity, so this is perhaps the hardest of the side-effects of “it”), a sense that “This is/was a Big Thing,” and above it all a strong sense of surreality.

Surreality as expressed in the following post. Right now Ann and I are going to have a vanilla Tofutti Cutie (dairyless ice-cream sandwiches) and go to bed. Oh, and I expect to be back at work, G-d willing, on August 2.

And then, aside from the scar, It Will All Be A Memory… pshyeah. Ri-i-i-i-i-i-i-ight.

Anyway, here’s what I said to everyone:


Date: Mon, 15 Jul 2002 08:55:45 -0700 (PDT)

Shalom chaverim,

Less than a month after I was diagnosed with cancer, Ann & I are now left
with a surreal sense of, "What just happened here?"

It feels like something ugly, huge, hairy and sticky just brushed through
the house with a loud howl of trembling and medicine, leaving barely a
memory (and a few stitches) in its wake.

That's not entirely true, of course. What it chiefly left me with is an
overwhelming sense of gratitude for my life and for the people with whom I
am blessed enough to share it -- for all of your prayers, and concern, and
visits, and dinner, and support, and calls, and advice, and just for being
there. With an overwhelming force of love like that, the awful parts didn't
stand a chance -- not that they weren't still awful, but they were certainly
bearable, since I knew that I wasn't alone.

You all helped me see that, and from the beginning, when I was still
assimilating the fact that I /had/ cancer. I don't know what Ann & I would
have done without you all. "Thank you" doesn't exactly cut it -- I sort of
fantasize lining up everyone so that I can soundly hug you all one by one --
but it's the best I can do over the email.

I love you all. Thank you. Thank you.

-=N=-

Afterwards, Sleepy

Email to friends:

Date: Thu, 11 Jul 2002 17:25:32 -0700 (PDT)

Baruch atah H', hatov v'hameitiv.

To be brief, since I have to get back into bed (my wiufe is growling at me,
and rightly so) -- The cancer is gone -- removed with the testicle. No chemo
necesary; 95% no radiation necessary either. Feel free to pass this along to
anyone interested.

THANK YOU for your prayers and support!

Baruch Hashem,

Neal Ross Attinson

Calm Before the Knife

The weird thing is, I’m still trying to figure out why I’m not SCARED.

I often think I’m too stupid to realize when my life, reputation, or other reality-anchors are in danger. I mean, I experienced the certainty of death in February 1988 while serving as a deckhand on the Golden Hinde II, when a freighter loomed out of the midnight fog and into our tiny ship just west of the shark-rich Golden Gate (I recall turning to my fellow foredeck-perched shipmates just before impact and actually saying, “I know this is a cliche, but it really has been nice knowing you all”). Since then, everything has seemed like “Free Time” — it’s helpful to tell myself, “As bad as this current situation is, at least I’m not Carcharadon carcharias poo.” My self-perception is thus of this well-meaning fellow bumbling from one situation to the next, lope-diddy-lope, something like Swee’Pea gurgling in the robot factory while a frantic Popeye rushes frantically (and unnecessarily) to save him.

Well, I don’t always feel that way. But a lot of the time I do. Maybe everyone does. I don’t know.

It’s therefore probably a mistake to obsess over why I don’t feel something. Mostly what I’m feeling right now is testicular discomfort (I really should go lay down), happy wooziness from the painkillers, frustration and inconvenience, uselessness, and a deep gratitude for having this opportunity to learn stuff I otherwise wouldn’t have. (Did I write that already? Well, I still feel that way. I hate writing it out, though, because it makes me sound like some sort of pious religious fanatic. I hate pious religious fanatics. Hypocritical ones, anyway.)

So. Surgery tomorrow. The schedule, I have been informed, is as follows:

  • 12 a.m. to 10 a.m. — No food intake except for clear liquids.
  • 1:30 p.m. — Registration and pre-surgical prep (IV drip, interesting drugs)
  • (1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. — Hold Ann’s hand and lamely attempt to entertain her with gallows humor peppered with Seinfeld references
  • 3:30 p.m. — Surgery
  • 4:30 p.m. — Recovery room
  • 6:30 p.m. — Homecoming

Then, on Thursday, a trip to my oncologist in Marin County to get the pathology.

Impatient Patient

Well, two weeks after the diagnosis, and I’m waiting another week for the surgery. I actually could have had it done sooner (like last week) had I elected to have it done in Petaluma (where my new urologist is based), except that I wanted it done here in Sonoma for two reasons: a) the hospital is three blocks from my house, instead of a 20-minute drive over hill and dale and b) two of the four people who would be operating in Sonoma are good friends of Ann’s and mine. (The third is my new urologist, and the fourth — an OR nurse — is the wife of a close colleague at the newspaper.) Since it’s not jeopardizing my health to wait that long, I figured I’d opt for the unique experience of being wheeled into an operating room full of friends.

Speaking of friends, and cancer, and how I’m doing, here’s what I wrote this morning to an online friend and mentor, a Breslover Chasid living in Jerusalem:

"I go in for surgery (a starboard orchiectomy) on July 9, at 3:30 p.m. California time. My CAT scans and bloodwork look good, with the doctors saying there's no evidence of lymphoma, Baruch Hashem. But we won't know until the orchiectomy and pathology thereof whether or not that's true, so perhaps I ought to say 'B'shaa tovah [in a good hour].' ;-) For now, anyway. The doctors assure me that, as far as they know, I should be ultimately fine, though it's unclear at this point what that will entail -- either surgery followed by a little chemo and radiation, or surgery followed by a lot of chemo and radiation. Either way, it's a useful experience which I hope to use in my rabbinate.

"One downside is that I'm in a bit of pain since last Sunday, so am taking mild opiates (Vicodin, or hydrocodone). I'm also drawing disability because I went into the newspaper office three days after my diagnosis, looked at my desk, and thought, 'There's no

&^%$#@!

way I can do this right now' (pardon my language). After assuring my boss that I'm not a wimp (his response -- "You've pretty much proved that on numerous occasions -- but you have a priority, now, so go home"), I discovered that the pain and attendant medication would keep me from working anyway. I can't believe how supportive and loving everyone has been.

"To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from the TV program The Simpsons, 'Baruch Hashem for sending the doctors to save me from the cancer Hashem sent.' However, the vicodin is making it difficult for me to study -- intolerable! ;-) Here I am, literally surrounded by seforim [holy books] and the time in which to study them, and unable to concentrate! But that's one of the reasons I love Hashem -- because Hashem's sense of humor is weirder than my own."

The waiting is sort of getting to me, in that it’s trying my patience, in that it’s a TOTAL DRAG not to be able to read (my first love!) since my attention wanders after about a half-page or so. Fortunately, however, I was hard-bitten by the original Dungeons and Dragons bug while a wee high-school junior lad of 16 in 1978, and have been writing a largely Arduin-basedcampaign off-and-on ever since. I’m doing a lot of work on the basic document right now, since it’s pure creativity on a deadlineless basis (“Should the elves live behind this mountain? Where shall I put the goblins? Why hasn’t anyone slain this dragon yet?”) It’s nice to have some mental knitting; maybe I’ll post it when I’m done.

Follow the Bouncing Ball

If one more person tells me that I can go on to win the Tour de France, I’m gonna scream.

On Tuesday, 6/18/02, I was told that my right testicle has to be removed due to a cancerous tumor therein. There is a possibility that it’s linked to lymphoma, but the doctors (and I) won’t know until the pathology is done (meaning — until they slice up and analyze the offending organ). Surgery is tentatively scheduled for next week or the week after.

It’s definitely cancer, but we don’t know much more than that. However, as a doctor friend told us Tuesday, “If you’re going to have cancer, this is the kind to get” — meaning that it’s treatable and beatable. If it’s testicular, it may be gone with the testicle. If not… things will suck for a while, and then, G-d willing and from what I hear, get much better.

This all “started” in late May, when I had exited the shower and was clowning in front of Ann a la Charles Atlas. “Hmm,” she said. “What’s that lump? You’re calling the doctor on Monday.”

I did so, also because I’ve been having some weird gut pain for about two months now — no loss of appetite or digestive problems, just low level, colicky pain with occasional spasms. (Interestingly, this caused me to lose not only a week’s work last month but also triggered an intense spiritual crisis of the “separation-from-G?d” variety, from which I seem to be fully recovered, thank G-d.) But “that lump” turned out to be an indefinite mass which, while itself benign, triggered an ultrasound which disclosed that my right testis is cratered like the moon. And so we come to the present, awaiting surgery and wondering what’s next.

Meanwhile, I seem to be surrounded by an amazing network of friends who are, literally, coming out of the woodwork to express support. I don’t know what I did to deserve that (although my rabbi tells me that I should try to figure it out), but I’m glad — it’s nice to be hugged so soundly and unexpectedly. But this Tour de France stuff… I thought it had something to do with the narrow bicycle seat, etc. But there’s this Lance Armstrong fellow who apparently beat testicular cancer and went on to win the Tour de France twice… Personally, I’d rather play the violin. (Does anyone still make that joke?)

Right now I’m still sort of in the “what the…?” stage. I passed through anger for about five minutes during dinner Tuesday, but as I don’t do anger well, it didn’t stick around for long. What I mainly feel right now is weird — my gut pain is actually subsiding somewhat, most likely due to the laxative I took last night (an abdominal X-ray yesterday disclosed to my gastroenterologist that what everyone suspected about me is true. So to speak. Nonethelss, it’s a colonoscopy for ol’ Nealo on July 9). But I feel weird because, while I have a serious illness, I don’t feel seriously ill. It’s a bit of a cognitive dissonance. I mean, I’m not minimizing this or anything — but I don’t feel sick. I feel optimistic, and trusting, and mostly worried about Ann, since I know from experience that stuff like this can be harder on the loved one than on the patient.

It’s interesting that one of the first things I thought was, “Well, maybe I can use this as a tool when someone comes to tell Rabbi Neal that he or she is going through something similar.” I think that, just as in anything else, there is an art to being sick — to being cognizant of one’s own needs, but also the needs of well-wishers. To hearing, for example, “Well, my Uncle Hymie went through the same thing — you’ll be fine” not as a minimization or a dismissal (as some protective people in my life have implied), but from not knowing what else to say in support and comfort.

To paraphrase Bilbo Baggins: “Don’t lessons ever have an end?” Gosh, I sure hope not! Anyway, I’ll write more as something develops — or doesn’t, as the case may be.

Shema Echad, Shnei Regalim

Couple of random recent things:

1.) An amazing and unexpected side effect of daily prayer (which, last night in the shower, I have decided to call “Jewish text-guided meditation”) is the feeling of expansion and contraction. This occurred to me… a week ago? when I was davening in the morning. The morning before, I felt that my prayer-session contracted me into a single still point from which I could then go forth into the world. The next morning, I felt it again — with the added fillip of feeling that I was at the point between the waves, so to speak. I’m not sure I’m explaining this well, since it’s more of a visual impression than anything else. But it gives me something *ELSE* to shoot for.

2.) During a Shabbos walk-discussion with Ann (one of our great Shabbos joys), I was able to put into words soemthing that had been bugging me for a while about treading the rabbinical path — the balance between humility and self-aggrandizement. In other words, the paradox between seeking the center of attention in order to remove yourself from it. “I like being the center of attention,” I told Ann, “but I don’t like liking it.” She looked at me with her wise and playful eyes and said “There’s your problem and solution right there.” (She’s the one who really should be getting s’micha.)

Strange Connectors

After covering the fire training Sunday, I came home and showered before writing out the sermon/message I was asked to deliver at that afternoon’s annual interfaith Service of Remembrance, sponsored by one of the local hospices. They do a lot of important work, and I’ve written stories about their events every year I was a reporter. Everyone I talk to describes them as “angels of mercy who take over your house and help you more than you’d ever imagine.”

One year, they asked me to represent the Jewish community at the remembrance service by delivering the kaddish. The next year, they asked me to speak a few words at their annual tree-lighting ceremony in Sonoma Plaza (after I had written about one of their client families). Here is what I said this year:
—————————————
D’var Aveilut – 28 April 2002

Today I’d like to tell you about one of the scariest things I ever did.

I write for the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Two years ago, I also began assisting Rabbi Bridget Wynne in her duties at Congregation Shir Shalom here in Sonoma. I think religion and reporting have the following in common: both can make us pay close attention to the world in order to help people make sense of it.

Jewish tradition describes two early stages of mourning, respectively called aninut and shiva. Aninut describes the period between death and burial; shiva encompasses the first seven days after burial, when grief is the most intense.

One of the traditions of shiva to hold the three daily worship services at the mourner’s home, so that they can say the obligatory prayers without having to go out. Judaism is mostly a religion of law, so any community services are required to have at least 10 people, called a minyan, in order to be legal. From a psychological perspective, this also means that, in a shiva minyan, the mourner is never alone.

Last autumn, one of our congregants, Gail Lutolf, died after a long illness. Our rabbi conducted the funeral, but wasn’t available to lead the shiva minyan. So she asked me to do it.

At this point, I had led a variety of services, but never in a house of mourning. But this is one of the things I have pledged my life to do. So with a pounding heart, and a sense of being in way over my head, I drove to Gail’s small but spacious house off Arnold Drive and knocked on the door.

Up to that point I had been arguing with myself over the most appropriate way to conduct the service. I mean, I knew the liturgy inside and out. But I didn’t know what to say to the people inside. What words of wisdom or comfort could I offer? For one thing, I’m not very wise, and for another, words aren’t all that comforting. For this reason, Jewish tradition teaches us that when we visit a mourner, we don’t say anything – we let them say something first, if they want. But when I knocked on the door, that all sounded trite to me — and all I could feel was afraid.

But Gail’s family – her husband, brother, mom, sister and assorted relatives – welcomed me warmly into the house. Some of our fellow congregants were there, too, to help make the minyan. They didn’t seem to know any more than I did what we should be doing. So we did what we thought best – we got out the prayer books and began the service.

I had never met Gail. And after the service, I didn’t speak – I listened. I learned a lot about her that night – her love of dogs and people, of writing, of her husband and family. Her infectious laugh and broad sense of humor. What sort of impression she made on the world of those who knew her – and what sort of hole remained when she left. By turns, we all laughed, and cried, and sat thoughfully, and then finished the service and said our goodbyes. When I went back the next night, it was like meeting old friends. And when I left again, I felt that I too had lost a friend – one that I had never known.

Let’s take a moment to look around the room.

We may not know each other, but we all have something in common. All of us have been touched by someone who isn’t here any more. We can see it in each other’s eyes, hear it in each other’s breathing, and know it in each other’s hearts. We don’t need to speak it in order to know it – we just have to be here.

In that way, I think the lives which touched us individually also touch us as a community. We learned something from these people – we carry them with us wherever we go – and whether or not we’re aware of it, we pass a part of them along to everyone we meet.

As I said, I never met Gail Lutolf. But she taught me two valuable lessons about connection.

The first is that, like an endless chain of relay racers, we are the link between those who came before us, and those whom we ourselves will leave behind. We stand in the center, holding hands with the future and with the past. And this is true whether or not we see it.

The second is that those links are easier to spot than we may think. In fact, they’re as close as the person sitting next to us – if only we learn how to listen.