And You Chose Life

My friend G's cancer has returned. I had called to wish him a Happy New Year and he said he’d settle for just a year. Neither of us laughed.

Maybe I am at the age when suddenly it’s everywhere. “A”’s wife is flying to Germany for another round of treatments, “M”’s wife no longer recognizes her children. “V” stopped the treatments and left to New York where she intends to enjoy every last minute. Her mother cried for two weeks but she would not back down.

“They are poisoning me,” she told her. “I don’t feel the cancer but the chemo is killing me.” That’s what they call it ‘Chemo’ a pet name for something that is far from being a pet.

I didn’t attend I's funeral because I was out of the country. She has two young daughters, one the same age as my son Lior. Just before she died, she asked me to help her get a second opinion from a professor I knew. He looked at her medical records and said that nothing could be done.

“We could give her another round of treatments but at this point that would just be cruel,” he explained. So I lied to her and she died a month later. I am not particularly proud of what I did.

At the Shiva I asked a woman doctor I respect how she tells them. “I respond according to what they ask me,” she said.

I did not understand.

“If someone sits opposite me and says, ‘Doctor, tell me the entire truth,’ then I do. If he says, ‘Doctor, what can be done?’ I tell him how the treatments are carried out. If he asks, ‘Doctor, will I live?’ I say, ‘yes, of course.’”

I asked her what is preferable. “The optimists live longest,” she said, “but it’s not always worth their while.”

Last party

Before he died, Dan Ben Amotz threw a party. He invited everyone he loved and everyone he hated. Everyone ate, drank, laughed and told stories. I wasn’t invited but the paper for which I worked at the time asked me to write up the event.

“Every member of my generation,” I wrote, “stood outside the window and tried to look in.”

The cancer was eating away at his mouth and everyone there had the same thought: At the end of the night he is going to shoot himself in the head. He never intended to suffer the treatment process. We were wrong. He went home to fight and fight and fight and when he lost he was barely one quarter of his former self, skin hanging off the bones, pathetic and hooked up to machines, still fighting for another day, another five minutes, another breath.

Even a bad life is better than the alternative. We went to visit ‘G’ during his last round of treatments in hospital and two weeks later we paid a visit to his wife on the other side of the parking lot because they had just had a baby girl. She got pregnant before the cancer was diagnosed and as her belly swelled, he lost 50 pounds. Last week, the vision went in one of his eyes and now he sees his new baby daughter from the left only.

“I always knew that everyone dies in the end,” wrote William Saroyan in his last article, “but I thought it would pass me by.”

What to do?

I understand that death will not pass me by but haven't a clue what to do with the information. I have two diametrically opposed approaches.

The first says: Take care of yourself. Stay away from cigarettes. Drink only mineral water. Work out. Avoid cheese with a 30 percent or more fat content because you can actually hear it clogging the arteries. Write a letter against the reopening of the Reading power station. Make sure there is no asbestos in the roof. Avoid the well-known Hungarian affection for spicy sausages because who knows what kind of crap they put in them.

As I said, I’m at that age. I am in good physical health but if I wake up in the middle of the night and feel a pain underneath my ribs I stay awake until it passes. I think about my kids, how they will turn out, what kind of people they will be, who they will choose for partners, what kind of lives they will lead. If I have one job in this life it is to rescue them once from a major problem. Don’t know what it will be but it will be me that saves them

The other approach says that one must live each moment to its fullest. I will feel pretty idiotic if, let’s say, a terrorist blows up right next to me and all I’ve eaten is granola.

We are made up of the sum total of our memories. The time I rented a Vespa in Barcelona and almost got run over. The time I got pissed in London with a well known English author who broke out in tears. The wonderful dinner when the color of the eyes of the woman sitting opposite was more important than the amount of cholesterol in the food.

The intense life in the city, stressful, restless. Nothing I can do about it, I’m a city kid. Country air makes me nervous and affects my respiratory system. If something of me remains (probably not but it’s okay to hope) it would be the book I am writing night after night, from smoke to smoke, coffee to coffee, peeling from inside of me secrets even I did not know.

The Talmud says that God helps us to forget the existence of death. “Otherwise man would not build or plant, and would say: Tomorrow I die, why should I knock myself out for others?”

If you remember how small and fleeting our existence is, then everything becomes futile. I barely remember my grandmother. She was a beautiful woman, married three times, escaped the Nazis, escaped Communism, and came to build a country and a Bridge Club on the fourth floor of Duvnov Street.

Once my sister and I are gone, there will be no one who remembers her. For every Napoleon and Rambam whose posterity is guaranteed, there are 10 billion like us, who come and go leaving only dust behind. So God decided it is preferable we don’t think about that.

It’s just that there are days that make that impossible and I do not meant the ten days of penitence. It’s the ‘every’ days like when ‘G’ says he’ll stop by in the evening if he feels up to it.

This is a very private decision – and I don’t swear that I’m right – but I choose the second approach. It is possible that when my time comes I may regret my choice. They will surely have to drag me kicking and screaming and regretting every salami I ever ate, but at least I will have known that there is life before death.

“You can tell me the entire truth,” I will say to the wise doctor, “at least I know I’ve enjoyed myself up to now.”

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