Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book of Ruth

I was one of the presenters at last night's Tikkun Leil Shavuot at TBEMC:

On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth. It is an interesting read as it gives us a window into our ancestors’ culture and society, social mores very different from ours, our essential attitude towards converts, and color on the life of King David’s great grandmother. My main takeaway from this story is as a parable of how we are to deal with the curve balls that life throws at us all.

My father, of blessed memory, was fond of quoting to me, much to my annoyance, a contracts professor he had in law school. When a student in his class complained about the tremendous amount of material he had to understand for an upcoming exam, the professor sympathetically admonished, “Young man, as you go through life you will meet with many vicissitudes, this is merely one of them.” In retrospect, none of the hardships I was complaining about when I elicited this quote from my dad were of any real consequence.

My dad, on the other hand, early in his marriage was taking law school classes at night, and wrestling with the family furniture store, which he despised, to support his wife and mother. Briefly, during college he enlisted in the Navy, graduated as a “90-day wonder ensign” from a WWII officer training program at Union College, was assigned to an LCT, replaced his commanding officer three days before D-day when his superior went down with an emergency appendectomy, ferried tanks to Omaha beach in the first wave ashore on D-day, and was sent home early (but after the fighting ended) on compassionate leave to say goodbye to his father who quickly died of an aggressive cancer. Thus, the furniture store. Long story short, my parents struggled a bit to have children; dad was sworn in as a lawyer the day I was born. The judge swore him in first and sent him home.

The more perspicacious of you may have noticed that I too have challenges, although I have never had to uncover someone’s feet on the pitch dark threshing floor. But, I can tell you all that what you see is very different from what I perceive. I have MS, as do a surprising number of other members of TBEMC. Every case of MS is different. I have a developed a few obvious disabilities, but do not suffer from many of the more hidden symptoms that afflict others—you can never assume that what you can see tells the whole story. Also, note that I have disabilities—I am NOT disabled.

My journey with MS started with a transient case of optic neuritis late in my junior year of college. Under today’s protocols I would be immediately referred to a neurologist. In 1974 even doctors spoke of MS only in hushed voices. Late the following year I developed some tingling in my left arm. They sent me for a spinal tap and discovered white blood cells in my spinal fluid. Since there was no treatment and no definitive prognosis, my doctor in consultation with my parents elected not to mention the probability of MS. Shocking by today’s standards, as perhaps is some of what we read in the Book of Ruth. About five years later I developed a pronounced limp and was appropriately diagnosed and informed. The limp disappeared.

At the time, all I could learn on my own about MS was that it was a progressive, incurable disease with no possible treatment. While progressive, there was no way to predict the course of the disease over time. The only medical advice I got was to cut down on my activities and get my rest. The best intelligence I got from my own research was that it was essential to keep my employer in the dark about the MS, as it would surely both affect my career advancement, and make it impossible for them to continue my health insurance. The only person I knew who had had MS was a good friend of my parents who died paralyzed in a VA hospital. My father had once opined that if Sy Zinderman had foreseen the last few years of his life, he would have ended it while he was still physically able.

In 1982, when Sarah was about a year old a beloved colleague with MS died of a heart attack in his car in the Bell Labs parking lot. I remember praying that I would live long enough to see Sarah’s bat mitzvah. It’s not that the MS was noticeably progressing, but the combination of uncertainty and ignorance really weighed at times. However, I never really embraced the advice about cutting back my activities.

In 1996, 22 years after my first symptom appeared the first treatment to slow the progression of MS made it to the market. I injected myself with betaseron every other day until 3 weeks ago. That’s almost 4,000 times. We now have almost a dozen treatments for different forms of MS, and I started a new one on May 1. I thought I might miss the injection ritual practiced religiously for almost 22 years. Not even a little bit.

I have a promising new treatment. I have new mobility assistance toys. I have reared (with lots of help) three children through bar/bat mitzvah to productive adulthood. I have participated in three lovely weddings to partners I truly like and—bonus—machatunim I like as well. I have the four sweetest, smartest grandchildren in the world.

Back to Ruth, our original story.

Ruth’s husband died, and to make matters worse her brother-in-law also dies. Ruth is, using the ancient language of our people, auf tsuris. She has no source of support. Her backup husband is gone, and she decides that her best course of action is to make common cause with her mother-in-law. She travels with Naomi back to her, now their people, which was probably an arduous and possibly dangerous journey. Naomi gives Ruth some, shall we say, dating advice based on her wisdom, experience, and understanding of the character qualities of Boaz. Ruth puts her faith in Naomi and follows through on the plan Naomi laid out. It’s a successful plan, and a happily ever after story.

Is this the story of an extraordinary person doing extraordinary things? Not really. To me this is the story of an ordinary person facing common life vicissitudes. She decides what is important to her, who is important to her, who she is going to trust, and places one foot in front of the other. She does what is necessary. She faces the future with faith, optimism, and hope; she knows the only direction to go is forward.

It was difficult to get my father to talk about the war; he had to be in the right mood. The stories he told were exciting, and to me he was exceptional. But, as a member of the greatest generation his trajectory through life was not unique. Hundreds of thousands of men and women interrupted their lives for war, then picked up their lives again. While many were damaged by the war, most who came home eventually resumed normal, successful, productive lives and faced the normal vagaries of building careers, families, and communities. They did what was required of them. One step at a time forward, into the future with faith, optimism, and determination.

Earlier I told you that with me what you see is very different from what I perceive. Some people see me as unstoppable. I stop. Some people only see me as a four to ten-minute delay as the bus driver wrestles with the wheelchair lift at 6:30 in the morning twice a week. Tough, deal with it. Some people see me as inspirational. That’s a little embarrassing, but in fact probably reveals more about them, than about me.

Every morning I wake up, sit on the side of my bed and grab my walker. I exclaim to myself, “This is ridiculous” as I make my way to the bathroom to start my day. I have only one life, and I’d rather live it happy than sad or angry. There is only one path forward, and I have an excellent partner to rub my back or kick my butt if I forget that. There are always changes that are necessary, or decisions that need to be made. These vicissitudes of life yield to knowing what is important, who is important, who to trust, and putting one foot in front of the other one day at a time. Just like my father. Just like millions of other people.

 Just like Ruth.

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