Archives for posts with tag: cancer

sunset

My favorite high school teacher is dying. I recently learned that she has end stage pancreatic cancer. Interesting combination of words: end stage. It makes her death seem imminent though I don’t know how much time they suspect she has. I hope it is long enough for me to have a dialogue with her. I have written her a letter. I don’t have an email address for her, only a home address. When time is so precious, I resent having to rely on the United States Postal Service. I worry that some scrappy man is riding a pony across country with my letter stuffed into the bag slung over his shoulder, and he may not make it all the way to Michigan in time.

What do you say to someone who is dying? The last time I did it, I was horribly inept. I talked a lot about myself, which is what I thought my friend Irene most wanted, but it didn’t feel satisfying for me. I talked without saying much. I certainly didn’t express what she’d meant to me. Sure, I’d told her often over the years, and she was clear about the depth and breadth of my love, but in my final visit with her, I had no courage. And I still feel ashamed.

It’s easier in a letter.
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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

Next stop, Exeter, on the River Exe in Devon, England.

I got abundant, restful sleep for most of the night all stretched out in my reclining business-class seat and tucked in with my business-class blanket—only my sweet, bald head exposed.

There was a rabbi sitting in the seat behind me, a big, barrel-shaped guy who’d just stepped out of Yentl with his long, prehistoric beard and suspenders.

Somewhere on our approach to Heathrow as breakfast was being prepared, he came to speak to me. He stood, towering above me and filling up the aisle. “I didn’t get to talk with you last night,” he said. “I didn’t want to wake you.”

I looked up at him cautiously.

He said he was curious about me: about where I live and where I was going. I was evasive at first, not wanting to be picked at, but he picked at me, and I eventually told him about my month ahead, that I’d be walking an ancient pilgrimage route across Spain.

His eyes lit up. “Oh, then I must tell you of the curse in Spain.”

Sure, I need to know about curses in Spain.

It seems that Spain was once a land of the Jews, many of whom were killed during the Inquisition. Those who remained were forced to convert to Catholicism, which they did only to put on appearances while they continued to practice Judaism in private. “When the last of the Jews left,” my rabbi told me, “they put a curse on the land. Those of us who are most orthodox will never set foot in Spain.”

I nodded in understanding. “When I get there, I’ll pray for you.”

He smiled. “I wish it were that easy.” He stooped down closer, more reverently. “There is much blood from my people in Spain.”

Where is there not blood from your people? I thought. But instead I said, “Well, I fancy myself as having a direct line,” I pointed to the heavens. “And by the time I walk across the place, that curse’ll be gone; I’m sure of it.” I was feeling a little feisty. Are you not supposed to talk to an aging rabbi that way?
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