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Aug 23 2013

Rosh Hashanah Resolutions: My Cancer New Year

By at 12:03 pm

rebecca faulkner branum rosh hashanah resolutionWhen we asked our readers to send in their Rosh Hashanah Resolutions, we certainly weren’t expecting anything like the following, sent to us from Rebecca Faulkner Branum of Edmond, Oklahoma.

A New Year sometimes sneaks into a life, changing a family’s calendar forever. Five years ago I was unable to eat apples or honey because I was neutropenic from cancer chemotherapy. The bacteria from uncooked food could have sickened or even killed me, so the Rosh Hashanah that snuck into my life that fall might have been hard to recognize, but it was there all the same.

Cancer appeared as a terrible phone call in September, one week after my only child’s 1st birthday, a day that became Day #1 of a new life. The year that followed was one of loss. Of course the usual cancer losses–my breasts, my hair, and a lot of lost lunches–but I also lost my job as a health care provider (because I couldn’t work with ill patients). Then I lost my savings, my car, my house, and finally my husband, who walked away from the stress.

After a year of chaos, the next September loomed before me. I felt torn between mourning my losses and celebrating my survival, but my culture and faith background gave me no meaningful way to move through such an event. Then, unexpectedly, a program came on the radio about the High Holidays describing the history and meaning of the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. That year Rosh Hashanah fell exactly on the first anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. I suddenly saw a way to both celebrate and mourn constructively, a chance to redeem my lost year.

I excitedly sent out feelers to loved ones, but they met only confusion and skepticism. None of my family or friends were even acquainted with a member of the Jewish faith. The message was that this was clearly not “our” holiday, but I needed a fresh start so badly that I plowed ahead. I invited my three closest family members to join my son and I for a dinner that I didn’t dare title Rosh Hashanah but instead called a Cancer New Year. I had only $20 to my name that day and I used every penny to buy food and even a few scrappy flowers for the table. I had prepared some words and a special prayer. I wanted to reach for something bigger, something beyond what my life had held so far.

It did not go well. There were complaints about the meager meal. There were interruptions when my words made my guests uncomfortable. There was no prayer. I didn’t have the energy to run out in tears, so I just silently promised myself to never make myself that vulnerable again. The following autumn saw no celebration, but my calendar was somehow reset. September was now forever my New Year, the time my heart bent towards reflection, redemption, and restarting.

Years passed and I did slowly get a series of fresh starts… better health, new job, new home, second marriage. Slowly my big five-year cancer mark snuck up, whispering to me that I needed to acknowledge the Rosh Hashanah that had been growing in my heart.

When my new husband brought up the date to me, I hesitatingly told him about that first disastrous celebration. His eyes filled with tears as he simply said, “Let’s make it happen now.” He rushed out to find some books to read together about the holidays. We stumbled onto Kveller and read the articles and recipes obsessively. We bought apples and honey and my son blew a plastic shofar with glee. We filled our pockets with crumbs and hiked to our creek where I cast five years of pain and loss into the water and I felt lighter. We lit candles and sang a prayer and I felt healing move in my life.

That day our whole family’s calendar was reset. We began to study all the holidays, to light candles on Shabbat, to reorient our lives towards the rhythms of timeless wisdom. We are now all looking forward to September, to welcoming a new year and another new start on our spiritual journey.

This Rosh Hashanah my personal goal is to deeply root our family in faith. We have chosen this fall to get a Rosetta stone and start learning Hebrew together. We want to grow our Shabbat observance, extending it into Saturday as well. We have resolved as a family to continue to let this new spirituality sneak into our lives and change us in surprising ways.

Read the rest of our writers’ and readers’ Rosh Hashanah resolutions here.

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