UPDATED with ALL FIVE SPEAKERS!!! Rosh HaShanah Day 2: Stories From Real “Books of Days”

On Rosh HaShanah, we are supposed to take some time to reflect upon the year that has come to a close – specifically the moments in our lives that, when we look back, contained within them incredible bits of knowledge.

These moments are not always the joyful moments that are captured by photographs, video, or scrapbooks. While they can be wonderful experiences, they can be challenging – or even seemingly insignificant at the time.

If you really give yourself time to reflect on the year that has come to a close – you quickly realize just how many teaching moments you have lived through.  Most of these moments come and go and we fail to grasp the lessons they contain.  But, they forever remain a part of our own personal “Book of Days”.  A book that is available to us year round – but one that we rarely flip through except during these Days of Awe.

Rosh HaShanah gives us the encouragement and the time to flip through our “Book of Days” and mull over where we have been, what we have seen and heard and who we have been in contact with these past 12 Jewish months.  And, of course, on Rosh HaShanah, we are not limited to moments that took place in the closing year.  Our entire life is fair game.  Every year we get a chance to examine every one of our days and grab a lesson we might have missed along the way.

On Rosh HaShanah (Day 2), five members of Ramat Shalom were courageous enough to share a lesson with us from their “Book of Days”.  Their stories are below.

SHIRLEY WEISSMAN

When Rabbi asked me to share with you a life-altering event and the lessons learned therefrom, there was no second thought in my mind about the topic.   Yet, when one has lived as long as I – three quarters of a century – many events both happy and sad are recalled.  I learned when I was very young that the losses can be  challenging, but are the maturing occasions of one’s life. The joys must be savored; they are the sustenance of survival.

The date was March 11, 2006, and Rabbi  was theresharing it  with my daughter (your President), my son, and me. After  eight months of our watching, supporting, tending to, and hiding the pain in all four of us, by smiles and encouragement for my husband in his battle with pancreatic cancer, his final 23 hours were difficult.

Stu and I were alone for the first 13, as I saw to his needs, never leaving his side but to prepare him for his next bout.  Those precious hours of talking, planning and waiting for the children sustained him; and in a very unique way, although the situation was tragic, it was an extremely significantly personal time for us, and I felt  honored to be able to help.  Then, in the morning, Bretta  picked Seth up at the airport; and shortly after both entered our bedroom, our son called me out to tell me that the end of life would come in a matter of hours.  He then lay down next to his dad and took his hand, just as Stu had done when Seth was small and ill. When we were later alone, I shared with Stu what the children had assessed:  (as I probably need not mention, Bretta is an RNand Seth, an MD) and Stu’s incredible response was… “Good, I can hardly wait.”

In late afternoon Rabbi  arrived, unheralded, but because something drew him to us–one of his unique characteristics.  Heremained, and experienced sights and events that no one but loving family needed  to endure, but he never flinched and led us in a service and the chanting of Ose Shalom, to which Stu joined in…smiling.

I thought each of us needed alone time with Stu; and during Bretta’s, he required the use of the bathroom, and when she took him, he joked about her strength.   Since this had not been a need of his for over 24 hours, I felt a chill when I found them.  Although she and I supported each side of him as he slowly walked back to the bed, he was physically unable to get onto it.  Miraculously, at that moment Seth rushed into the room and lifted his father.And it was just seconds after that, that Stu’s words no longer came, but his suddenly wide open, crystal clear eyes looked at me and into me with his continued, complete awareness, those eyes now set in a suddenly wrinkle-free face—an amazing pre-death change—and we all knew that it was time.

Bretta, Seth and I  held on to him, never letting go, telling him goodbye, thanking him, loving him.   I heard my voice coming from somewhere repeating over and over, I love you, Stu;I love you, Stu.

In minutes, the Nashoma came to get him ;  I know this,  because Stu slowly, almost reluctantly, turned his eyes from mine toward the wall beside our bed, responded with his eyes to the presence of someone or something, then just as slowly returned his eyes to mine, now with a tear under one…and peacefully expired….I always felt that I was the voice of reason and my head agreed totally that death was a gift; it was my heart that got inthe way.  We had had no sleep for 48 hours and had the chance to complete things, to say everything that we could think of thatneeded to be said.  But all the logic in the world failed to compensate for my selfishness of wanting him with me.So the emotions of the  next several months were physically painful with daily anxiety upon waking, and my sense of seeing that final wall.  But each day, week, month, year  became easier and I was where I needed to be.

Then…35 months after March 11, 2006, love came back into my life… So that is  my story; that life-altering day, 70 days short of 50 years of marriage…the survival of the loss of one magnificent man…and the joy of being able to create a new life with another.  The lessons, which I share with you that I learned from Stu: Live the best of life!  Smile!  Remember the past–but don’t dwell in it!     As he always used to say:  Just do it and “Never  sweat the small stuff!”

L’Shana Tova Tikatevu.

ALISON DOLBERG

Having a best friend that loves you unconditionally should NEVER be taken for granted.  Instead, we should treasure each moment and share our lives to the fullest.  Although I always believed this, I am not sure I lived it.  My dear friend, Candace was always ready for fun and adventure – she was constantly there for me to vent to, share with, question,  laugh with, cry around, or simply be with.  Not only was she my precious gift, she had a major connection with my children too.  She stayed with them when Jeffrey and I went out of town and made an impact on both Andrew and Jessica’s lives.  Her enthusiasm for life was contagious.  Candace worked hard and played hard.

Saturday evening, October 16, 2004 , we had plans to see the Princess Diana exhibit at the Art Museum in Ft. Lauderdale.  Candace, Deanna and I met at the museum and as we wandered through, our conversation was about Princess Diana, and how her life was devestatingly too short.  We admired her clothing, gauked at her jewelry and cried together when realizing the major loss her children encountered caused by her death.  We had a wonderful dinner together and reminisced about many experiences we shared – both positive and negative.  Of course we had delicious desserts – Candace would NOT complete a meal without her dessert!  As we said our good-byes, I never thought that this would be the last time I would see Candace alive.

Candace was murdered that evening as she entered her home.  She never had the opportunity to do many things that she had on her “Bucket List” although she had been skydiving and traveled the world.  My life has been profoundly changed though this horrific experience.  In Candace’s memory,  I must laugh each day, push myself a bit passed my comfort zone, and always remember her zest for life!  Life is way to short to sweat the small stuff, focus on the negative, or just survive.  Although this experience has been devestating to me, I have learned from it as well.  Take the time to smile and share your life.  Be there for your friends and family no matter what and don’t just be – use these moments to truly share yourself – be passionate for life.  We should ALL have a tremendous impact on others as Candace did for me and all those who’s lives she touched.

LUKE KATLER

I stand before you today completely and totally humbled. Humbled by the vast support base and love that sits in this congregation. Humbled by the smiling faces radiating positive energy as I stand before you. But most of all, humbled by the way that nearly every one of you reached out to my family during the period of my mother’s passing.

A real mood-killer, I know, but last December, I had my first real experience with death. I had always thought my mother to be invincible, a sort of rock in every storm, so when she told me she was permanently suspending her chemotherapy treatment it hit me with an unexpected brute force. I mean, she was always reassuring me that things were a-okay and, being the naiive sixteen-year old that I was, I had no choice but to believe her. So when she dropped the bomb that she was going to embrace death as an inevitability, everything just felt off-balance and foreign, as if her entire nature had been a cover-up for some larger reality. Not only was I losing my mother, but I was also losing the security I felt that my immediate world was nothing but sunshine and rainbows. However negative this circumstance, deep within it I found a beautiful message that transformed the way I looked at the world.

People are essentially good. It’s as simple as that. I remember reading “Lord of the Flies” in eighth grade and discussing how the book argues that babies are born inherently evil. Now, while much of our human nature oftentimes moves us to immorality and poor judgement, after my mother’s death and the outpouring of love and support that followed, I find that my friends and family (hey, if I can’t speak for the entire human race, at least I can hone in on them) are all genuinely wonderful people and I am blessed every day to be surrounded by them. Over those two days surrounding her passing, I received upwards of 150 text messages and Facebook inboxes (for you older folks just imagine that those things are the equivalent of real-life interactions to teenagers) from people who I both loved and felt close to as well as friends that I never knew I had or hadn’t spoken to for years. It absolutely blew me away how quickly things were looking up.

I now make a conscious daily decision to think of my mother’s passing from a positive perspective, attempting to harbor her love of life and the cumulative love that my family received on that fateful day and turn it back on my friends, family and this congregation. I have also refused to think of the grieving process as a pity party, but rather a time for laughter and memories, as my mom would have preferred. During this time of change, what with Senior year and college applications and many of my friends going off to far-off places to begin the next chapter in their lives, I think back to that span of two days and smile, knowing that aside from making my own lunches and being my own personal secretary, my mother’s passing transformed me in another way entirely, by teaching me so much more about my loved ones than I had ever imagined. All of them, and you, are just so…good.

DAVID KINGSLEY

When I got the letter from Rabbi Andrew, asking me to speak today about an event or day that had an impact on my life, for good or bad, my first thought was that I didn’t really want to share my personal thoughts “with the whole world”.  But you don’t say “no” to Rabbi Andrew, and  I realized that in one aspect of my life, I have been doing that for almost 20 years.

Nearly 20 years ago, after exercising, I massaged my sore chest and felt a small lump under my nipple.  Knowing that men could get breast cancer, my wife and I agreed that I should go to my doctor.  The day that changed my life was the day when the biopsy results confirmed our fears: I had breast cancer.

Throughout the treatment ordeal, my wife Louise, our children Michael and Linda, and the whole family was supportive.  Friends and family, of all religions, said prayers for me.  Louise especially was there for me every step of the way.

The treatments for breast cancer in men are similar to those for women, and I had a modified radical mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy.  I learned that in the United States, approximately 2000 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, but in going through my treatment, with the obvious side effects such as loss of hair, I became acutely aware that even highly educated people often don’t know that men can get breast cancer, and that there was a lack of information and notice about men having breast cancer in the research, charity and medical communities.

Of course, early diagnosis in breast cancer is very important for both women and men.  But, unfortunately, because men are often unaware that they can contract breast cancer, they tend to disregard lumps in their breasts.  This is particularly bad because breast cancer can be more insidious in men than in women, since owing to the minimal tissue in the breast area of men, breast cancer in men often spreads more rapidly outside the breast tissue to the bones and vital organs of men than it does in women.

I decided that as a result of what had happened to me that day, I would do two things: first, spread  the word that, “men can get breast cancer too” , and second, dedicate time in helping to raise funds for breast cancer research.

As part of my new combined goal of raising awareness of breast cancer in men and raising funds for breast cancer research, whenever I read about fundraising efforts for research to cure breast cancer, I would contact the sponsoring charity, such as the American Cancer Society, the Koman Foundation, and the City of Hope hospital and research center in California, and ask that they put in their literature words to the effect that men who find a lump in their breast should also see a doctor.

Although it took years for some charities to change their literature, the City of Hope, upon hearing my request, immediately­ took steps to get the word out, changing their fund raising literature before their next series of Walks for Hope.  Because of their outstanding responsiveness, Louise and I organized a walk team to raise money for the City of Hope, and in doing so, one year I happened to raise the most money of any individual in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.  We had our team for several years, and the money we raised went to fund all kinds of research at the City of Hope.

At this point, the story takes an even more interesting turn.

Three years ago, which was 17 years after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, Louise was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  Fortunately, she is now in remission.  The primary drug used in her treatment was Rituxan, WHICH WAS DEVELOPED AT THE CITY OF HOPE, in the 5 or 6 years during and after I raised the money for Walks for Hope.

Finally, you may be aware that for almost 60 years, The American Cancer Society has had the “Reach to Recovery” peer counseling program, in which trained female volunteers visit with female breast cancer patients referred to the ACS by their medical providers.  When I had my surgery, I learned that there were no counselors to talk to men with breast cancer.  In order to further help men with breast cancer, I became trained as a volunteer, and I am one of the few, or maybe the only, male Reach to Recovery counselor in the U.S.  Although most volunteers only counsel patients in their immediate vicinity, in addition to getting many calls each year to talk to men in Broward County, I often get calls for assistance from all around the country.

Fortunately, I have remained cancer free since my early diagnosis and aggressive treatment.  And I continue to tell everyone that if you, or your significant other, whether male or female, finds a lump in the breast, they should see a doctor.

So that day which I will never forget, when I got BAD news, actually had a profound effect for GOOD, not only for me, but also for others.

DANETTE MARKS

Twenty years ago, i had what I considered a pretty “periect” life. My husband and I had just moved to South Florida after he finished his medical training and we were busy building our life together. I was a very happy full-time mom to our children Marissa and Jordan and Jeff was working hard at developing his new practice. When Jordan was around 2, my mother’s intuition began telling me that something wasn’t right, even though I was repeatedly reassured by everyone that he was fine.

By the time Jordan was 2 1/2, he spoke only a few words and made poor eye contact. He was very affectionate towards me, but wasn’t particularly interested in playing with other children. Most troubling, when frustrated, he would bang his head on the tile floor so severely that he had an omnipresent goose egg on his forehead. It took an extremely courageous pre-school teacher and a very dear friend to finally say to me that we needed to see a specialiSt. The next day, I was sitting across from a pediatric neurologist receiving the most devastating news of my life: Your son has autism.

There are no words to describe the despair I felt. That evening, our closest friends came to our home. We cried together and sat shivah for the life we had imagined
for our son. For the next week or two, I walked around in a fog of depression and disbelief. Finally, I realized that I had to get to work and find someone who would tell me
what I needed to do to help my son. I know that today it seems that every time we pick up a newspaper or turn on the tv there is a story about autism, but in 1993 the
services for children with autism in South Florida were extremely scarce.

Luckily, even though Jordan couldn’t talk, I could. I began cold-calling complete strangers begging for information and help. Even though I had no patience to sit around and whine about my problems, I went to a support group to try to network. It was at that group that I met the group of other mother’s of children with autism who would teach me how to save my son. They told me about a researcher who had shown that with extremely intensive early-intervention, a small percentage of children with autism had recovered. That was all I needed to hear.

Our home was transformed into a therapy center. Jordan was bombarded during every waking hour with behavioral therapy, speech and occupational therapy. Jeff and I made
the practical decision that I would manage Jordan’s intervention and Jeff would concentrate on making the money necessary to pay for it. Luckily we did not know at the time that 80% of marriages of parents of children with autism end in divorce. I’m happy to tell you that we are in the 20%.

After two years of intensive home therapy, we believed Jordan needed to be around typical children, so I turned to our local Jewish community. In those days, DPHDS had a pre-school. Accompanied by Jordan’s team of therapists, I made an appointment with the headmaster and literally begged him to give my son a chance. He agreed to let Jordan attend the school with a full-time “shadow.”

Very, very slowly, Jordan began to learn to play like the other children. He learned the prayers and songs. Oddly enough, Hebrew was a breeze for him. By middle school, Jordan was doing exceptionally well and this spring he graduated from high school with honors. He is currently a freshman in college studying biology and neuroscience. Jordan became a Bar Mitzvah at Ramat Shalom during Rabbi Andrew’s first year here. Jordan developed an instant rapport with Andrew. Jordan told him he wasn’t’ sure he should have a Bar Mitzvah because he didn’t know if he believed in God and didn’t want to be a hypocrite. Rabbi Andrew assured him that it was ok and I can tell you that many tissues were used that day as there wasn’t a dry eye in the house!

I’m not sure what to call what I believe. I believe it’s bershert that when I came to Florida I moved next door to the person who pushed me so hard to get a diagnosis for Jordan when no one else would. I also believe that it’s bershert that we were able to put together the remarkable, talented team responsible for Jordan’s recovery. I don’t know if it was God, or fate, or karma, but I know that it’s not a coincidence and that I cannot explain it.

This past summer, Jordan worked as a counselor at a camp for children with autism. Jordan was assigned a camper who was functionally non-verbal and happened to be the son of a rabbi. One day, everyone was dozing on the bus on the way back to camp after an exhausting day of white-water rafting. Much to Jordan’s surprise, his camper, who could not answer a simple yes/no question, suddenly began singing Oseh Shalom. Jordan said his Bar Mitzvah training kicked in and he sang along with his camper, much to everyone’s amazement. I’m not sure if they were more amazed at the boy with autism singing in Hebrew or his counselor with the mohawk who no one realized was Jewish? Needless to say, I had a lump in my throat that night when Jordan called to share his story.

I used to ask myself “why us?” As the years passed, I would ask myself “why are we the lucky ones?”and was reluctant to talk about Jordan’s progress. Finally a friend of
mine whose son remains very challenged by autism, said to me, “do not ever feel guilty about Jordan’s success. Your story is what keeps me going day after day and
gives me hope for my son.”

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