Thursday, October 23, 2008


My birthday has the distinction of falling in a season full of family and friend's birthdays. The season kicks off with my mom's in late September, followed just three days later by my sister's, then it seems like there are friend's birthday parties and dinners every week until the middle of November. I shared a birthday month with lots of friends in college, and in both very small offices I've worked in since graduating, I have had the same birthday week as several colleagues. And all these birthday celebrations always work well in tandem with the Jewish calendar since the world itself celebrates a birthday in the very same season, reminding all of us to look back on our experience the previous year, and pray for a good year ahead.

The truth is, for the past 3 years, my birthday has been fairly bittersweet. My 23rd was celebrated just three days after my first biopsy and two days before my initial cancer diagnosis. After a tearful early morning goodbye with my family, friends arranged dinner and everyone worked hard to keep the mood light. Last year was more celebratory - an affirmation that I had made it the murky distance between 23 and 24, finished chemo, radiation, moved apartments, finished my fellowship and began a new job, and could start picking up where I left off, even more equipped with a deeper sense of appreciation for the mundane, the extraordinary, and the opportunity for another year. 24 really felt like a fresh start, and it was a wonderful year.

This year, my 25th birthday, was full of fun, including lots of celebrating, wonderful cards, calls and emails from lots of you, friends in from out of town for the weekend, and my best friend Abby in from Israel for nearly a whole week. Yet through it all, there was an ever-present dark cloud heavy with the one question that I can barely bring myself to ask aloud: will this be the last birthday I celebrate? And though I know that everyone who called, wrote, came for dinner, attended a joint party with two other friends on Saturday, and even schlepped to DC for a fun celebratory weekend, were sincerely there to celebrate, I couldn't help but wonder if the question wasn't on their minds too. 

During the days of awe in the Jewish calendar, I always find myself struck by the fact that Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the new year, precedes the retrospective, solemn holiday of Yom Kippur. Why would you ring in the New Year with a celebration, and then go through the remorse and contrition of the Day of Atonement? Wouldn't it make more sense for us to spend a day (or ten) reflecting on all that we did in the past year, good and bad, and then start fresh, with a clean conscience and new commitments for the coming year? I'm still not sure I understand the wisdom of this order, but this year, I find myself thinking about how this relates in my own life, to the juxtaposition of my birthday and treatment. I start chemotherapy one week after my birthday - and that made my birthday feel sort of strange: similar to the way that I always feel on Rosh Hashanah - perhaps for the same reasons that the Jewish New Year always feels more heady than secular new year celebrations. The holiday of Rosh Hashanah is a celebration at it's essence, but with a fairly big helping of remorse, of sadness, of a promise of redemption, if only you're willing to work for it. But then, I suppose that Rosh Hashanah tends to temper the blow dealt by a day of guilt, atonement and repentance too. The sweetness of apples and honey is supposed to stay on your lips even as you beat your chest and repent for a year's worth of regrets.

The sweetness of a wonderful birthday celebration will still be on my mind and in my heart when I start chemotherapy tomorrow. And it was a wonderful birthday, even with the little cancer storm cloud looming in the distance during the festivities. Celebration and sadness can't really ever be fully divorced from one another, and I suppose I am glad for that, even as it feels surreal to go from a night of fun on the roof of Local 16 with my friends to being admitted to the hospital five days later.

I'll be at Georgetown University Hospital from Thursday (10/23) through Sunday (10/26) and would love visitors. Please call my phone (202 213 0258) or my sister's (847 924 9185) if you'd like to stop by. Feel free to email as well - I hope to have wireless. 

Thank you all again for the good birthday wishes! And speaking of birthdays...happy birthday Cara, Mari and Nina!


Adam G. Gerhardstein said...

Do you know if Emily has any left over birthday cake? Do you think she could leave some at the hospital. I've got a hankerin'. I can't wait to see you tonight (I'll be wearing a red jacket).

Gideon Bob said...

Glad to read another entry. Keep on writing, Elissa. You're in my thoughts.

Emily Goodstein said...

to answer adam's question, the extra cake made it to your fridge but i must have been pretty out of it to part with the remaining slices of a neil's hat trick. i loved reading this, almost as much as i loved playing hang man with you today. What do you consider VERY GOOD Care (with a big C)?

Nancy said...

Hi Elissa. Thinking of you with love and compassion and hoping that your chemo went well. You are an incredible writer. I thought of you during the High Holidays and hope you felt the vibes. This is Nancy from MN. in case you didn't know. I don't blog, so consider yourself really lucky.

Harboring thoughts said...


What wonderful birthday gifts you give us with the generous sharing of your insights. Sorry I am too far away to visit you, play a few games, and dig into the delicious cake! I hope someone out there is reading your blog and has a connection to a publisher--your connections to the world around you--friends, family, Jewish values--deserve to be heard by all.

On another topic, I voted absentee yesterday.
What a liberating, exciting feeling it was to cast this particular ballot. Are you voting absentee or going to the polls this year?

Glad your sister is there with you.
We are all with you in spirit.

Nancy Litvak, generally known as Gwen's mother

Debbie said...
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