I walked into the hospital consumed by questions about the procedure I was facing and its implications for my future. As the nurse led my wife and me down the corridor to the waiting room, she asked if we had been at this facility before. I replied that our children had been born here, and that it was exactly forty-five years to the day that we had welcomed our first child, Emily, to the family. She had taken her time, entering the world some sixteen hours after we had arrived near midnight. A few days later we would bring her home, perfect in our eyes yet fragile and in need of protection. I remember sitting beside her as she slept on that first day home, until my wife reminded me that the world needed me for other tasks. As all new parents do, I dreamed of the limitless future that spread before this beautiful child as she slept in her crib.
Today, though, was very different for me and my family. I had recently been diagnosed with grade four lymphoma, and although the doctors told me that my type was “highly treatable and highly curable,” this first major health issue occupied my thoughts. My first chemotherapy infusion had been going well until one of the drugs leaked out of a vein and an antidote had to be administered in the University of Pennsylvania hospital for three days. Although no physical damage was done due to the quick action of the nurses, I realized that despite all our current medical knowledge and skill, nothing is guaranteed. As I was ushered into a room be prepped to receive my chemo port, it was I who was feeling fragile, failing in strength, and in need of comfort. Unlike Emily’s unbounded future all those years ago, I felt as if I was walking through one of the narrow places described in the Bible. What dangers or triumphs would await me in the coming months?
The final layer of karma involved this particular day. Because I was anxious to get back to healing, I accepted the first available appointment to receive my port. This happened to be on Yom Kippur, and since saving life is the greatest of all imperatives, I felt fortunate to have this opportunity (even if it meant not being able to join my congregation). It has been said that Yom Kippur is a “dress rehearsal” for our own death: wrapped in our tallis, having no food or drink, and abjuring normal creature comforts. At the conclusion of the ne’ilah service, we are told that the gates are closing for another year; but would I be able to sing with my friends in the choir at High Holy Day services next year? Every year we sing the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, asking who shall live and who shall die, who by water and who by fire. This year was different, though; I was confronting the very real fact of my own mortality.
Forty-five years ago, my wife and baby girl were taken in a wheelchair to the hospital’s main entrance where I (the proud father) drove them home. Now it was my turn to be brought out in a wheelchair while my wife retrieved the car and drove us home. Since my procedure was on time and without incident, we were able to attend services via Zoom at home. During the service, my mind wandered back through the years. Listening to the cantor sing “Avinu Malkeinu” has always been a very emotional moment for me. During Passover when I was sixteen, my grandparents were staying with my family for the holiday. After the seder concluded, my mother sang a modern choral version of that prayer which her synagogue’s choir had been rehearsing. My father’s mother countered with the solemn liturgical melody which the cantor sings before the open ark. Each rendition was beautiful in its own way, but my grandmother’s resonated more deeply with me as a link to the generations stretching back through time in her Russian motherland. Tragically, my grandmother had a heart attack that night, and the next day was her last. “Who shall live and who shall die?” Listening to my grandmother sing the ancient melody on her final night, I did not realize that I was also hearing the voices of all the courageous matriarchs who had come before her: Freda, Masha, Yetta, Golda, Revekkah, Fanya, Freyda, Khana,…
Tormented by gentile villagers who hated them for their religion, these strong women raised their families steadfast in their faith, no matter how difficult their circumstances. These ancestors are my inspiration as I hope for the chance to sing Avinu Malkeinu next year with my choir, and to affirm my place as the next link in my family’s chain.
Mark Pinzur taught math in both Cherry Hill high schools for 35 years before moving to teaching positions at LEAP Academy in Camden, Burlington County College, and Doane Academy. He has also taught “Mental Aerobics”, crossword classes, and music appreciation at the JCC for several years. He is currently President of the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia (with which he has sung for 51 seasons) and Board Chairman of the Moorestown Theater Company, as well as a singer in the choir of M’kor Shalom. He lives with his wife Maxine in Cherry Hill, and is very proud of his children, Emily, a social worker and end-of-life doula, and David, an assistant professor at the London School of Economics.